Facilitating Fanciful Fun, or Fueling Fear and Fascism?

Conspiracy Theories for Fun, Not for False Prophets

by Chip Berlet Copyright 1998 Chip Berlet Please do not copy, download, or post elsewhere

The movie based on "The X-Files," should be enjoyed as an entertaining fictional account full of suspense and mystery, in which the elaborate conspiracy is a fanciful plot element.

However, if you watch "The X-Files," or Oliver Stone's film on the JFK assassination, or similar films and TV shows, and think they are roughly accurate accounts of how secret conspiracies shape world history, then there is a problem. You have bought into a form of scapegoating called " conspiracism;" an ideological worldview that blames societal and individual problems on longstanding vast conspiracies of bad people.

Conspiracism takes the anger over unfairness and corruption in a society and shifts it away from actual systemic and institutional causes. Instead, conspiracism scapegoats the problems on alleged cabals of evil plotters. So citizens waste a lot of time chasing ghosts and shadows rather than organizing to fix what's broken.

It's not that there aren't conspiracies in history. There is plenty of evidence of wrongdoing resulting from real conspiracies: Watergate, the Teapot Dome scandal, the FBI COINTELPRO operations which harassed dissidents, and many other examples. The Iran/Contra investigation uncovered the fact that under Reagan the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had been tasked with a contingency plan for rounding up dissidents in a crisis. So weaving FEMA into "The X-Files" movie is a clever and ironic plot twist.

It's just that history is not controlled by ONE BIG CONSPIRACY! Most conspiracies are small and short-lived…the idea of a secret conspiracy is almost an oxymoron given the way conspirators regularly rat each other out to authorities. The capital letters and exclamation point in the idea of ONE BIG CONSPIRACY! are a good way to represent how the energetic and vocal hucksters who peddle conspiracism try to get your attention. Don't Think-Act Now! Critical thinking and logic are the bane of conspiracism.

Throughout US history, right-wing populist demagogues have organized by using conspiracist scapegoating as a tool to stampede otherwise sensible people into acts they later regret. And here is where the danger comes in…there are real people who are being scapegoated, and as targets they can suffer serious consequences.

In the 1800's popular scapegoats were Freemasons or Catholics. After the Civil War, The Ku Klux Klan emerged as a right wing populist group that concocted a conspiracy theory claiming northern political operatives and Jewish peddlers were organizing recently-freed Black slaves to suppress and attack Whites. The result was a terror campaign by Whites against Blacks who suffered many assaults, firebombings, and murderous lynchings.

After World War One there were xenophobic panics over alleged conspiracies by Italian and Russian immigrants who were portrayed as a surging mob of anarchists and revolutionaries actively plotting the overthrow of the government. After waves of arrests and deportations, it turned out that even the handful of actual anarchists and revolutionaries seldom engaged in any criminal activity, and were hardly on the verge of threatening the government.

After World War Two there was the Red Scare, the anticommunist witch hunt during which thousands of persons were hounded out of their jobs and ordinary people were afraid to speak their minds in public.

The most horrific example of conspiracist scapegoating this century was the Nazi genocide. Hitler's main narrative was that Jews and communists (the mythical Judeo-Bolshevik menace) were conspiring with secret elites to destroy German sovereignty and pride. Jews became the major targets, and other groups were targeted for elimination or imprisonment…conspiracist scapegoating is not a victimless crime.

The central narrative of conspiracist scapegoating is always the same: an extensive network of subversives is working on behalf of a secret group of sinister elites to undermine the society. They are wholly evil, and can only be stopped by using the most extreme measures. A noble few have figured out the plot and must warn the society before it is too late.

Once the paradigm of scapegoating is accepted by the larger society, the targets can be lined up as needed. As the millennium approaches, the urge to look for evil conspiracies will only increase, since that is one way to interpret the prophesies in the Bible's book of Revelation. Already many persons in the patriot and armed militia movements fear that US government employees and UN officials are agents of the New World Order conspiracy. The list of others being demonized by demagogues as part of the alleged conspiracy is long and growing: Jews, Freemasons, gays and lesbians, feminists, abortion providers, ecology activists, peace activists, teachers in the National Education Association, Catholics, Mormons, Moslems, Arabs, New Age devotees. Vigilantes who cast themselves in the role of hero based on their misguided notions have already committed assaults, bombings, and shootings resulting in injuries and deaths to persons seen as part of the imagined evil conspiracy.

In Umberto Eco's bestselling novel, Foucault's Pendulum, the main character is faced with a choice between pursuing love and life or chasing fantastic conspiracies. He pursues conspiracies to no avail, and the results are disastrous. The same outcome occurs in real life. So when you hear some huckster claiming to know the REAL TRUTH about the ONE BIG CONSPIRACY, explain that you know where that road leads.  

Read more about: Conspiracism as a form of Scapegoating

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