Supplement for New Internationalist Magazine

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 by "Coercive Purity?"

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 impure, 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, the feminist challenge to male dominance is of relatively recent history. Despite the anachronism of such views in contemporary democratic society, a belief that women should be subordinate to men has been retained in fundamentalist readings of these ancient religions texts.


 

 

 

New Internationalist

The Complete Interviews

Books & Articles
by Lee Quinby

Other Resources

Systems of Oppression

What to Do!

Spotlight On
Explore

Browse Topics | Site Guide | Multimedia Bookstore | Magazine | Publications | Activists Resources

Political Research Associates

Copyright Information, Terms, and Conditions

Please read our Terms and Conditions for copyright information regarding downloading, copying, printing, and linking material on this site; our disclaimer about links present on this website; and our privacy policy.

Updates and Corrections