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
"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
Freemasons, a fraternal group that valued science and reason."
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
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.
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
How can you tell the difference between a "healthy skepticism
of authority" and conspiracism? Where do you draw
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.