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Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America Hardcover – November 1, 2001
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From Library Journal
Historian Goldberg (Barry Goldwater) analyzes "conspiracism" in American history with balance and precision, presenting conspiracy belief as a traditional part of our culture rather than a fringe response from deranged or abnormal personalities. Goldberg discusses a range of examples, from the Salem witch trials, to the abolitionists' slave power conspiracies vs. the Confederates' slave insurrection plots, to the Klan's hatred of African Americans, Catholics, and Jews. However, he focuses his study on five post-World War II conspiracy theories: the Communist fifth column, the belief in the Antichrist, the assassination of JFK, the plot against black America, and the Roswell incident concerning a purported alien attack. Goldberg's writing is clear and vivid, and his willingness to tackle conspiracies emanating from many points of the political spectrum makes his argument more cogent. Underlying his analysis is the view that both the media and, ironically, the government have been instrumental in making these five conspiracy theories (and others) more credible. This important and unusually accessible study is strongly recommended for academic libraries, most public libraries, and large high school libraries. Jack Forman, San Diego Mesa Coll. Lib.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
"An extraordinarily well-written and carefully analyzed study of alleged conspiracies in our midst since the end of World War II." -- Leonard Dinnerstein, University of Arizona
"From esoteric theologies . . . political scandals to blockbuster movies, Goldberg skillfully guides us through the foremost conspiracy theories in contemporary America." -- Leo P. Ribuffo, George Washington University
. . .[C]lear and vivid. . . tackle[s] conspiracies emanating from many points of the political spectrum. . . [An] important and unusally accessible study. -- Library Journal
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Goldberg’s 2001 book ‘Enemies Within’ is a superbly written and edited 260-page volume from Yale University Press which tackles the social phenomenon of conspiracy theories and their place in contemporary American society. The introductory chapter ‘An American Tradition’ outlines the history of conspiratorial thinking in the USA, for example the conspiracy theory that Roman Catholics were scheming to undermine the country and "deliver it into papal slavery" ran for most of the 19th century in various forms, until Catholics were morphed in the fevered minds of conspiracy theorists into Jews and an identical narrative took over with a different flavor of bogey-man.
Five variants of the same fundamental belief-system are then examined, each with its own dedicated chapter:
1. The Master Conspiracy (focusing on John Birchers and their extremist ideology that the Trilateral Commission/Bilderburg group were plotting to take over America and “destroy freedom”)
2. The Rise of the Antichrist (the shenanigans of millennialists like Pat Robertson and his ‘New World Order’ claims)
3. The View from the Grassy Knoll (the JFK assassination industry)
4. Jewish Devils and the War on Black America (Louis Farrakhan and the paranoia manufactured by the so-called ‘Nation of Islam’ principally against Jews, but incorporating elements of the extraterrestrial conspiracy and millennialist elements borrowed from right-wing Christian fundies)
5. The Roswell Incident (the alleged cover-up of extraterrestrial life/dead aliens by the US govt)
The writing style is refreshingly dispassionate and replete with lavish detail, revealing a smart academic mind who really knows his subject. Goldberg’s contribution as professional historian and observer of social phenomena is to reveal proponents of all these conspiracy theories essentially as marketeers selling a product: determined to usurp competitors and gain market share for their ideologies, they each offer a safe and easily-digestible packaged ‘alternative’ to the mainstream in order to exploit their chosen audience segment and make money. This enlightening perspective rejects Richard Hofstadter’s classic ‘Paranoid Style in American Politics’ essay from 1963 which characterized conspiracy theorists as psychologically unstable and replaces it with a portrait of commercial ruthlessness, exploiters of a market opportunity to cynically extract money from the gullible wherever possible.
Immersed in what Michael Barkun has characterized as ‘The Cultic Milieu’ Goldberg shows how all these conspiracy theories borrow from each other and use the same marketing techniques, for example promoting a ‘hidden elite’ or ‘secret government’ scheming to do everyone down, seeking ever-greater power and control for themselves, yadda yadda. The ‘Jewish Banking Conspiracy’, the ‘Illuminati’, the ‘New World Order’ etc. are variations of the same fantasy peddled to hook a sheep-like target audience for commercial gain.
Goldberg demonstrates that like soap operas or sporting events, conspiracy theories are exploited as entertainment in modern America by a mass media motivated by commercial drivers, intentionally promoted through populist culture as alternative religions/belief systems. In the process these commercial exploiters unintentionally erode democratic institutions: in order to titillate and gain audience share (and therefore advertising revenue) they deliberately lead their audience into conspiracist-paradigms which reduce engagement with the normal processes of political accommodation and compromise, the bedrock of any democratic society:
“Conspiracism demonizes opponents and makes struggle internecine. Conspiracy thinking has moved Americans beyond a healthy skepticism of authority; core institutions become unstable and lose their ability to govern…the cancer of conspiracism has begun to metastisize” (p260)
Readers interested in this subject may find contrasting and complementary perspectives in the essays of other academics: Daniel Pipes’ uncompromising work on the lethal dangers of conspiracist beliefs; Professor Michael Barkun’s brilliant work on ‘improvisational millennialism’; Kathryn Olmsted’s 2009 book ‘Real Enemies’ focusing on the US Government’s intentionally manipulative use of conspiracy theories for political purposes; the insightful but dry academic writings of Mark Fenster; the liberal-leaning but lucid (and often witty) writings of UK academic Peter Knight. For a more lighthearted populist perspective on the subject, try David Aaronovitch’s ‘Voodoo Histories.’
Goldberg argues that Hofstadter's theory looks in retrospect too bound to the ideas of deviant psychology popular after WWII. Instead, he sees conspiricism, rightly, I think, as a struggle for power. To demonstrate his thesis, he takes five well-known recent examples of conspiracy thinking: the "master conspiracy" (i.e. the Birchites Robert Welch's fabrication of the New World Order which postulates an elite who run the world through the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign relations, " "The Rise of the Antichrist (exampled through Pat Robertson's take on Revelations), "The View from the Grassy Knoll" (the Kennedy assassination), "Jewish Devils and the War on Black America" (a brief history of the exploitation of the exploitation of the ill-feeling between Louis Farrakhan and Jews, and "The Roswell Incident" (the "cover-up" of the alien invasion in 1947, and the mainstreaming of these theories through TV -- the X-Files, Independence Day, etc.)
What's fascinating is that Goldberg shows how these various conspiracy often borrow from and reinforce each other. The KKK, Farrakhan and Robertson, for instance, all point to the "Jewish banking conspiracy" or ZOG of running the world, pulling the strings behind the scenes, duping the masses into thinking the governments they live under have any real power while the real masters start wars, and kill national leaders like Kennedy when those leaders interfere with their grand designs. Farrakhan, like those who accuse the government of a disinformation campaign over the so-called Roswell incident, teaches his followers that there is "mother plane" circling the earth, ready to pick up the faithful when the time of tribulation ends, a strand of belief that links them also to the revelations scenario of Robertson and other millenialist preachers.
Goldberg summarizes all these discourses with admirable clarity, showing how all use using circular logic, exclude other explanations, and, in the process form dense self-referential webs of commentary that cannot be breached by reason. Whether its the Illuminati, ZOG, the hand-picked members of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Masons, or aliens who have infiltrated the highest reaches of power, the story is always the same: a powerful elite whose only scruple is the preservation of power, and the making of profits is behind everything. Conspiricism, in Goldberg's view, offers the faithful complete and seamless explanations for the radical discontinuities and fragmentation of modern and post-modern existence.
He also shows how the entertainment industry has found this all very profitable. The mainstream media has learned from Oliver Stone's remake of the Kennedy assassination, that rewriting history to conform to fringe theories can capture the public imagination, and more important, loose the purse strings. Conspiracy theories have also been mainstreamed by U.S. corporations notes Goldberg, such as U-Haul, which uses the standard bulb-headed, big-eyed alien icon on the side of its New Mexico trailers and moving vans as emblematic of that state.
Goldberg notes with equanimity that there have been cover-ups fostered by government bureaucrats, and that these cover-ups have eroded the public's faith in its institutions, i.e., the infiltration of the FBI into the Black Panthers, the Black Muslims, or the paranoid scrutiny of Martin Luther King by Hoover's men, the black men whose syphilis was never treated in Tuskegee as part of an "experiment," etc. Given these abuses of power, Goldberg says conspiricism gains in credibility and influence. At the same time, he argues that this conspiricism is serving to debilitate belief in government to an unwarranted extent. When Ronald Reagan expressed the idea that "government is not the solution, but that it is the problem," he gave voice to a group of countersubversives that later managed to make David Koresh a hero, who spun a web of egregious nonsense about Vincent Foster's suicide to support and extend their attacks on the Clintons and, in the process, driven nearly mad with hatred, turned the U.S. government into a machine to wreak vengeance on a too-amorous young woman and her prevaricating paramour.
He notes the proliferation of "Gates" from the original "Watergate," to include such "conspiracies" as "Whitewatergate," "Travelgate," "Irangate," has blurred them all into one messy symbol of the business-as-usual corruption of the U.S. government, when in fact some of these events did constitute abuses of power, while many more did not. What countersubeversives know is that if you can get your label to stick to an issue, a label that either contains the seed of your side of the argument or negatively characterizes your opponents side, you have already half won the battle. Thus the jockeying around such phrases as "Tort Reform," which more correctly should be called "The Liability Ceiling Law."
Conspiracy thinking is not new in America. But, Goldberg notes, the intensity of this type of thinking has picked up considerably the past five decades. Most recently, he says, driven by an insatiable desire for profits, the purveyors of infotainment have raised the volume of conspiricist claims to such a pitch that it is difficult to advance less scabrous theories against them. Reasonable theories don't draw audiences, he suggests. They can't sell ad space. They don't foster fanaticism, build mass support, or scare into submission citizens or politicians who hold opposing views.
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