The Nature and Purpose of Conspiracy Theories

“Ernie” is a freelance researcher and “conspiracy buff” who has posted comments on this blog, most recently about my “Strange But True” post of a few days ago (which was inspired by an e mail he sent me). He has spent decades compiling a database of primary sources germane to right wing conspiracy theories.

I have received about 500,000 pages of documents and quite often I have been the first person to request and receive these files and documents. (As of March 2007, the FBI informed me that I had submitted approximately 8900 FOIA requests during the preceding 28 years). Ultimately, I hope to compile an “Encyclopedia and Research Guide on the Extreme Right in the U.S. Since the 1920’s”.”

He has also assembled an indispensable bibliography of secondary sources: books, articles, pamphlets. Click on the link to his web page in the “Blogs of Interest” column on the right; click here to read as thoughtful and cogent an analysis of the purposes and nature of Conspiracy Theory (as opposed to studies of actual criminal conspiracies) as I have ever seen.

The actual “problem” which political conspiracy theories seek to address is explaining one’s sense of impotence—i.e. providing plausible reasons for why one’s values, ideas, policy preferences, and political candidates seem to be repeatedly ignored, disparaged, violated, or defeated – particularly over long periods of time. Consequently, the conspiracy theory expresses the rage felt when a person perceives himself or his group as persistent “losers” in all matters of importance.

“Most conspiracy theories,” Ernie writes, “focus upon enemies, not on opponents. One’s receptivity to logic and evidence diminishes drastically when one confronts “enemies” as opposed to ‘opponents’.” The chief epistemological hallmark of Conspiracy Theory is its “exceptionalism”–“the notion that we cannot apply our accumulated historical knowledge about conspiracies to the contemporary conspiracy alleged to be in operation.” For example, Ernie continues, the CFR-NWO conspiracy “which they allege has been in existence for decades does not operate according to normal rules of human behavior nor does it operate in the same manner (or leave footprints) as do all other conspiracies about which we have knowledge.”


4 thoughts on “The Nature and Purpose of Conspiracy Theories

  1. “focus upon enemies, not on opponents. One’s receptivity to logic and evidence diminishes drastically when one confronts “enemies” as opposed to ‘opponents’.”

    Reminds me of this astute passage from Richard Hofstadter’s seminal Anti-Intellectualism in American life, where he delinates what he considers to be the secular fundamentalist mindset:

    The fundamentalist mind will have nothing to do with all this: it is essentially Manichean; it looks upon the world as an arena for conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, and accordingly it scorns compromises (who would compromise with Satan?) and can tolerate no ambiguities. It cannot find serious importance in what it believes to be trifling degrees of difference: liberals support measures that are for all practical purposes socialistic, and socialism is nothing more than a variant of Communism, which, as everyone knows, is atheism. Whereas the distinctively political intelligence begins with the political world, and attempts to make an assessment of how far a given set of goals can in fact be realized in the face of a certain balance of opposing forces, the secularized fundamentalist mind begins with a definition of that which is absolutely right, and looks upon politics as an arena in which that right must be realized. It cannot think, for example, of the cold war as a question of mundane politics – that is to say, as a conflict between two systems of power that are compelled in some degree to accommodate each other in order to survive – but only as a clash of faiths. It is not concerned with the realities of power – with the fact, say, that the Soviets have the bomb – but with the spiritual battle with the Communist, preferably the domestic Communist, whose reality does not consist in what he does, or even in the fact that he exists, but who represents, rather, an archetypal opponent in a spiritual wrestling match. He has not one whit less reality because the fundamentalists have never met him in the flesh.

  2. I’m beginning to believe that Hofstadter seems so uncannily relevant to the times that we’re living through because we’re living through similar times: a great conflict recently ended and a new one–with a shadowy, ungraspable opponent–begun; a generational change in the White House; vast demographic shifts; structural changes in the economy; world-shrinking new technologies.

    One major difference: the John Birch Society began (51 years ago this week in Indianapolis–where, oddly enough, Jim Jone’s People’s Temple Full Gospel Church was just getting off the ground too) as an exclusive, not-quite-secret society, with small cell-like chapters quietly opening in American cities. Robert Welch’s descendants shout their theories to mass radio and cable TV audiences today.

  3. This morning I created a new webpage which will be devoted to presenting data from FBI files and documents as well as from other internal security sources — which reveals concerns expressed by our security agencies and legislative committees about ill-informed and misinformed anti-communists whose “extremism” was considered counterproductive in efforts to combat communism.

    Future editions will include excerpts from congressional testimony and speeches made by J. Edgar Hoover and other senior FBI officials within the Bureau’s Domestic Intelligence Division.

    The webpage is at:

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