[The Montana Professor 15.2, Spring 2005 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America

Michael Barkun
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003
240 pp., $24.95 hc

Ray Pratt
Political Science

There is an old saw that says, "It's not paranoia if they are really after you." But who "they" might be depends on where the observer stands, and what constitutes "a conspiracy" depends on historical context.

Cultural "paranoia" about possible "conspiracy" has been part of American political life since the nation's founding, but since historian Richard Hofstader's 1965 essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," "paranoia" has become a pejorative term, commonly applied to arguments and viewpoints of those with whom one does not agree. In this review, by "conspiracy" I mean an organized activity with some alleged policy objective secret from the general public; by "paranoia," I mean generalized, not always delusional, fear that unknown persons are intent on carrying out some secret plan with harmful implications.

Refuting academic efforts to debunk many notions of conspiracy, or to argue for its essentially pathological quality,/1/ the 9-11 terror attacks demonstrated one conspiracy really did exist and that a lot of people were capable of keeping it so secret that--as the 9-11 Commission Report (2004) suggests--agencies of the U.S. government missed signs of it. It is probably now clear to anyone that in this first decade of the 21st Century there are organized groups of people out there who want to do the U.S. a great deal of harm.

This kind of belief used to be dismissed as "paranoia," if one believed it without some good reason--if one merely entertained a delusion that "bad" people were out to inflict imminent harm. Today, such "paranoia" might be better described as heightened awareness. Now, we know they (the terrorists) are really out there. The threat is a lot worse than talk show callers' fears of Hillary Clinton wanting to take away our kids to be raised by the whole village. But, at another level, it illustrates that paranoia and conspiracy aren't what they used to be. Just what constitutes "a conspiracy" is now open to a lot of contestation, confusion, and wild charges, as well as skillful manipulation of preexisting public opinion.

This brings us to Michael Barkun's study, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. A professional political scientist with a professional interest in religiously-based movements, Barkun draws upon theoretical perspectives in religious studies to inform this study in ways unique in the published works on conspiracy. He is concerned with far more extreme varieties of conspiratorial thinking and paranoia, mostly religiously based, than those many liberals and leftists (such as Michael Moore) might attribute to the mainstream version of conservatism now ascendent in the U.S. and the Republican Party, though some might see connections.

One of many thoughtful, insightful and reflective studies of conspiracy beliefs in American culture that have appeared in the last five years or so,/2/ Barkun's work sets the phenomenon within theoretical approaches developed to study millennial religious movements. The author places a phenomenon he describes as improvisational millennialism at the center of his concerns. "Millennial," while not quite precisely defined though frequently used, generally refers to eschatological beliefs (those dealing with "end times" and the question--at least among some Christians--of when Christ will allegedly return) in a coming end-time; either of great happiness and fulfillment--or calamity and disaster. Literally, it refers to "the thousand years" in the book of Revelation.

Barkun focuses on millennial Christianity--whose adherents seem to be growing in recent decades--a fundamentalist tendency in Protestantism speculating about end-times, when history allegedly will reach a climax and termination, when the anti-Christ, a diabolical figure, would fasten his grip on the world. Precisely why such fundamentalist and conspiratorial beliefs have taken hold in this era is a fascinating question, and Barkun's work contributes to the academic efforts to understand such phenomena. A Culture of Conspiracy, despite intelligent efforts to frame the topic conceptually and theoretically, still leaves me seeking answers to some bigger questions about why the phenomenon of conspiracy culture persists and even seems to be growing. These will be considered later in this review.

The improvisational nature of the millenialism discussed refers essentially to some of the quite bizarre syntheses and reformulations Barkun encountered in his research. For example, one finds today beliefs in the existence of the real historical 18th Century Bavarian Conspiracy of the Illuminati to be seen in Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code, which sold nearly 8 millions of copies.

Tracing the beliefs in various conspiracies and mega-conspiracies in literature that is usually not visited by academics, and visiting websites most "serious" scholars never consult, Barkun has created a genealogy of some off-beat and unusual conspiracy beliefs and their permutations over the past half century. Given his professional focus on religiously-oriented conspiracy thinking, his work differs from compendiums of politically-oriented conspiracy theories such as The 70 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time and Everything is Under Control: The Big Book of Conspiracies, Cults and Cover-ups./3/ A Culture of Conspiracy begins with an overview, "The Nature of Conspiracy Belief" (Chapter 1), which effectively describes the topics and defines some terms. It is followed by an exceptionally interesting and useful theoretical/conceptual Chapter 2, "Millennialsm, Conspiracy, and Stigmatized Knowledge," which locates the subject matter in a five-fold category of knowledge types, about which more will be said below. Several descriptive profile chapters follow.

One implication of Barkun's research is that what was once considered the lunatic fringe is moving nearer to the political-cultural center and possibly affecting certain receptive individuals, who in turn can affect the larger society. Non-threatening, "wacky" beliefs, he argues, might eventuate in behavior that can only be described as profoundly dangerous. A number (though he does not provide precise measures) of quite bizarre, fantastic, apparently delusional, beliefs have emerged and have become increasingly popular among individuals and movements.

A few have galvanized such quite lethal actors as Timothy McVeigh, the convicted and executed Oklahoma City bomber. McVeigh visited the much-described "Area 51" north of Las Vegas, Nevada, site of numerous alleged strange encounters (some even mention possible alien life forms) and the supposed location of secret aircraft and weapons testing. Dimensions of McVeigh's apparently unique and twisted personality, as well as his military training and web of personal memberships and associations, were all perhaps more influential on his actions and also need examination. Yet, if Barkun does have his finger on something, what is it?

The threat posed by the "improvisational millennial" impulse, as Barkun characterizes it, is that "a growing number of people believe that a superconspiracy, commonly referred to as the New World Order, is on the verge of consolidating world domination, possibly in collaboration with malevolent [extra-terrestrial] aliens" (187). Belief in superconspiracies is an example of what he calls "stigmatized knowledge." Stigmatized knowledge is true to those who believe it despite its marginalization "by the institutions that conventionally distinguish between knowledge and error--universities, communities of scientific researchers, and the like" (26). Here, apparently following Foucault and others, he presents an intelligently conceived typology of several types of knowledge and knowledge claims, from the widely validated through the more controversial: Forgotten Knowledge; Superseded Knowledge; Ignored Knowlege; Rejected Knowledge; and so on.

Barkun correctly finds much to be alarmed about from those who hold the more extreme varieties and fermentations of such views, whom he sees as rejecting information from what he terms "conventionally authoritative sources." A problem, from this reviewer's perspective, is that Barkun does not define these authoritative sources well enough, nor state in explicit detail his standards of "authoritative." This is an important omission because of the increasingly contentious, deeply politicized nature of a great deal that is published or broadcast in supposedly mainstream sources. For Barkun this information lies outside (what he regards as) the tacit understandings of what constitutes "reality" for most Americans. Rathergate and earlier scandals involving The New York Times, USA Today, and other publications raise legitimate questions concerning the standards used by such mainstream media.

To Barkun, The Matrix viewers , who know reality is nothing but a construct, apparently are not as great a threat to consensus reality as the (well described) believers in a Hollow Earth, the New World Order, human-alien hybrids in league with the Illuminati, and Zionist conspiracy. Where the antecedents and emergence of "improvisational millennialism" may constitute a serious problem to public order, McVeigh and his neo-Nazi-type terrorists are not the only practitioners, and not the only major (domestic) danger to our national culture. Barkun's argument neglects a generation of uninformed citizens who can't name their representatives in Congress (or, possibly, don't think it's worth knowing who they are!) and a generation of students who are enmeshed in The Matrix, the worlds of video games, or devoted to the simplisms of the comedy show monologues many rely on for political cues and news. Nor does his invocation of authoritative always apply to television news with its generalized routines of presentation and its practice of accepting and reporting uncritically virtually anything said by high government officials./4/

One real problem is that it is not simply only a significant minority subculture of conspiracy believers, but a majority of the American population that may have some difficulty distinguishing reality from illusion--possibly evident in the 70 percent in some polls in 2002-2003 who expressed the view that Saddam Hussein was somehow involved in or responsible for the 9-11 terror attacks./5/

The tendencies noted throughout Barkun's study are significant to be sure, but the whole political structure--from this reviewer's perspective--seems to suffer from a diminishing sense of shared political reality. This apparent erosion of a firm sense of truth and reality is, however, not utterly new, but has been a commonly-noted characteristic of an emergent postmodern situation, with an ever-increasing "incredulity toward meta-narratives."/6/

What is worthy of further study (noted by Barkun) is the proliferation of new varieties of such metanarratives among conspiracy believers and end-time millennial fundamentalist Christians. Throughout the book's eleven chapters Barkun leads the reader through worlds conventional academics steer away from, such as talk radio programs that offer syntheses of mainstream conservatism interlaced with elements of strange beliefs one thought were figments of the writers of episodes of The X-Files.

He also suggests that there are vast numbers of devotees of Internet web sites expressing the most absurd beliefs, such as the present-day conspiracy of the Illuminatii (based on the real Bavarian organization of the late 1700s), space aliens and alien/human hybrids (dealt with humorously on The X-Files), and a world Jewish conspiracy (picking up on the old Protocols of the Elders of Zion hoax generated by the Czar's secret police). Yet, it appears millions believe these things (though Barkun is not very specific about the total U.S.population involved). It seems to be the content that disturbs Barkun, and should perhaps disturb the educated public.

Barkun's trips into corners of the culture not usually visited can be very interesting, but the intricate tracing of bizarre permutations grew tedious for this reviewer, and still leaves out some of the equally or more interesting perspectives on conspiracy as a populist discourse of those who feel that they are no longer in control of their lives or find politics as practiced in the U.S. does not hold much relevance for them. (See my reviews of Mark Fenster's Conspiracy Theories and Jodi Dean's work Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures From Outerspace to Cyberspace.)/7/

So, what do Barkun's genealogies indicate? At one level, apparently much of American culture suffers from an erosion or breakdown in standards determining what is real or true, heightened by the over-reliance on such easily available but often tendentious sources as the Internet.

There are deep, more fundamental public problems of truth, reality, and the nature of the belief systems of mass publics, which Barkun discusses in his engaging first two chapters and illuminates in his thoughtful concluding chapter (Chapter 11).

There he engages in a passing dialogue with and indirect critique of what he regards as the provocative arguments of political scientist Jodi Dean, whose several works over the past decade/8/ have added significantly to perspectives on conspiracy beliefs. Dean has argued that "a number of politicians, pundits, and political theorists find themselves duty bound to ensure that the rest of us know the difference between responsible political thinking and crazed conspiracy theory. They think that they know and the rest of us should believe....Some [Robins and Post are cited] want to immunize the body politic from infection by conspiracy theories."/9/ Here, conspiracy thinking is seen as a form of "political pornography" or as "a cognitive virus." One might get such an impression from Barkun's discussion, but he never comes out and overtly argues the pathological quality of what he finds, preferring to raise questions about why people believe such things.

In fact, Barkun and Dean are really not that far apart. Dean has argued that "to think conspiratorially, to posit links between actions and events, to imagine that there is an other working behind the scenes, may well be reasonable, inseparable from reason, and part of the very operation of reason. Indeed, could it not be the case that denying this paranoid core [as do those such as Pipes and Robins and Post, who stress the pathology of conspiracy thinking--R.P.] is precisely the intrusion of irrationality, of affective extremism, that empowers reason with its undeniable coercive force?"/10/ Barkun, on the other hand, suggests in this perceptive concluding chapter that Dean's positions on conspiracy discourses effectively deny there is any longer "a consensus reality." Such views for him imply there is no longer any boundary between the categories of stigmatized knowledge noted earlier and more authoritative versions of reality (what those are remain for this reviewer inadequately defined after the CBS, New York Times, USA Today, and other reporting debacles). He prefers to reassert the reasonable position that the boundaries of consensus reality have become instead "more permeable." Which still leaves one puzzling over why so many people believe fantastic and bizarre tales and seem bound to create more permutations of them.


  1. Two works emphasizing the essentially pathological qualities of much conspiracy thinking are Daniel Pipes, Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where it Comes From (New York: Free Press, 1997), and Robert S. Robins and Jerrold M. Post, Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).[Back]

  2. Mark Fenster, Conspiracy Theories (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999); Timothy Melley, Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000 ); Jodi Dean, Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998); Peter Knight, Conspiracy Culture: From Kennedy to The X-Files (New York: Routledge, 2000); Ray Pratt, Projecting Paranoia: Conspiratorial Visions in American Film (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001); Ray Pratt, "Theorizing Conspiracy," Theory and Society 32 (2003): 255-271.[Back]

  3. Jonathan Vanken and John Whalen, The 70 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time (New York: Citadel Press, 1999); Robert Anton Wilson, Everything is Under Control: Conspiracies, Cults, and Cover-ups (New York: Harper Perennial, 1998).[Back]

  4. One of the best early studies of the effects of such media "routines" was Todd Gitlin, The Whole World is Watching: The Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980). Hedrick Smith in The Washington Power Game (1989) showed how vulnerable news media were to the brilliant media managers in the Reagan administration.[Back]

  5. "Poll: 70% Believe Saddam, 9-11 Link," USA Today, 6 September 2003, http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2003-09-06-poll-iraq_x.htm. By contrast, a fascinating and highly significant study in the American Political Science Association publication PS: Political Science & Politics (October 2004) effectively disposes of the notion the White House created the view Saddam was connected to 9-11 through manipulating information and the minds of the public. Administration officials merely had to repeat what much of the public (only apparently) already believed (especially after the elaborate constructions of Saddam as a new Hitler in 1990-1991), yet the percentages believing the Saddam connection to the 9-11 events paradoxically began to decline in the polls as soon as administration spokespersons began regularly linking Iraq to the 9-11 attacks. See Scott L. Althaus and Devon M. Largio, "When Osama Became Saddam: Origins and Consequences of the Change in America's Public Enemy #1," PS 37.4 (October 2004), http://www.apsanet.org/imgtest/Althaus.pdf.[Back]

  6. Francois Lyotard's key definition of the postmodern condition expressed in The Postmodern Condition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984). Originally published in France in 1979.[Back]

  7. Ray Pratt, "Essay Review: Theorizing Conspiracy--Before and After 9-11," Montana Professor 12.2 (Spring 2002).[Back]

  8. Among Dean's many publications see especially Jodi Dean, Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace; "Theorizing Conspiracy Theory," Theory & Event 4.2 (2000), http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/theory_and_event/v004/42r_dean.htm, and "Conspiracy's Desire," chapter two of Publicity's Secret: How Technoculture Capitalizes on Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), 47-78.[Back]

  9. Dean, "Conspiracy's Desire," 67.[Back]

  10. Dean, "Theorizing Conspiracy Theory," 7.[Back]

[The Montana Professor 15.2, Spring 2005 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Contents | Home