Paranoid Conspiracism and the Right

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After the Alaska Green Party held its convention in March 1992 in Fairbanks, the newly-elected chair, Ronnie Rosenberg, began to poke around. She wanted to figure out what was behind several convention resolutions with unusually idiosyncratic themes and why individuals who clearly had their own peculiar agendas were showing up at Green Party meetings. She discovered the Greens had attracted a new constituency. "These people were clearly not from the progressive movement, and some didn't even know what was in our party platform," says Rosenberg. "They were against big government and distrustful of bureaucracy and authority, and they clearly wanted to build alliances with us."

What most concerned Rosenberg was that some of the would-be Greens who seemed wound up in their own conspiracy theories might be involved with Far Right groups.

" We want to give people a fair hearing and we don't want to close ourselves off from sincere new members since we do want to build coalitions," says Rosenberg," but we don't want to be used as a vehicle for some hidden right-wing agenda." Rosenberg, active with the Tanana-Yukon Greens, wants to be sure that sincere people don't get co-opted." I guess we just have to keep our eyes open," she says.

There are many individuals around the country promoting unsubstantiated and often paranoid conspiracy theories in publications, lectures and radio talk show interviews. While some of these conspiracy theories are very attractive on the surface, and are undeniably entertaining, they ultimately serve to distract people from serious analysis and crowd out serious discussion of government misconduct, covert action, foreign policy, and civil liberties. It doesn't matter if the source is sincere, psychotic, sensationalist, or sent with disinformation by sinister souls to sink the story, the result is that careful and arduous investigations into a story are undermined as each element of an elaborate conspiracy theory is disproven.

There certainly are real conspiracies in history, and the U.S. political scene has been littered during the past thirty years with examples of illegal political and government operations ranging from Watergate to Iran Contragate, and from the FBI's Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) to the systematic looting of the savings and loan industry. Separating real conspiracies from the fictional, non-rational, lunatic, or deliberately fabricated variety is the problem faced by serious researchers, activists, and journalists. In this paper the term conspiracy theorist refers to someone whose analysis of documents, statements, and other evidence has become uncoupled from a logical train of thought.

Dubious conspiracism has become widely accepted on the left, with large audiences mesmerized by endless tales of intrigue broadcast on progressive and alternative radio stations. For a time, stations on the Pacifica radio network, especially FM stations KPFA, KPFK and WBAI, were a major source of conspiratorial analysis for the left, although internal discussions within the network prompted some reforms.

Scores of small FM stations play tapes by or air interviews with a cast of conspiracy-mongering characters including John Judge, David Emory, Sherman Skolnick, Bo Gritz, and Craig Hulet (aka K.C. Depass). These "experts" weave webs so intricate they make a Hitchcock plot seem like a script for Mr. Rogers: cures for AIDS and cancer are intentionally being suppressed by a government/media plot; Naval Intelligence secretly controls the U.S.; the CIA arranged the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas confrontation.

Unsubstantiated conspiracy theories peddled by questionable sources have infected some major stories, and can be found to varying degrees in the story of an alleged "October Surprise" , the Christic Institute's "Secret Team" theory, the late writer Danny Casolaro's "Octopus" theory, some versions of the Iran-Contra scandal, the savings and loan debacle, BCCI, the search for POWs and MIAs, the Drug War, AIDS, the apparent theft of Promis software, covert action, and CIA secret machinations.

It is important to note that the audience for the Pacifica network and progressive radio stations is dwarfed by the audience for right-wing radio programs that promote conspiracism. A surprising number of conspiracy mongers, whether or not they self-identify as right wing, are peddling variations on long-standing paranoid right-wing conspiracy theories in which sinister global elites secretly manipulate world events. While some information circulated by the far right may be factual, other material can be unsubstantiated rumors or lunatic conspiracy theories. Some material is bigoted and embodies racist or anti-Jewish theories. Paranoid conspiracy theories of secret control have been promulgated for decades by the far right in the U.S., and were analyzed by historian Richard Hofstadter in his book The Paranoid Style in American Politics.10 "The central preconception of the paranoid style," wrote Hofstadter, is the belief in "the existence of a vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of the most fiendish character."

Political movements with paranoid conspiracist theories have garnished the American political scene since the Salem Witch Trials and the anti-Masonic hysteria in the 1700's. Adherents of these conspiracy theories remain a small isolated minority except during times of economic or social stress when a mass following develops to blame selected scapegoats for the problems besetting the society.

Groups at various times scapegoated as the engines behind the global conspiracy include: Jews, bankers, Catholics, communists, Black militants, civil rights activists, anarchists, the Bavarian Illuminati society, Jesuits, the Rockefellers, the Council on Foreign Relations, Israeli secret police, Trilateralists,11 the Bilderberger banking group, and Soviet KGB agents.

In paranoid political philosophies, the world is divided into us and them. Evil conspirators control world events. A special few have been given the knowledge of this massive conspiracy and it is their solemn duty to spread the alarm across the land.

Conspiracism and scapegoating go hand-in-hand, and both are key ingredients of the fascist phenomenon. Fascism is difficult to define succinctly. As Roger Scruton observes in "A Dictionary of Political Tought," fascism is "An amalgam of disparate conceptions."12

[Fascism is] more notable as a political phenomenon on which diverse intellectual influences converge than as a distinct idea; as political phenomenon, one of its most remarkable features has been the ability to win massive popular support for ideas that are expressly anti-egalitarian.

Fascism is characterised by the following features (not all of which need be present in any of its recognized instances): nationalism; hostility to democracy, to egalitarianism, and to the values of the enlightenment; the cult of the leader, and admiration for his special qualities; a respect for collective organization, and a love of the symbols associated with it, such as uniforms, parades and army discipline.

The ultimate doctrine contains little that is specific, beyond an appeal to energy, and action.

Another way to look at fascism is as a movement of extreme racial or cultural nationalism, combined with economic corporatism and authoritarian autocracy; masked during its rise to state power by pseudo-radical populist appeals to overthrow a conspiratorial elitist regime; spurred by a strong charismatic leader whose reactionary ideas are said to organically express the will of the masses who are urged to engage in a heroic collective effort to attain a metaphysical goal against the machinations of a scapegoated demonized adversary.

In any case, in most definitions of fascism the themes of conspiracism and a targetted scapegoat emerge.

One of the most loathsome denizens of the racist far right is lecturer Eustace Mullins. Mullins' tours are promoted in ads placed in the Spotlight. In his pamphlet The Secret Holocaust, Mullins asserts:

The record shows that only Christians have been victims of the historic massacres. The Jews, when they did not do the killings themselves, as they always prefer to do, were always in the background as the only instigators of these crimes against humanity. We can and we must protect ourselves against the bloodthirsty bestiality of the Jew by every possible means, and we must be aware that the Christian creed of love and mercy can be overshadowed by the Jewish obsession that all non Jews are animals to be killed.13

Mullins is best known as a critic of the Federal Reserve system, and in public appearances he avoids anti-Jewish rhetoric. His work was briefly promoted by Chuck Harder's "For the People" radio talk show program and a related newspaper. Harder pursues right-wing conspiracist themes, while scheduling a wide range of guests including consumer advocate Ralph Nader. Harder's program is aired by more than 140 AM and FM stations, and also on short wave and satellite frequencies.

The Sun Radio Network, essentially owned by Liberty Lobby, carried a popular daily program that churns the conspiracies "du jour" : Tom Valentine's "Radio Free America" . Midwest bureau chief for "Spotlight" , Valentine is a member of the advisory board of Liberty Lobby's Populist Action Committee. According to Shelly Shapiro, director of Holocaust Survivors and Friends in Pursuit of Justice, the Sun Radio Network is one of the most significant sources of anti-Jewish and pro-fascist propaganda in the U.S.

Radio programs such as Harder's and Valentine's launder the views of their right-wing guests to sound more reasonable to a broad audience. Listeners can pursue the topic by writing or calling the guests and asking for more information, with phone numbers and addresses handily provided by the talk show host. In this way listeners can be introduced to the more virulently racist and anti-Jewish material through the mail. No matter where the right-wing conspiracy theories emerge, their roots trace back to a handful of groups or movements on the right. In recent years the four main centers of paranoid conspiracism and scapegoating on the right have been the John Birch Society, the Liberty Lobby, the LaRouchians, and the movement known as the New Right.

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