If it seems that conspiracy theories have grown–indeed, erupted–over the past several years, a recent book on the history of those theories disabuses us. Evidently, humans have always embraced these “explanations” of the world.
US congressional hearings can be dry affairs but not of late. First there was Robert Kennedy Jr, purveyor of disinformation about vaccines and much else, testifying about big tech censorship. Then David Grusch, a former intelligence officer, claiming that the government knows more than it admits about UFOs: “Non-human biologics had been recovered at crash sites.”
The fact that both captured the public imagination is not so surprising. In a new book, Under the Eye of Power, cultural historian Colin Dickey argues that our hunger for conspiracy theories is less fringe and more mainstream than we like to admit. Fearmongering about secret groups pulling levers of power behind the scenes, “conspiring to pervert the will of the people and the rule of law”, is older than America itself.
The author harkens back to the 1692 Salem witch trials, to the many Americans who were convinced that the Revolution was a conspiracy organized by the French, and to many others–from the Illuminati to QAnon. He argues against the temptation to dismiss these eruptions as some sort of aberration that resonates “with a small and marginal segment of the population.” Instead, Dickey argues that they are “hardwired into how many people process democracy.” As he delved into the research, he says
I began to see a pattern emerge whereby there’s almost a template for fears of secret societies, of this invisible, undetectable group that is nonetheless doing terrible things behind the scenes.
“It happens again and again; the names change. Sometimes it’s the Catholics, sometimes it’s the Jews, sometimes it’s the satanists, sometimes it’s the socialists or the anarchists. But it recurs with enough frequency that I began to see it as something that gets deployed almost on cue when certain moments arise in American history.”
Dickey points to the evolution of Freemasonry from its origin as a social philanthropic fraternal organization to one seen as a parallel shadow government that had infiltrated the country, and to attacks on Catholics that were driven by a conviction among Protestants that they were being controlled by a foreign pope. As the author notes, other anti-Catholic accusations were
very structurally similar to the contemporary conspiracy theory around Pizzagate or the movie that just came out, Sound of Freedom [popular with QAnon followers]. This idea of the cabal of sexual abusers, which was being used against Catholics in the 1830s, with just a few of the key details changed but more or less the same narrative.
One thing that has changed is the suspected nationality of the nefarious actors. Until the 20th Century, the “bad guys” were almost always foreign. Today, they’re domestic.
After world war two and the sixties, that gradually but irrevocably changes to the point where now most Americans take it on an article of faith that the government is out to do them harm on some level or another.
The Internet is obviously implicated, but Dickey says it just exacerbates some of our latent tendencies.
What does seem new is that QAnon is this weird hybrid of a very dangerous, quite racist and homo- and transphobic conspiracy theory mixed with an online multilevel marketing scheme and also a community forum for puzzle solvers.
Dickey notes that conspiracy theories like QAnon and the Great Replacement theory tend to flare up when “there is significant demographic change or previously marginalized groups push for visibility and equality.” Rather than recognize that America is always changing, they insist that demographic and social changes are being caused by “secret elites who are working behind the scenes to undermine what ‘America’ actually is.”
The review is lengthy and well worth reading in its entirety. The book tries to explain the trajectory that often begins with reasonable questions (are there side-effects to this vaccine?) and ends up with crazed, evidence-free answers (the vaccines are inserting chips in us; the vaccines are killing people…)
The basic problem seems to be the very human need to reject chaos and randomness–to believe that something is in control. Perhaps the messy and threatening reality you don’t understand is part of God’s plan, or maybe it is the result of dark forces–the illuminati, the Jews, the government….
Unfortunately, as Dickey concludes, rebuttals with facts and evidence will simply be attributed to the conspiracy. Because belief in that conspiracy addresses an existential or emotional need, to be effective, any response must also address that need.
Unfortunately, Dickey doesn’t tell us how to do that…..