Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture

Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture

Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture

Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture

Excerpt

A word slips out of Dallas in 1963,
Spawns an industry: conspiracy.
Initials ten feet tall just reinforce
And underline: insignificance.

—Mekons, “Insignificance”

In political discussions with friends and opponents, one can hurl no greater insult than to describe another’s position as the product of a “conspiracy theory.” The characterization groups its victim with such unsavory characters as militia members, Oliver Stone, computer hackers, and the John Birch Society, and accuses him or her of believing in a secret, omnipotent individual or group that covertly orchestrates the events of the world. According to numerous political and cultural commentators, however, the characterization also places its victim in the increasingly dysfunctional and bizarre mainstream of American political culture. Reporters and editorialists have regularly filled print publications with dispatches concerning the increasing proliferation of conspiracy theory, which is carried forth to youngsters in comic books; to adults in movies and television shows; to all America through an increasingly susceptible news media; and to the frontiers of “cyberspace” through the Internet. These concerned commentators assert that although it has both historical roots and international counterparts, conspiracy theory in the United States has poisoned our political system, culture, and public sphere to an unprecedented degree.

Except for occasional instances, accusations of conspiracy are typically met in the mainstream media by incredulity, if not downright hostility. Consider, for example, the reaction to allegations in the San Jose Mercury News in 1996 that Nicaraguan contra agents with ties to the CIA played a central role in the introduction of crack cocaine to American cities. The nation’s most-respected newspapers considered both the allegations and the outrage they aroused among African-Americans either to be the result of pathological conspiracy theorizing or as “fueled” by a black community whose indigenous “rumor mill” was . . .

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