Supplement for New Internationalist Magazine

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 sense out 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 simply don't 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 it.

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 right" I mean those who consider governmental institutions, policies, and/or officials 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 arguments. "Christian 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, medical panaceas, 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 motifs?"

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, he is 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 to tell whether 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.

 

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