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
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
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