Supplement for New Internationalist Magazine

Interview: Robert Alan Goldberg

by Chip Berlet, September 2004


According to Robert Alan Goldberg, antipathy toward Jews as a religious and ethnic group has been a pernicious periodic theme within European Christianity for two millennia. Apart from this, but often interconnected is the more specific idea of an international political conspiracy that gains ground in the turmoil of revolutionary challenges to European church-state oligarchies in the late 1700s and early 1800s. As Goldberg explains:

"Scottish professor John Robison and French ex-Jesuit Augustin de Barruel were monarchists who defended the aristocracy, and they argued that the Revolution was not rooted in poverty and despotism, but instead was the result of a conspiracy involving the Freemasons, a fraternal group that valued science and reason."

Another arm of the conspiracy named by Robison and Barruel was the Order of Illuminati, a secretive philosophical society (with a membership that overlapped with the Freemasons) that challenged the status quo, especially church power over political institutions.


New Internationalist: Why does conspiracist thinking persist? Does it serve some type of social function?


Goldberg: Many commentators dismiss conspiracy thinking as the province of the marginal or fanatical. Better to understand it as a refuge in time of crisis and tragedy. Conspiracy theories offer much to believers. They order the random and bring clarity to ambiguity. They provide purpose and meaning in the face of the chaotic. They also tender support to the traumatized who cry for vengeance and demand the identities of those responsible. Conspiracy thinking, similarly, offers a cure for powerlessness. It lifts the despair of vulnerability by arming believers with tantalizing, secret knowledge to understand and defeat the enemy. Conspiracy plots appear so credible because they are filled with details - names, dates, numbers - hard data that seemingly can be not be denied.

Moreover, in the face of a decline in faith and trust in authorities, conspiracy theorists pose as competing authorities who offer the facts of a new history, a new version of the past. In it, are revealed who has betrayed America's promise, traditions, and beliefs. Conspiracy theorists thus create a counter history which tells us how and why America has lost its way. This pits conspiracy theorists with traditional authorities in a struggle for power - a struggle for the control of history and therefore the present and future.

New Internationalist: Isn't conspiracism really harmless, and aren't its critics just defending the status quo?


Goldberg: In a culture of conspiracism, opponents become traitors and enemies are stripped of their humanity. The world divides between good and evil, black and white. In such an atmosphere, compromise - so vital to the health of democracy becomes impossible. Faith in core institutions is lost and they lose both popular support and their ability to govern is weakened.

New Internationalist: How can you tell the difference between a "healthy skepticism of authority" and conspiracism? Where do you draw the line?


Goldberg: Healthy skepticism of authority is essential to democracy. The key is to maintain logical consistency while demanding evidence in support of an argument. Conspiracy theories are slippery in their logic and careless of facts and assumptions. They work from a premise or preconception of conspiracy and deny other possible explanations of events. Circumstance, rumor, and hearsay serve as evidence and are deemed sufficient for proof. Conspiracy theorists think magically. They create super powerful antagonists who exercise their will without constraint. Human error, chance, and bureaucratic process have no place in their narratives. In these tellings, everything can be explained. The result is a fanciful world that is rigorously coherent and ordered and subject to the whim of a diabolical few. Recall also, easy accusations of high crimes and mass murder sell books and movie tickets. True credibility demands testimony based on more than innuendo.

 

 

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