Rumor, Demonization, Scapegoating, Conspiracism, and Scare-Mongering
are not Investigative Journalism
By Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons
Adapted and expanded from Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort
Gunning down children in a Jewish community center in Los Angeles makes sense if you think Jews run the world and are thus responsible for all that is wrong in the country as a whole and your life in particular. Shooting a postal worker who is a person of color makes sense if you think lazy people of color are conspiring with the Jewish-controlled Zionist Occupational Government to rob the hard-working taxpayer. The gunman accused of committing both these acts in California in 1999 is Buford O'Neal Furrow Jr. He emerges from a neonazi milieu where Christian Identity is the dominant religious philosophy. Christian Identity argues that Jews are in league with Satan and that Blacks and other people of color are subhuman. Identity's version of the battle of Armageddon prophesied in the Bible is a race war. This is an extreme example of demonization, but it is hardly new. An earlier example happened during the depression of 1837-43 when there was a wave of attacks against Catholic immigrants to the US. Catholics were demonized in popular culture as lazy and treacherous and the resulting scapegoating generated violence. Jean Hardisty argues that the contemporary right has frequently relied on "mobilizing resentment" as an organizing process.
Demonization of an enemy often begins with marginalization, the ideological process in which targeted individuals or groups are placed outside the circle of wholesome mainstream society through political propaganda and age-old prejudice. This creates the binary Us/Them Good/Bad dynamic of dualism or manichaeanism, which acknowledges no complexity or nuance and forecloses on meaningful civil debate or practical political compromise.
The next step is objectification or dehumanization, the process of negatively labeling a person or group of people so they become perceived more as objects than as real people. Dehumanization often is associated with the belief that a particular group of people is inferior or threatening. The final step is demonization; the person or group is framed as totally malevolent, sinful, and evil. It is easier to rationalize stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination, and even violence against those who are dehumanized or demonized.
In The Origins of Satan, Elaine Pagels points out that today:
Casting enemies in the role of evil demons is hardly original to Christians or the Bible. “Nothing is more common in history than the change of the deities of hostile nations into demons of evil,” says Paul Caras, who noted that Beelzebub, a Phoenician god, “became another name for Satan,” for the early Jews. In fact, the word Satan means “enemy.” More on apocalyptic and millennial forms of demonization later.
As Gordon W. Allport explains:
The word scapegoat has evolved to mean a person or group wrongfully blamed for some problem, especially for other people’s misdeeds. “Psychologically,” Richard Landes explains, “the tendency to find scapegoats is a result of the common defense mechanism of denial through projection.” People redirect frustrated aggression or guilt over their own misconduct, onto the scapegoat. But scapegoating does not necessarily work the same way at the personal level, such as within a family, as it does at a societal level, where in Susan Fisher’s words “the scapegoated group serves more as a metaphor.” Nor does scapegoating by large groups and social movements indicate mass mental dysfunction.
We use the term scapegoating to describe the social process whereby the hostility and grievances of an angry, frustrated group are directed away from the real causes of a social problem onto a target group demonized as malevolent wrongdoers. The scapegoat bears the blame, while the scapegoaters feel a sense of righteousness and increased unity. The social problem may be real or imaginary, the grievances legitimate or illegitimate, and members of the targeted group may be wholly innocent or partly culpable. What matters is that the scapegoats are wrongfully stereotyped as all sharing the same negative trait, or are singled out for blame while other major culprits are let off the hook.
Scapegoating often targets socially disempowered or marginalized groups. At the same time, the scapegoat is often portrayed as powerful or privileged. In this way, scapegoating feeds on people’s anger about their own disempowerment, but diverts this anger away from the real systems of power and oppression. A certain level of scapegoating is endemic in most societies, but it more readily becomes an important political force in times of social competition or upheaval. At such times, especially, scapegoating can be an effective way to mobilize mass support and activism during a struggle for power.
Conspiracism is a narrative form of scapegoating that frames the enemy as part of a vast insidious plot against the common good; and at the same time valorizes the scapegoater as a hero for sounding the alarm. Like other forms of scapegoating, conspiracism often, though not always, targets oppressed or stigmatized groups. In many cases, conspiracism uses coded language to mask ethnic or racial bigotry, for example, attacking the Federal Reserve in ways that evoke common stereotypes about “Jewish bankers.” Far Right groups have often used such conspiracy theories as an opening wedge for more explicit hate ideology.
On a local level, Herman Sinaiko observes that “The most decent and modest communities have people in their midst who are prone to scapegoating and who see the world as run by conspiracies. A healthy community is organized in a way that controls them and suppresses their tendencies.” But there are times when “the standards and control mechanisms are weakened, and these people step forward and find their voice and an audience.” This model of conspiracism is common to the far right, such as when it went into the economically devastated farm belt in the 1980s with conspiracy narratives scapegoating Jewish bankers.
Mark Fenster describes how some people use conspiracy theories to construct a theory of power that fails to recognize how real power relations work in modern society, and argues the phenomenon "should not be dismissed and analyzed simply as pathology." He suggests that "conspiracy theory and contemporary practices of populist politics require a cultural analysis that can complement an ideological and empirical 'debunking'."
According to Fenster, “just because overarching conspiracy theories are wrong does not mean they are not on to something. Specifically, they ideologically address real structural inequities, and constitute a response to a withering civil society and the concentration of the ownership of the means of production, which together leave the political subject without the ability to be recognized or to signify in the public realm.”
Certainly, real conspiracies exist: plotting in secret is one of the ways in which power is exercised (and resisted). The U.S. political scene has been littered with examples of illegal political, corporate, and government conspiracies such as Watergate, the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) of spying and dirty tricks against dissidents, the Iran/Contra scandal, and the systematic looting of the savings and loan industry. But as Bruce Cumings argues,
Conspiracism differs in several ways from legitimate efforts to expose secret plots. First, the conspiracist worldview assigns tiny cabals of evildoers a superhuman power to control events; it regards such plots as the major motor of history. Conspiracism blames individualized and subjective forces for political, economic, and social problems rather than analyzing conflict in terms of systems and structures of power.
Third, in its efforts to trace all wrongdoing to one vast plot, conspiracism plays fast and loose with the facts. While conspiracist theorists often start with a grain of truth and “document” their claims exhaustively, they make irrational leaps of logic in analyzing evidence, such as guilt by association or treating allegations as proven fact.
Conspiracist attacks can be directed either “upward” or “downward.” Anti-elite conspiracism (or anti-elite scapegoating) targets groups seen as sinister elites abusing their power from above. Countersubversive scapegoating targets groups portrayed as subversives trying to overturn the established order from below or from within.
Anti-elite conspiracism has deep roots in U.S. political culture. In some versions, anti-elite scapegoating attacks groups who do not really dominate society (such as Jews or Catholics); in other cases, it targets sub-groups within the elite power structure (such as bankers, the Trilateral Commission, the Central Intelligence Agency, or the World Trade Organization). What these versions share, and what especially defines anti-elite conspiracism, is that the scapegoat is seen as a subjective, alien force that distorts the normal workings of society. Thus, despite its “radical” veneer, anti-elite conspiracism shares the mainstream assumptions that the United States is fundamentally democratic, and that any injustice results from selfish special interest groups, not underlying systems of power and oppression.
U.S. elites, meanwhile, have long propagated fears of subversive conspiracies: bloodthirsty slaves plotting mass murder, disloyal immigrants undermining U.S. institutions, labor unionists spreading criminal anarchy, or godless reds bent on global dictatorship. Whether cynical constructs or projections of the elite’s own nightmares, such images have been used to demonize anti-oppression struggles by playing on people’s fears of disorder, violence, invasion, and moral collapse.
As Frank Donner noted, propaganda based on a myth of the enemy “other” has helped to justify anti-democratic activities by state security forces and their allies, including spying, harassment, judicial persecution, forced removal, and physical violence. And, Donner argued: “In a period of social and economic change during which traditional institutions are under the greatest strain, the need for the myth is especially strong as a means of transferring blame, an outlet for the despair [people] face when normal channels of protest and change are closed.” In these ways, countersubversive scapegoating has played an important role in this country’s system of social control, bolstering elite privilege and power.
Since conspiracist thinking flourishes during periods of political, economic, or cultural transformation, Davis observed that “[c]ollective beliefs in conspiracy have usually embodied or given expression to genuine social conflict.” Davis identified four primary categories of persons who join conspiracist countersubversive movements:
When people are mobilizing in defense of disproportionate privilege and power, they often devise rationalizations that divert attention from their underlying self interest. Scapegoating in the form of conspiracist scapegoating can provide the needed protective coloration.
Although the specific allegations about the plots and plans by the alleged conspirators frequently are complex—even Byzantine—the ultimate model is still simple: the good people must expose and stop the bad people, and then conflict will end, grievances will be resolved, and everything will be just fine. Conspiracist thinking is thus an action–oriented worldview which holds out to believers the possibility of change. As Kathleen M. Blee has observed through interviews with women in racist groups, “Conspiracy theories not only teach that the world is divided into an empowered “them” and a less powerful “us” but also suggest a strategy by which the “us” (ordinary people, the non–conspirators) can challenge and even usurp the authority of the currently–powerful.” Thus conspiracist scapegoating fills a need for explanations among the adherents by providing a simple model of good versus evil in which the victory over evil is at least possible.
It is undeniably true that contemporary right wing “conspiracy theories directed against the government are part of a rhetorical strategy genuinely intended to undermine state power and government authority,” as S. L. Gardner has observed. Yet the narrative of most conspiracist thinking is that the government is controlled by a relatively small secret elite. This fits the general paradigm of scapegoating because despite the actual size of the government and the power of the state, the conspiracists picture a handful of secret elites manipulating behind the scenes—a tiny cabal who would be no match for the sovereign “We The People” mobilized against them.
Just like in other forms of scapegoating, conspiracists sometimes target people who in fact have significant power and culpability in a given conflict—Wall Street power brokers, corporate magnates, banking industry executives, politicians, government officials—but conspiracists portray these forces in caricature that obscures a rational assessment of their wrongdoing. It is not individual people who have the actual power, but the roles they occupy in social, political, and economic institutions. There are undeniably powerful individuals, but when they die, their power does not evaporate, it redistributes itself to other individuals in similar roles, and to individuals that scramble to inherit the role just vacated.
No single power bloc, company, family, or individual in a complex modern society wields absolute control, even though there are always systems of control. Wall Street stock brokers are not outsiders deforming an otherwise happy system. As Holly Sklar argues, “the government is manipulated by various elites, often behind the scenes, but these elites are not a tiny secret cabal with omniscience and omnipotence.” There is no secret team...the elites that exist are anything but secret. The government and the economy are not alien forces superimposed over an otherwise equitable and freedom loving society.
William Greider’s book Secrets of the Temple describes the Federal Reserve as a significant institution of modern corporate capitalism with bipartisan support. He shows how the legislation traces back to demands by populists to smooth out boom and bust cycles and rapidly fluctuating credit rates that especially victimized farmers. Grieder also discusses the long history of the debate over the wisdom of a central banking system, and how the legislation creating the Federal Reserve was passed in 1913 after a lengthy public debate. There is no antisemitism or conspiracist scapegoating in the Grieder book.
Compare this sober analysis to the works of G. Edward Griffin, Martin Larson, Antony C. Sutton, or Eustace Mullins. They portray the Federal Reserve as the mechanism by which a tiny evil elite covertly manipulate the economy. They trace its creation to a cabal who met secretly on Georgia’s Jekyll Island and then somehow snuck the legislation through Congress overnight. Anyone with a library card can disprove this malarkey simply by reading microfilmed newspaper accounts of the contentious public debate over the legislation.
Sutton and Larson overemphasize the role of Jewish bankers, revealing mild antisemitic stereotyping. Mullins actually has two bodies of work. In one set of texts Mullins avoids overt antisemitic language while conspiracist theory of the Federal Reserve and the alleged role of forces tied to the Rothschild banking family. These texts involve implicit antisemitic stereotyping that might be missed by the casual reader unaware of the history of conspiracist antisemitism. In another set of texts Mullins displays vicious hatred of Jews and grotesque antisemitism. In this way Mullins uses his critique of the Federal Reserve to lure people toward his other works where his economic analysis is revealed to be based on naked antisemitism.
All the authors in this conspiracist genre suggest alien forces use the Federal Reserve to impose their secret agenda on an unwitting population, an analysis that ignores systemic and institutional factors and personalizes the issue in the classic conspiracist paradigm.
Conspiracist demagogues create for themselves a special status as gatekeepers to secret knowledge, a form of Gnosticism in which they are the high priests. Demagogues uses a variety of emotionally–manipulative propaganda tactics to convince an audience that their assertions have merit. They frequently use standard techniques of the propagandist, and use logical fallacies to assert connections between persons, groups, and events that may not be related at all. Some of the illogical and invalid arguments violate the historic rules of logic including the false ideas that sequence implies causation, association implies guilt, congruence in one aspect implies congruence in all aspects, and that simultaneous action implies prior planning.
All conspiracist theories start with a grain of truth around which is wrapped an attractive luminescent pearl of fiction which distracts attention away from the irrational leaps of conclusion. “Pat Buchanan in his 1996 presidential campaign raised real issues such as the negative effects of NAFTA,” explains Holly Sklar, “but he blamed a mix of real and false causes to suit his demagogic ends.”
Gates gives another example based on an antisemitic book, The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, published by the Nation of Islam:
Conspiracist demagogues as orators portray as wisdom what is, in essence, parlor tricks of memorization lubricated with fallacies of logic. While this is a form of charlatanism, it is frequently unconscious. Interviews with numerous conspiracists reveals that even when shown that their logic is flawed, they dismiss the proof as a trick or irrelevant.
Many authors who reject centrist/extremist theory use power structure research, a systemic methodology that looks at the role of significant institutions, social class, and power blocs in a society. Power structure research has been used by several generations of progressive authors including C. Wright Mills, G. William Domhoff, and Holly Sklar. Some mainstream social scientists, especially those enamored of centrist/extremist theory, have unfairly dismissed radical left critiques of US society as conspiracy theories.
Power structure research is not inherently conspiracist, but conspiracist pseudo–radical parodies of power structure research abound. Examples include right–wing populist critics such as Gary Allen, Antony Sutton, Bo Gritz, Craig Hulet, and Eustace Mullins. Left–wing populist critics include David Emory, John Judge, and Danny Sheehan of the Christic Institute. Conspiracism tarnishes the artistic work of filmmaker Oliver Stone. A recent book by the respected left analyst Michael Parenti, Dirty Truths, contains a very problematic defense of conspiracism. There are also a plethora of practitioners who have drawn from both the left and the right such as Daniel Brandt and the late Ace Hayes.
Conspiracism blames individualized and subjective forces for economic and social problems rather than analyzing conflict in terms of systems and structures of power. Conspiracist allegations, therefore, interfere with a serious progressive analysis--an analysis that challenges the objective institutionalized systems of oppression and power, and seeks a radical transformation of the status quo.
Separating real conspiracies from the exaggerated, non–rational, fictional, lunatic, or deliberately fabricated variety is a problem faced by serious researchers, and journalists. For progressive activists, differentiating between the progressive power structure research and the pseudo–radical allegations of conspiracism is a prerequisite for rebuilding a left analysis of social and political problems.
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