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A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America
Michael Barkun
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
$17.47, 244 pages, ISBN 0-520-23805-2.

Thomas J. Mayock
Annandale, Virginia

When societies come under unbearable strain, apocalyptic or regenerative movements can produce major change, and sometimes, as with the Chinese Taipings, major bloodshed. Nothing on the scale of the Taipings is envisioned for America in this volume by Martin Barkun, a political scientist at Syracuse University, but he provides an economical and up-to-date survey of restive groups and their discontents. Barkun is one of a corps of academics who have made a career in the field and whose expertise is obviously useful to the government and to a public shocked, puzzled and outraged by the Oklahoma City bombing and other tragedies. Among his previous publications is a volume on religion and the radical right.

Reading the clues in this domain is like interpreting the earthquakes within volcanoes. Is the mountain preparing to belch fire and brimstone or just blowing off steam? During most of the nineteenth century, America enjoyed what a British admiral called "unattackableness," yet was nervous about the machinations of the Masons and the Vatican. While some religious movements looked for signs of the anti-Christ and the end of time, the world of the Indians was fast disappearing. Across the Atlantic, the British were involved with messianic groups. The Victorian hero Chinese Gordon helped put down the Taipings, only to die at Khartoum at the hands of the Fuzzy Wuzzies led by the Mahdi. Later, a similar figure in East Africa, the "Mad Mullah" was suppressed by His Majesty’s forces.

It is a long way from the conspiracies that occupied nineteenth-century America to the kinds circulating in the twenty-first century. After episodes such as the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, and the lost war in Vietnam, people are no longer certain about what is going on. Can it be that the government is already controlled by sinister conspirators or about to be superseded by the UN? Were the moon landings faked?

Tales of conspiracies competing for attention nowadays are famously eclectic, combining material from the European past with ideas from other cultures and not above taking suggestions from Amazing Stories. Biblical visions of the end-time could incorporate late model UFOs. Elitist descendants of aristocratic eighteenth-century clubs such as the Illuminati are routinely brigaded with reptilian visitors from outer space.

The point is that anyone designing a conspiracy today finds abundant material at hand; and on the radio, TV, and, above all, on the Internet, finds an instant audience. Barkun calls such creations bricolages. The message of the book is tightly argued, without literary flourishes or over-use of professional jargon. Barkun starts by defining conspiracy belief; then proceeds to distinguish Christian visions of the final struggle against evil from the secular prescriptions of Fascism, and Communism. While the latter have been eclipsed in recent times, ugly vestiges persist in nationalist circles and some, like the Czarist police forgery Protocols of Zion, have been picked up by racist and xenophobic groups. Finally, the Internet, the undisciplined Information Superhighway, accommodates people and issues that in earlier days would have had difficulty in finding a voice. One result has been the rehabilitation of rejected practices such as acupuncture and alternative medicine. The vulnerability of civil society to "odds and sorts" of information is growing along with the physical vulnerability of its increasingly sophisticated underpinnings.

Americans, who after all operate under a constitution designed to limit its power, have always had a healthy distrust for government. If they routinely hurl charges of graft and malfeasance by officeholders and ventilate the dark designs of the opposite political party, they show no desire to change the system. To some extent, then, tales of outlandish conspiracies are an entertainment, like Sci-Fi.

The imminent undoing of American democracy is ascribed to partisans of the New World Order, a phrase used innocently by the first President Bush in 1990 referring to a more hopeful era after the First Gulf War. These people are usually anonymous and act in secret, which makes it difficult to thwart their designs. Among them, unbeknownst, the anti-Christ may already be operating. The Illuminati, an eighteenth-century German club embracing Enlightenment sentiments, although disbanded two centuries ago, is portrayed as spearheading the New World Order, having already caused enough mischief by sponsoring the French Revolution—and maybe the Russian. The doings of its suspected latter-day members are regularly reported on the Internet. Barkun acquaints us with the exponents and the numerous variations of this theme. Some details of the New World Order conspiracy came as an echo of the isolationist-interventionist bouts of the forties and fifties. The Rockefellers, the Council on Foreign Relations they sponsored, and the Trilateral Commission of American and European business and political leaders were identified by right-wing groups. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is accused of maintaining a string of concentration camps in readiness for citizens. Fleets of black helicopters have been sighted on mysterious errands.

Perhaps stimulated by the numerous underground shelters constructed during World War II and the Cold War, popular imagination has peopled the earth’s core, and not always with humans. Visitors from outer space, for instance, having arrived on UFOs, are sometimes seen as being denizened there, in touch and in cahoots with governments. It is easy to poke fun at such bizarre ideas, when what is needed is understanding of their danger and of ways to deal equably with the true believers.

Along this line, Barkun provides useful references in thirty pages of endnotes and a twenty-eight page bibliography, which incorporates everything from standard works by John Higham and Richard Hofstadter to websites of interest, and even encyclopedias on millennialism and apocalypticism.




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