They're Out To Get Us
The Washington Post

How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and
Where It Comes From
By Daniel Pipes
Free Press. 258 pp. $25

DANIEL PIPES, the authority on Middle Eastern affairs and editor of Middle East Quarterly, has written in this brief but dense volume a highly useful primer on conspiracy theories, or the "set of fears" that produced a "body of political ideas that I call conspiracism." Much of the ground he covers will be familiar to students of history and politics -- the Crusades, the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," the Illuminati, the French Revolution, Leninism and Naziism, the American Red Scares -- but the neteffect of his inquiry is larger; he makes clear that to a startling extent conspiracy theories have "had a profound impact on European and world history."

"Like alchemy and astrology," Pipes writes, "conspiracism offers an intellectual inquiry that has many facts right but goes wrong by locating causal relationships where none exist; its is the `secret vice of the rational mind.' " As a result "this book is the opposite of a study in intellectual history," since it requires Pipes to "deal not with the cultural elite but its rearguard, not with the finest mental creations but its dregs." He warns that "so debased is the discourse ahead that even the Russiansecret police and Hitler play important intellectual roles."

As a consequence there is a temptation to regard conspiracy theory as "a minor phenomenon, even a laughable distraction," but this is a mistake. Conspiracism has immense capacity for mischief; its "forces can move history - - and have done so repeatedly." Pipes's summary of its chronology makes the point succinctly:

"Conspiracy is a story in six acts. Suspicions about Jewish and secret society conspiracies emerged during the Crusades. The Enlightenment period saw petty conspiracy theories become a common tool of interpretation. The French Revolution raised the stakes, stimulating conspiracy theories about enemies who seek world hegemony. Through the 19th century, these ideas acquired greater scope and depth, finding their classic expression in Russia in the 1890s. The world wars saw such widespread acceptance of theparanoid style that conspiracy theorists seized power in several major countries and came close to global hegemony in 1940-41. In the next half-century, conspiracism declined in the West while gaining importance in other parts of the world. Summed up, conspiracy theories grew steadily in importance over a period of nearly two centuries, culminating with the years around 1940, and then they retreated."

Pipes begins with the present, offering a quick look at conspiracy theory as it continues to thrive in the United States, albeit on a relatively minor scale. It thrives among "the politically disaffected and the culturally suspicious," and tends to be concentrated in "the black community and the hard right." Among many blacks there are persistent fears that the federal government "uses blacks as guinea pigs, imposes bad habits on them, targets their leaders and decimates their population"; thus the widespread belief that AIDs has been deliberately spread in order to kill off blacks, and that crack cocaine has been underwritten and distributed by the government to demoralize the black community.

By the same token, at the other end of the political spectrum the hard right became convinced during the Cold War "that a conspiratorial body of Americans, known variously as the Money Power, the Insiders, the Secret Team or the High Cabal, were ready to sell out their country to the Soviet Union, which would then establish a one-world government." This is rather more difficult to maintain today, but its essential spirit lives, feeding on fears of an invasion of the United States by United Nations forcesand on the many fears that inspire the militia movement. As Pipes quite correctly notes in an appendix, the Internet has proved to be an ideal medium for the promulgation and dissemination of these fears, with unknown consequences for the future.

It is important to make the distinction, as Pipes does, between "conspiracies, which are real, and conspiracy theories, which exist only in the imagination." Actual conspiracies occur all the time, in both public and private life; one of history's cruelest ironies is that the worst conspiracies the world has known -- Soviet Communism and German Naziism -- were formed in order to combat imaginary conspiracies that Lenin, Stalin and Hitler so deeply feared.

The great age of conspiracy theory -- "the core of the conspiracist experience" -- took place between 1815 and 1945: "The secret society myth spawned a great number of actual secret societies, it grew into a conspiracy theory about Anglo-American imperialism, and anti-Jewish ideas evolved into conspiratorial antisemitism." Though it is commonly assumed that conspiracy theory is a pet obsession of the right -- when Pipes uses "right" and "left," he means not "conservative" and "liberal" but the extreme positions on both ends of the spectrum -- in fact the left is equally hospitable to it. Naziism was conspiracism on the right, its central fear being a Jewish conspiracy; Leninism was conspiracism on the left, its hobgoblin being capitalist imperialism. But both sides "engage in similar forms of conspiracism because they share much with each other -- a temperament of hatred, a tendency toward violence, a suspiciousness that encourages conspiracism -- and little with the political center."

LOOKING TO the future of conspiracy theory, Pipes is relatively sanguine, finding a "return to common sense . . . in North America and Western Europe." He suggests, and there is reason to believe he is right, that "countries in transition to democracy (the young United States, the Weimar Republic, post- Soviet Russia)" are far more susceptible to fears of conspiracy than are nations where "the rule of law, freedom of speech and minority rights" are in place. Obviously the grievances in America's black community arise in great measure out of fears that certain minority rights are as yet unsecured, but overall the United States is a relatively tranquil society in which only those on the fringes are likely to be haunted by fantasies of plots and schemes by malign connivers. By the same token the prospect is less sunny in places where the rule of law is shakier, so the outlook for some of these -- Pipes mentions the Philippines, India, Iran and Haiti -- may not be good, at least for the short term.

Reading Pipes's survey and analysis, one cannot escape the conclusion that conspiracism is a far more common and influential phenomenon than most of us would like to admit. Most of us are not paranoid, but something of it seems to lurk within us, to be an inextricable part of what we call human nature. This is not exactly good news, but then good news is not the main business of this first-rate book.


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