Interview: Michael Barkun
by Chip Berlet, September 2004
In his book A Culture of Conspiracy, Barkun writes:
"Conspiracism is, first and foremost, an explanation of politics.
It purports to locate and identify the true loci of power and thereby
illuminate previously hidden decision making. The conspirators, often
referred to as a shadow government, operate a concealed political system
behind the visible one, whose functionaries are either ciphers or puppets." (Culture
of Conspiracy 178).
New Internationalist: What is the appeal of conspiracism to people trying to understand
how power is abused? How can someone tell the difference between conspiracism
and rational criticism of the status quo?
Barkun: The appeal of conspiracism is threefold. First, conspiracy
theories claim to explain what others can't. They appear to make
of a world that is otherwise confusing. Second, they do so in an
appealingly simple way, by dividing the world sharply between the
forces of light and the forces of darkness. They trace all evil back
to a single source, the conspirators and their agents. Finally, conspiracy
theories are often presented as special, secret knowledge unknown
or unappreciated by others. For conspiracists, the masses are a brainwashed
herd, while the conspiracists in the know can congratulate themselves
on penetrating the plotters' deceptions.
New Internationalist: How can someone tell the difference
between conspiracism and rational criticism of the status quo?
Barkun: The issue of conspiracism versus rational
criticism is a tough one, and some people (Jodi Dean, for example)
argue that the former is
simply a variety of the latter. I don't accept this, although
I certainly acknowledge that there have been conspiracies. They
have the attributes of almost superhuman power and cunning that
conspiracists attribute to them. A sure sign that we have gone
past the boundaries
of rational criticism is the conspiracy theory that's nonfalsifiable.
Such a theory is a closed system of ideas which "explains" contradictory
evidence by claiming that the conspirators themselves planted
Barkun writes about the spread of conspiracy culure:
"Prior to the early 1990s, New World Order conspiracism was
limited to two subcultures, primarily the militantly antigovernment
right, and secondarily Christian fundamentalists concerned with
end-time emergence of the Antichrist." (Culture of Conspiracy 179)
New Internationalist: Can you restate this with a bit more detail
about the "militantly
antigovernment right" and the "Christian fundamentalists."
Barkun: These are worlds that certainly can overlap, but I see the
distinction as follows: By "militantly antigovernment
mean those who consider governmental institutions, policies,
as illegitimate and tyrannical. They may, for example, claim
that the federal courts have no jurisdiction over most Americans,
or that there
is no legal basis for the income tax. These views are often
accompanied by pedantically elaborate pseudo-legal or pseudo-historical
fundamentalists" may have many of the same policy preferences,
but are far more likely to base them on end-time ideas and
scriptural references, such as the rise of Antichrist.
Barkun has developed a theory on how conspiracy theorists embrace a
range of what they consider "Stigmatized Knowledge."
New Internationalist: How does the idea of "Stigmatized Knowledge" help
us understand how conspiracism-especially antisemitic conspiracism-has
moved into the political left?
Barkun: Lots of stigmatized knowledge ideas don't break down neatly
along left-right lines -- for example, beliefs about Atlantis, UFOs,
and the like. Hence their acceptance doesn't depend upon ideological
pre-requisites. Other stigmatized knowledge ideas are shared by left
and right. These include extreme ideas about the body's vulnerability
to poisoning and pollution, distrust of government, and favorable
attitudes towards alternative healing.
Barkun discusses conspiracy theorist David Icke (Culture of Conspiracy 103-109).
New Internationalist: Is it fair to say that the work of Icke, although he does
not emerge from the political right, is based on ideas popularized
and shaped by stories that originate in the right-wing subcultures
and then blended in an "improvisational style" with UFO and
other mythic lore? When someone says the Protocols of the Elders of
Zion is really about the Illuminati or the Bilderbergers is it fair
to suggest that it still involves the use of historic "antisemitic
Barkun: Icke is certainly the most adroit synthesizer of these ideas.
He also tries to position himself as "beyond left and right," as
though he was above "mere" politics. He also effects
a sympathy for groups he denigrates, claiming, for example, that
most Jews and
Masons are innocent dupes whom he wants to save from their conniving
leaders. This strikes me as, to say the least, disingenuous, but
it positions him to claim that he's a victim when, for example,
charged with anti-Semitism.
As to The Protocols, the current gambit of many who use them is
to claim that they "really" come from some other
group -- not Jews but, for instance, Illuminati. It's hard
they actually believe this or are simply trying to sanitize
a discredited text. I don't see that it makes much difference,
since they leave
the actual, anti-Semitic text unchanged. The result is to give
it credibility and circulation when it deserves neither.