Thursday, July 14, 2016

Everybody's coming to get me

I don't know if I've mentioned it on my blog in the past but I have a real problem with conspiracy theorists. This comes as an outgrowth of living with my Mother-in-Law who legitimately believes that a common practice in Satanism is performing ritual abortions. She believes this because at one point she went to a spiritual warfare conference where a "former Satanist" told attendees about the "curses" he cast over millions of people while "flying" overhead - all of which was due to "powers" he had gained while "performing ritual abortions" as a sixteen-year-old at "black masses."

I bought A Culture of Conspiracy because I was frustrated with my Mother-in-Law and I was hoping that it might provide some insight as to how I could rationally approach her and temper the impact of her conspiracist thinking. As it turns out the book didn't have much to offer on that front, but did provide a comprehensively researched history of conspiracies in the US that was easy-to-read and very interesting.

People who deal with a lot of conspiracy theories experience something that is colloquially called "crank magnetism," a term which explains that someone who holds one irrational belief will be attracted to other irrational beliefs. So someone who believes that colloidal silver treats infections is much more likely to believe that vaccines cause autism than someone who spurns colloidal silver in favor of antibiotics and hand-washing. Similarly someone who believes in alien visitations is more likely to believe that the Illuminati is a threat than someone who is skeptical of interplanetary visitors. A Culture of Conspiracy is the academic exploration of the intertwining of very different conspiracy theories.

The three main theories that become themes in the book are Christian Millenarianism, the Illuminati/Freemasons, and UFOs and alien visitation. Some forms of conspiracist thinking are very exclusive and rely heavily on traditional dogmas, but some forms are more open and participate in a kind of cultural exchange until it seems to the conspiracist that most of the world is participating in the plot.

The book does a really excellent job of explaining this, and breaking down conspiracist cultural exchange into bite-sized chunks that are easy to get your head around. It's a bit dry, but then it's very academic. I enormously enjoyed reading it, but I recognize that it's not the sort of book that's really written for everyone. If you're interested in the history of conspiracy theories, or if you're interested in debunking conspiracy theories it's a must-read. If you don't have much of a stake in the conspiracy game you'll probably not find it worth your time.


Barkun, Michael. A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America.
     University of California Press. Berkley California. 2006. (2003).

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