Shortly before his untimely death our colleague Roger Sandell had planned to write a major article on the growing influence of conspiracy theories and fusion paranoia. If anything, since his death conspiracy theories have come in even further from their ancient home on the wilder shores of politics, into the cultural mainstream. They form the core of such cult television series as The X-Files and Dark Skies, to say nothing of the numerous commercial spin-offs. Recent issues of both Fortean Times and Big Issue, the magazine sold by the homeless, have featured articles ‘proving’ that the Apollo moon landings were faked.
Peter Rogerson looks at some recent books that point to disturbing trends below this recent wave of interest.
While I am not in a position to write that major article that Roger would have done, I am taking the opportunity of commenting on a series of books about conspiracy theories and related topics which have recently been published or reissued. Vankin’s is a reissue with a new introduction and comprises a general review of the topic. The compilation edited by Thomas consists of reprints from back issues of the conspiracy-oriented magazine Steamshovel Press. Lamy’s and Parfrey’s are analyses of the cultural and political milieu in which conspiracy theories flourish; Cohn’s is a long-awaited reprint of his critique of one particularly malignant conspiracy theory, and the rest present individual theories.
Vankin’s subtitle, ‘From Dallas to Oklahoma’, points to the American origin of most contemporary conspiracy theories. While there is a long tradition in American politics of what the historian Richard Hofstander calls ‘the paranoid style’, it was the Kennedy assassination which in the mid-twentieth century brought conspiracy theories out from the fringes of the radical right. While some of these theories clearly involved ‘realistic’ notions of actions by small groups of political malcontents, many showed the classic hallmarks of Manichean conspiracy theories. A contributor to Popular Alienation sums these up well:
“The need at the root of all conspiracy questing is to find the root of human pain and suffering… which is held to flow out of some central fountain running in rivulets throughout the world. In most conspiracy theories evil is seen as a metaphysical absolute, almost a substance which can poison life through viral contamination”.
I would summarise the essence of such Manichean theories as the belief that ‘history as we know it is a lie’ (as the opening titles to Dark Skies puts it), a delusion imposed upon us by a malevolent ‘other’. The real history is very different: there is nothing random in history, all is controlled by ‘them’, and all the pain and suffering in the world is caused by the terrible others, who are the incarnation of cosmic evil. They are simultaneously subhuman and superhuman, possessed of preternatural powers and largely undefeatable. The conspiracy theorist is an illuminous, who can penetrate the maze of deception and see ‘them’ for what they are. The theorist is a soldier in the army of the righteous, filled with what Lamy calls millennial rage.
This line of thought can be seen in the writings of many who present the Kennedy assassination in essentially religious terms; as an American crucifixion, the slaying of the civic saviour by the incarnate forces of evil who have since usurped the land. The powers of the slayers is immense. They can fix all the evidence – the Zapruder film, the body, the autopsy reports – and wipe away all traces of their own guilt because they control everything.
Their identity varies according to time and place: witches, Christians, Moslems, Jews, communists, capitalists, liberals, humanists, Catholics, Freemasons, homosexuals, scientists, child-abusers, illuminati, Grays, Nazis, multinationals. Sometimes they are protean creatures merging elements, and flowing into each other: Jewish-communist Freemasons, American bankers in the Vatican.
This protean nature extends to the conspiracies themselves. Kerry Thornley served with Lee Harvey Oswald in the Marines and wrote a novel in which the central character was based on Oswald before the assassination. He now claims that both he and Oswald were the products of a Nazi breeding experiment, and that he has been bugged by an implant since birth allowing strangers to know of his sexual experiences. Thus the Kennedy assassination merges with stories of mind control and abuse. Another veteran figure on the fringes of the assassination field, Mae Brussel, daughter of celebrity rabbi Edgar Maggin, shortly before her death in 1988, began to link the Kennedy assassination to an international Nazi-Satanist conspiracy associated with CIA mind control. This point of view is shared by an anonymous Popular Alienation contributor who alleged that the false memory hypothesis was being promoted by the CIA to hide their mind control experiments.
Mind control and child abuse form the central allegations of TransFormation of America, in which the former wife of a country music entertainer claims to have been sold into CIA slavery by her paedophile father, and been the sexual plaything of several US presidents, the mistress of a senator, and abused by several foreign leaders, whilst also acting as a CIA courier. This collection of allegations is known as Project Monarch, and no doubt we will be hearing more of it. Mind Control is fast becoming central to conspiracy theories, and Jim Keith mentions the rumours surrounding Timothy McVey. The point being emphasised here is that people do bad things because ‘they’ make them do it. This concept forms a sort of secular possession, with Nazi-Satanists and so forth replacing the devils and demons of former centuries.
There are other trends, and Vankin and Popular Alienation have them to meet all tastes. Vankin notes, for example, William Bromley, who has linked conspiracy theories with ancient astronaut speculation. There is the ubiquitous Lyndon La Rouche who lies at the heart of about half the conspiracy theories going and who has a particular fixation with the wicked British, who are the heirs to a conspiracy launched by a group of renegade Templars led by Robert the Bruce! Then there are the Collier brothers who believe that the press agency joint election reporting service in the USA just makes up the figures.
The volume of Popular Alienation I have reviewed is a re-print of the bulk of the contents of issues 4 to 11 of the journal Steamshovel Press, along with a selection of extra material. This magazine was originally started by people who saw themselves as part of the Beat Generation, disciples of Alan Ginsberg and William Burroughs. It is now a strangely eclectic conspiracy source and I can give no better description of its contents than by quoting from the rear blurb:
“Abbie Hofman’s death seen as an assassination; the role of President Nixon and George Bush in the death of JFK; Black Holes and the Trilateral Commission… Danny Casolaro and the INSLAW octopus; Mothman, Roswell, Area 51; Bill Clinton and Carol Quigley; the Gemstone File [which claimed that Aristotle Onassis was responsible for the JFK assassination, amongst other things]; anti-gravity; Ezra Pound; Holocaust revisionism; Bob Dylan and mind control…”
Well, you get the picture. Some of this stuff is possibly true, some of it quite loopy, and quite a lot of it rather sinister. Increasingly those conspiracy theories which used to have a more or less left-wing perspective have become dominated by the agendas of the groups associated with the American freelance militias, which in turn reflect the mixture of macho armed anarchism, anti-feminism and racism associated with the nineteenth century anarchist Proudhon, with a dash of Christian fundamentalism thrown in.
The conspiracy theories are part of the apocalyptic tradition, they are the signs indicating that the Enemy is on the verge of total victory and only the ‘Saving Remnant’ can stand against it
The general theme of these theories is that the free people of the United States are about to be sold out to UN dominated slavery in the ‘New World Order (an infelicitous phrase used by George Bush, meant to refer to the Pax Americana, but given quite a new meaning by conspiracy theorists). Behind this plot is a mysterious conspiracy, usually referred to as the Illiminati. The original Illuminati were a small, pseudo-Masonic group set up in eighteenth-century Bavaria, dedicated to radical Enlightenment views; a sort of vague populism mixed with sexual liberation. They entered into American politics when they were used as a code word for the Federalist to attack Thomas Jefferson, and others thought to be too friendly towards the French Revolution. Today the term seems to be used as little more than a synonym for any sort of vague elite, or, more sinisterly, as a code word for Jews.
Jim Keith began his conspiratorial career promoting the Gemstone Files, but has now become a major spokesman for the militias. Black Helicopters over America is a remarkable example of political paranoia. It starts with UFO-like sightings of mysterious black helicopters which first entered the American consciousness in 1973 at the time of the cattle mutilations panic. They have since become a part of UFO lore, and feature as a mysterious, brooding, spying presence in the experiences of abductees like Debbie Jordan and Katarina Wilson. From the late 1980s the helicopters became politicised, as the carriers of the shock troops of the UN invasion; another old fantasy which began in the fevered imaginations of 1960s segregationists who assured their audiences that the UN troops would be Congolese. [For further discussion of the significance and power of the image of the helicopter, see 'The Curious Connection Between Helicopters and UFOs', by Dennis Stilling, in Magonia 25, March 1987]
Both Keith and Grant Jeffrey display one of the classic signs of paranoia: the inability to accept any kind of evidence which would contradict their views. Both see the UN as being dominated by the communists, rhetoric from the Red-baiting years which has surely been overtaken by events. Probably Cuba is the only country left in the world with a believing communist government, the Confucian regimes of China, Vietnam and Laos merely use communism as a nostalgic slogan. Keith and Jeffrey’s answer to that is that the Reds have not been defeated, they are simply playing possum and just waiting to pounce. The death of devils is surely as hard as the death of gods. (Gordon Creighton’s Flying Saucer Review promotes a similar theory in Britain.)
For Jeffery the ‘Evil Empire’ is not just a secular enemy, but the very domain of the Antichrist, and he has plenty of Biblical passages – all torn out of context – to prove his point. Like most apocalyptic Biblical interpreters he is unable to grasp the fact that Biblical writers were writing about the events and concerns of their own time, and not some inconceivably remote future. The apocalypticism typified by Grant Jeffrey, born from the imagination of Hal Lindsey and others of that ilk, crops up everywhere. Near-death experience prophet Dannion Brinkley had visions of the Antichrist inaugurating the New World Order, although fundamentalist surgeon Maurice Rawlings sees the NDE itself as part of Satan’s wily attempts to lore us into the New World Order.
This is the sort of atmosphere in which the militias and survivalist move. Philip Lamy describes their world view as ‘Millennium Rage’, the notion as summarised by Keith in Black Helicopters.., and OK Bomb, that the evil Clinton is about to inaugurate the reign of terror, and all that stands against him are “Conservative pro-Constitutionalists, Christian religious fundamentalists, the second American militia movement…” etc. Lamy, in his important book, argues that these images appeal primarily to those whose lives have been upturned or threatened by social change.
The conspiracy theories are part of the apocalyptic tradition. They are the end signs, indicating that the enemy is on the verge of total victory and only the ‘saving remnant’ can stand against it. This siege mentality clearly links groups such as the Branch Davidians with the wider militia and radical right community. The survivalists studied by Lamy saw themselves as the remnant in the wilderness. There is an eagerness for a catastrophe which would cleanse the world: a great simplification, the kind of purification extolled in the disaster movies, in which the wicked are thrown down and the righteous exalted in some suburban apocalypse. Lamy places the contemporary apocalyptic tradition in the context of the millennialist currents in American history. This encompassed a range of historical precedents from the benign, meliorative visions of those who saw the American republic itself as a new beginning; the lore of the wilderness (surely a factor in survivalism); the millennialist movements of the Native Americans, such as the Ghost Dance; up to its reappearance in such forms as the Unabomber manifesto and the X-Files.
This brings us back to the visions which I reviewed in ‘Blood, Vision and Brimstone’ (Magonia 53, August 1995), and testifies to the real social power of the rejected folk culture of the ‘New Age’, which, like the term New World Order, itself has clear millennialist overtones. Whether the likes of John Mack or Kenneth Ring might ever be the focus of a millennialist cult such as that of Herb Applewhite, we shall just have to wait and see.
The Oklahoma bomb was a product of this culture. Jim Keith in OKBomb reviews the rumours surrounding it. Much of the time he raises what seem like sensible points, but eventually falls into paranoid traps. For conspiracy theorists the notion of terrorists from their own tradition is unthinkable, and alternatives were suggested ranging from the claim of one militia leader that it was the work of the Japanese acting in revenge for the Tokyo subway gassing which itself was the work of the CIA. Others suggested it was a government act of provocation, a sort of modern Reichstag fire which could trigger the great UN crackdown; or our old friend mind control, as outlined by Mark Pilkington in Magonia 58. In passing, it has to be pointed out that while in some sense minds are being controlled all the time – by parents, schools, public authority, the media, etc. – there is no evidence of the sort of superhuman mind control as envisaged by conspiracy theorists ever having been, or possibly being, successful.
If I were to speculate on the motives of the Oklahoma bombers it would be to suggest a compound of propaganda by the deed, and an act of provocation with the intent of trying to provoke the authorities into some ill-judged overreaction and act of repression which would confirm their views and radicalise their followers.
The post-Oklahoma scene is also discussed in Adam Parfrey’s collection of writings. Although not endorsing the militias, he concludes they have been made the subject of a great deal of hysteria, and that they are no match for the powers of the corporate state. Here he echoes the views of some commentators on Waco: with the old Red Empire gone the American state needs new enemies against which to define itself; whereas for many groups of citizens the state itself has become the enemy.
The line between tragedy and farce is very fine, and one of the most surreal images in Cult Rapture must be the meeting between the survivalist, ‘identity-Christian’ (and what that means is the subject of a future review) and Presidential candidate for the far-right Populist Party, James ‘Bob’ Gritz (the model for Rambo), and a little old lady in tennis shoes who channels an alarming, nine-foot tall fascist reptilian called Hartoon. Rambo meets Reptilian. Strange days indeed!
Behind much of today’s conspiracy theories lies the old Big Lie of antisemitism, symbolised by that notorious fraud, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It is a sad thought that when Norman Cohn’s masterful tracings of its origins, and the strange Russian rightists who manufactured it by plagiarising Joly’s Dialogues in Hell, was first published thirty years ago, it was a dissection of a long dead literary corpse. This new edition must be seen more as a stake to be driven through the heart of a newly risen vampire, which I have seen on the shelves of the New Age section of Manchester’s Waterstones’, its nakedness hidden by the covers of Behold a Pale Horse or hiding in the work of David Icke.
The necromancers who have disinterred this foul thing are behind many of today’s conspiracy theories, using them as bait to trawl the youngsters who follow The X-Files and the like. Conspiracy theories throw a film of confusion over history, about which many people are not terribly informed anyway. If you can persuade people that Marilyn Monroe was murdered by the CIA, or if you can persuade them that the Apollo astronauts never really landed on the Moon, then perhaps you can persuade them that there was no Holocaust, and that maybe Adolph Hitler wasn’t as bad as they say after all.
By working their way into the fears and prejudices of people whose minds have already been prepared by a diet of conspiracy theories, these hate-mongers are likely to find a more rewarding way of spreading their ideas than trawling a few thuggish football fans. We must not let them.
Books reviewed in text:
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Jonathan Vankin, Conspiracies, Cover-up and Crimes from Dallas to Waco. Illuminet Press, 1996.
Kenn Thomas (Ed.) Popular Alienation; a Steamshovel Press Reader. Illuminet Press, 1995.
Philip Lamy. Millennium Rage; Survivalists, White Supremacists and the Doomsday prophecy. Plenum Press, 1996.
Jim Keith. OKBomb; Conspiracy and Coverup. Illuminet Press, 1996.
Adam Parfrey. Cult Rapture. Feral House, 1995.
Norman Cohn. Warrant for Genocide; the Myth of the Jewish world conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Serif, new ed.,1996.
Jim Keith. Black Helicopters over America; Strike Force for the New World Order. Illuminet Press, 1996.
Grant R. Jeffrey. Prince of Darkness; Antichrist and the New World Order. Bantam, 1995.
Cathy O’Brien and Mark Phillips. TranceFormation of America. Reality Marketing Inc., 1995.