Interview: Lee Quinby
by Chip Berlet, September 2004
New Internationalist: What is the relationship between apocalyptic thinking and conspiracism?
Quinby: The crux of the relationship between apocalyptic thought and conspiracism
is a paradoxical attitude toward truth and power. On one hand,
both stances hold that the full truth is beyond them. For apocalyptic
believers, this is usually divine, "capital T," Truth,
that transcends human knowledge. For conspiracists, the truth "out
there" is a secular plot in which a powerful group is perceived
as capable of pulling the strings that control the rest of us.
On the other hand, there is a sense in which each of these self-designated
underdog groups -- the apocalyptic Elect or the conspiracy Exposers--themselves
hold a truth that others either miss or reject. Hence, both believe
that they hold a special status in relation to the truth. For apocalyptic
believers, this comes from a revelation from the divine source,
often appearing by way of a vision that is then recorded in sacred
scripture for true believers to discern.
Conspiracism also holds
to this idea that they are the people "in the know," the
ones who have not been duped by the powerful plotters who seek
to take over. In both instances, there can be efforts to convert
others to this belief system even as there is an insistence that
evildoers--whether Satan, an antichrist figure, or a manipulative
political leaders--will do everything in their power to deceive
the masses. In both of these systems of belief, the ultimate reward
is a complete triumph over the enemy, a convergence of power and
truth in which the believers not only acquire full truth but also
full power over the forces of deception. This may be an eternal
heavenly reward or a secular victory.
New Internationalist: Do you really think that
the apocalyptic style breeds scapegoating?
Quinby: The tendency for the apocalyptic style to breed scapegoating stems
from a "we vs. them" kind of thinking that is integral
to the narrative of a final end in which the true believers will
attain salvation. Apocalyptic belief is a story of cosmic Good
versus Evil that gets manifest in the world by followers of each
camp. The Elect cleave to the Good whereas those who follow Evil
are of necessity the enemy, those who must be defeated. Scapegoating
occurs when a particular group is designated as sufficiently distinct,
different, "other" from the true believers. This group’s
belief system and practices of daily life are seen to threaten
the well-being and ultimate salvation of the Elect and thus must
be conquered, even annihilated.
New Internationalist: Why should progressive
people be sensitized to the issue of apocalyptic thinking and conspiracism?
Quinby: Progressive thought falters under the weight of apocalyptic and
conspiratorial thinking because both of those perspectives rely
so heavily on being the only holders of the truth rather than admitting
that there really are many sides to any given story. In other words,
disagreement and dissent are disallowed, democratic debate is precluded,
and differences of opinion are penalized.
Progressive activists become overly narrow when they engage in
conspiratorial thinking or apocalyptic righteousness because they
latch on to the belief that they are the ultimate holders of the
supreme truth and come to see themselves as arbiters for others,
rather than being able to listen to dissenting points of view that
not only deserve to be heeded but may well provide necessary information
about issues of concern.
New Internationalist: Doesn't it help build a
constitutency that challenges that status quo?
Quinby: The energies that are marshaled together under apocalyptic and
conspiratorial belief tend to seek a sudden and complete transformation
in which the enemy is utterly defeated. So, although there may
be a strong challenge to the status quo, it is unlikely to be able
to continue in the face of transition, modification, and compromise.
Democratic practices involving coalitions tend be perceived as
selling out to the enemy.
New Internationalist: What do you mean
Quinby: Both apocalyptic and conspiratorial discourses draw on images
of purity--both of bodies and ideas. In apocalyptic writings, a
body unstained by or washed clean of sin is the goal to achieve.
In conspiricism, pure truth is in danger of being contaminated
by lies. In each case, there is an intimate link between the concept
of total truth and that of absolute morality. Differing ethical
conceptualizations are thus seen as threatening. They are scapegoated
as impure and the people holding them are often cast as physically
unclean or sullied as well as debased and malignant in thought.
This functions coercively by mandating obedience to what is perceived
as the only proper morality. Compliance to the decreed truth becomes
a prime virtue and any challenges to that authorized belief are
then seen to justify punishment and/or ostracism. The discourse
of purity hence coerces or compels adherence to a sense of certainty
that forecloses on dissent.
New Internationalist: Is it really fair to say it is rooted in
a male dominated view of the world?
Quinby: The notion of purity that is
integral to western apocalyptic thought has a history
of misogyny that
represents most women as
like Eve in the book of Genesis or Jezebel in
the Book of Revelation, for example. Women are seen as
agents of deception and contamination
of men, who must overcome their tempters, oftentimes
by brutal action which is seen as just retribution. This
world view emerged
out of patriarchal culture in which men were
dominant and it reflects the belief that women must be
submissive to men for
their own good
and the good of their children. Women’s sexuality in particular
is singled out as threatening to men, hence the edicts to cover
themselves so that men won’t be tempted
to impurities. This view continued over millennia
of male dominance--indeed,
challenge to male dominance is of relatively
recent history. Despite the anachronism of such
views in contemporary democratic
a belief that women should be subordinate to
men has been retained in fundamentalist readings
of these ancient religions texts.