Americans have always loved a good conspiracy. From the John F. Kennedy assassination to the alleged cover-up of the existence of UFOs by the U.S. government to the Vince Foster suicide and the “vast right-wing conspiracy” comment by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, the conspiracy theory has become a popular and powerful vehicle to explain important historical events. In this book, author Mark Fenster takes us on a guided tour of the shadowy underworld of the conspiracy theorist. His main thesis is that conspiracy theories are a form of popular political interpretation, and he contends that recognizing how they circulate through mass culture helps us better understand our society as a whole.
Fenster begins with a critique of the work of Douglas R. Hofstadter, a prominent twentieth century American historian who studied the effects of conspiracy thinking during the McCarthy era, when conspiracy theories abounded concerning the infiltration of communism into the U.S. government. It was Hofstadter’s contention that these types of political conflicts are part of a “paranoid style” of political discourse that is largely produced by the psychological neuroses of those who promote such outlandish theories. In other words, Hofstadter views conspiracy theories as “pathological politics.” Those involved in militia groups, for example, tend to view the political establishment with extreme suspicion, believing that their individual rights are being threatened by a government that can no longer be trusted. Fenster believes that however outlandish and removed from reality the claims of such groups may be, they should be taken seriously. Events such as the raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and the Oklahoma City bombing should serve as warnings that political paranoia can easily manifest itself in the commission of violent acts.
On an individual level, Fenster believes that the belief in conspiracy theories may come about as a result of the fear of a loss of employment, personal control, or identity. Members of disadvantaged or oppressed groups may adopt a conspiracy framework to explain their situation in society, believing that some conspiratorial “Other” is holding them back or even plotting to annihilate them. For example, circulating among the African American community was a rumor that the products of Church’s Fried Chicken franchises were laced with drugs that induced sterility in black males, because, conspiracy theorists claimed, the company was actually owned by the Ku Klux Klan. Another popular rumor was that the federal government and the military had created and used the HIV virus to attempt to eradicate African Americans, and the federal government was behind the assassinations of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Even though such rumors may appear to be outlandish and unsubstantiated, to the victims of systematic repression and discrimination they could seem quite reasonable. Such beliefs, Fenster says, cannot simply be dismissed as being pathological. Looked at within their specific political, economic, and social contexts, they acquire a measure of reality for those who embrace them, and give oppressed individuals or groups what they consider to be plausible explanations of their plight.
Fenster contends that the domination of the media by a relatively few powerful networks and newspapers has actually contributed to the conspiracy discourse, as people search for alternatives to “official” explanations of events in the mainstream media. Ignoring seemingly offbeat or alternative points of view has actually encouraged conspiracy theorists to offer their own versions of events. The suicide of deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster is a case in point. Some opponents of then U.S. president William Jefferson Clinton were intimating that there might have been foul play involved because of Foster’s involvement in the emerging Whitewater real estate scandal. The president was adamant in telling the press that the rumors were absolutely false and there was nothing more to know; however, to a conspiracy theorist, the assertion by a high government official that there is nothing more to know is a signal that there is indeed a great deal that we do not know. Such a scenario adds credibility to conspiracy theorists’ suspicions. Thus the paranoid form of interpretation becomes part of the media discourse on this issue, despite the fact that it is being generated by media “outsiders.” Fenster correctly points out, however, that sometimes genuine government or military conspiracies do exist, and when proven later to have actually existed, especially in conjunction with demonstrations that the...
(The entire section is 1906 words.)