A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary Americaby Michael Barkun
American society has changed dramatically since A Culture of Conspiracy was first published in 2001. In this revised and expanded edition, Michael Barkun delves deeper into America's conspiracy sub-culture, exploring the rise of 9/11 conspiracy theories, the "birther" controversy surrounding Barack Obama's American citizenship, and how the conspiracy landscape has changed with the rise of the Internet and other new media.
What do UFO believers, Christian millennialists, and right-wing conspiracy theorists have in common? According to Michael Barkun in this fascinating yet disturbing book, quite a lot. It is well known that some Americans are obsessed with conspiracies. The Kennedy assassination, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the 2001 terrorist attacks have all generated elaborate stories of hidden plots. What is far less known is the extent to which conspiracist worldviews have recently become linked in strange and unpredictable ways with other "fringe" notions such as a belief in UFOs, Nostradamus, and the Illuminati. Unraveling the extraordinary genealogies and permutations of these increasingly widespread ideas, Barkun shows how this web of urban legends has spread among subcultures on the Internet and through mass media, how a new style of conspiracy thinking has recently arisen, and how this phenomenon relates to larger changes in American culture. This book, written by a leading expert on the subject, is the most comprehensive and authoritative examination of contemporary American conspiracism to date.
Barkun discusses a range of material-involving inner-earth caves, government black helicopters, alien abductions, secret New World Order cabals, and much more-that few realize exists in our culture. Looking closely at the manifestations of these ideas in a wide range of literature and source material from religious and political literature, to New Age and UFO publications, to popular culture phenomena such as The X-Files, and to websites, radio programs, and more, Barkun finds that America is in the throes of an unrivaled period of millenarian activity. His book underscores the importance of understanding why this phenomenon is now spreading into more mainstream segments of American culture.
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A Culture of ConspiracyApocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America
By Michael Barkun
The University of California PressCopyright © 2003 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.
Chapter OneUFO Conspiracy Theories, 1975-1990
Immediately after the Oklahoma City bombing in the spring of 1995, mainstream Americans suddenly became aware of a radical political subculture in their midst. With the arrest of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols and the media coverage of their lives, attitudes, and associations, the public was abruptly introduced to the previously insular world of militias, antigovernment shortwave-radio broadcasts, and racist literature. A racist novel (written by Andrew Macdonald, also known as William Pierce), The Turner Diaries-unobtainable through conventional bookstores-became an object of intense interest once it became known that McVeigh had read and recommended it, and it was revealed that the novel contained an episode strikingly similar to the federal building bombing. An avalanche of television, magazine, and newspaper stories uncovered the existence of conspiracy believers obsessed with black helicopters and armed against what they believed to be an imminent invasion by forces of the New World Order.
More than any other single event, the Oklahoma City bombing brought New World Order ideas to the public'sattention. But New World Order ideas had begun to seep into broader segments of the American consciousness even earlier. Pat Robertson had published his book The New World Order in 1991. Robertson's version of the conspiracy (what might be termed "New World Order lite") is mild compared to that of such militia figures as Mark Koernke; nevertheless, his book is filled with ominous warnings: "The New Age religions, the beliefs of the Illuminati, and Illuminated Freemasonry all seem to move along parallel tracks with world communism and world finance. Their appeals vary somewhat, but essentially they are striving for the same very frightening vision." Robertson claims that an elite network of the superrich, operating through secret societies, is on the verge of taking undisputed control of the world. At the same time, references to the New World Order were also beginning to appear in the speeches of another conspicuous public figure, Pat Buchanan, who linked such concerns with threats to America's economic independence.
Thus in the early 1990s New World Order conspiracy theories ceased to be beliefs that circulated only in an obscure political underground and began to penetrate some channels of mainstream discourse. In fact, however, the most dramatic New World Order penetration came not from Robertson, Buchanan, or coverage of the Oklahoma City bombers. Rather, it occurred earlier, in a segment of American culture that straddles the divide between "mainstream" and "deviant" and encompasses millions of people-the UFO community. Those who are interested in UFOs, believe in them, or claim to have been contacted or abducted by them form a subculture knitted together by lecture circuits, Web sites, magazines, and conventions. Depending on how it is defined, it is also a subculture of immense size.
UFOs and Public Opinion
The number of Americans who actually participate in the UFO subculture-by buying books, magazines, and videotapes; attending conferences; visiting Web sites; and engaging in similar activities-cannot be precisely estimated. But survey data make clear that those who do participate represent merely a fraction of a vast number of people interested in the subject. Whether they are open-minded or simply credulous, it remains the case that millions of Americans view UFOs with considerably less skepticism than do the government and the academy.
Within a few months of the first modern claim of a flying saucer sighting in June 1947, polls showed that 90 percent of the population had heard of them. By 1966, that figure had risen to 96 percent, and, more important, 46 percent of all Americans believed UFOs actually existed. More than a decade later-in 1978-30 percent of college graduates believed they existed. At that time, the number of Americans who believed UFOs were real reached its highest level, 57 percent. The number fell to 47 percent in 1990 but was still at 48 percent in a 1996 Gallup poll, nearly half a century after the first sighting.
The Yankelovich polling organization interviewed 1,546 adults in mid-January 2000 for Life magazine. Forty-three percent of respondents believed UFOs were real as opposed to "the product of people's imaginations," and 30 percent thought intelligent beings from other planets had visited the earth. Six percent had seen a UFO, and 13 percent knew someone who had. Seven percent claimed to have "had an encounter with beings from another planet" or knew someone who had.
A 1997 Time-CNN poll (presumably commissioned in connection with the fiftieth anniversary of the Roswell, New Mexico, UFO "crash") indicated that 17 percent of Americans believed in alien abduction. An even stranger result had appeared in a 1992 Roper survey, which suggested that 2 percent of Americans (roughly 3.7 million) believed they themselves had been abducted. While the Roper result is almost certainly inflated, a number even half as large would be extraordinary.
Two aspects of these figures are particularly striking. First, they have remained astonishingly stable over a fifty-year period. What might have been an early Cold War fad clearly came to occupy a semipermanent niche in the American psyche. Second, the level of belief was not only relatively stable; it was extraordinarily high, regardless of when the survey was taken or by which polling organization. Even if one compensates for problems of sampling or the wording of questions, tens of millions of Americans accept the reality of UFOs. In a survey of 765 members of the UFO community, Brenda Denzler found her respondents to be anything but "fringe." They were predominantly white, male, middle-class college graduates, with incomes just slightly below the national median. At the same time, attitudes about UFOs contain the seeds of conspiracist thinking, for public attitudes are clearly at variance with the official position that there is no credible evidence that UFOs exist. Indeed, in the 1996 Gallup survey when subjects were asked, "In your opinion, does the U.S. government know more about UFOs than they are telling us?" 71 percent answered yes. In the Yankelovich poll in 2000, 49 percent believed that the government was withholding information about UFOs.
Thus an extremely large number of people hold beliefs that contradict official government positions and believe that government concealment explains the discrepancy. Belief in a government cover-up runs deep in the ufology community, especially among those who are professional or full-time UFO writers or investigators. Because government investigations have failed to satisfy believers, the existence of a cover-up appears logical to them. Even so, early ufologists did not generally advance a broader political agenda. While steadfastly maintaining that military and intelligence organizations were concealing the truth from the public, they did not extend that suspicion to embrace any larger ideology of conspiracy. In short, ufology's early political program did not extend beyond a general desire to see revealed what was believed to be concealed.
But by the late 1980s, elements of the UFO community began to link their interest in explaining flying saucers with a larger political vision. Receptivity to New World Order ideas in some UFO circles was facilitated by two legends peculiar to the ufology milieu: the "men in black" story and the tale of underground bases.
The legend of the men in black originated in the early and mid 1950s and quickly became a staple of UFO folklore. According to this legend, people whose experiences or research brought them too close to the truth were apt to be stalked, harassed, or even killed by small groups of men-usually two or three-in dark suits who did not identify themselves. Their ambiguous appearance has led to a number of explanations: to some, they are secret government operatives; to others, representatives of a conspiracy that controls the government; to still others, they are aliens whose appearance is close enough to that of humans to allow them to pass. In any case, their appearance and demeanor make them a potent symbol of mysterious but pervasive evil.
The underground-bases legend is part of a larger complex of beliefs about secret installations where (depending on the version) captured or crashed alien craft or aliens themselves may be kept. In the most dramatic versions, the aliens actually control parts of the installation, either by themselves or in concert with secret government agencies. The most famous base is Area 51, also known as Groom Lake and Dreamland, north of Las Vegas, Nevada; but the most elaborate tales involve labyrinthine subterranean caverns, tunnels, and chambers such as those allegedly near the town of Dulce, New Mexico. These stories have led to belief in a hidden world variously inhabited by alien beings or evil human forces, in which conspirators can both conceal their enterprises and seek safety when disasters overtake the earth's surface.
UFOs and the New World Order
Gradually, parts of the UFO community began to adopt elements of the conspiracy theories described in the previous two chapters, and by the end of the 1980s virtually all of the radical right's ideas about the New World Order had found their way into UFO literature. Ufology's adoption of the New World Order was by no means universal, but those who have found it attractive have been able to create a version of New World Order theory with some distinct political advantages.
The most immediate advantage for New World Order ideas of being placed in a UFO context has been a reduction in stigma. Although UFO ideas have often been the target of ridicule, the enormous size of the UFO-accepting public has made it impossible to stigmatize UFO beliefs so completely that they are banned from public discussion. Far from it-UFO ideas have ready access to such avenues of distribution as cable television, mainstream bookstores, and magazine publishers. They fall into the realm of stigmatized knowledge discussed in chapter 2, in that they are rejected by science, universities, and government, but the level of stigmatization has not been so great as to exclude them from popular culture.
By contrast, the views of the radical right have been so excluded, through an unstated yet powerful pattern of self-censorship on the part of the mainstream. This voluntary silence has denied access to beliefs deemed racist, bigoted, completely unfounded, or likely to justify or promote violence. Tales of secret Illuminati conspiracies, imminent UN invasions, and Jewish, Masonic, or Jesuit plots, for example, have been informally banned from media, classrooms, and other mechanisms of knowledge distribution. Unlike beliefs about flying saucers, considered eccentric but socially harmless, many conspiracy ideas deemed both false and dangerous have been banished from the mainstream discourse.
The linkage of New World Order ideas with UFOs gave the former a bridge to the territory of semirespectable beliefs. Ufology became, as it were, the vehicle for the New World Order to reach audiences otherwise unavailable to it. To be sure, New World Order ideas occasionally reached mass audiences, as the cases of Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan have shown. In both cases, however, the conspiracies were presented in highly diluted versions; and in Robertson's case, even his weak version produced significant political problems.
The story of the New World Order-UFO connection is a story of ideas moving in two directions, not one. In the initial movement (examined later in this chapter), New World Order beliefs became entwined with UFO beliefs. A second migration followed in the 1990s, in which New World Order ideas with their new UFO add-ons returned to the right-wing milieu in which they had first developed. In that milieu, the combination led to the development of two diametrically opposed syntheses. In one, exemplified by British writer and lecturer David Icke (discussed at length in chapter 6), the human conspirators feared by the radical right are actually doing the bidding of malevolent extraterrestrial forces whose ultimate aim is control of the earth. In the other, epitomized by the views of Milton William Cooper at the end of his life (addressed later in this chapter), there are in fact no aliens at all. The appearance of an alien assault on the earth is being manufactured by human conspirators to provide a pretext for the assumption of global dictatorial powers.
The first movement, when New World Order ideas left the hermetic world of the extreme right and began to seep into ufology, is the more significant of the two. As the preceding discussion suggests, there were factors in ufology that made this penetration seem logical, but it was not inevitable. It does not seem to have been consciously undertaken by conspiracists or done for opportunistic reasons, even though in the end it provided a large new audience. Rather, it began in a disorganized, piecemeal fashion, and it provides a case study in the migration of deviant ideas.
UFO Conspiracism: The First Phase
The development of New World Order conspiracy theories within ufology can best be understood as the product of two separate phases. The first-from roughly 1975 to 1980-introduced increasingly conspiratorial motifs into UFO speculation, but without any discernible links to the conspiracy ideas that were prevalent on the extreme right. There seem to have been two separate conspiracist tracks that developed independently of each other. This lack of connection between the two is all the more striking because the late 1970s were a period of substantial right-wing activity, with the growth of such movements as Christian Identity and the Posse Comitatus. The Posse was an antigovernment movement made up of local paramilitary groups active in the West and Midwest during the 1970s and 1980s. They believed the only legitimate governmental authority to be the county sheriff's posse, in the form of the armed adult males of a community. There is no evidence that ufologists were aware of, interested in, or sympathetic to those tendencies.
During this initial phase, some important themes emerged in the UFO literature that were eventually integrated into more elaborate conspiratorial structures. One of these concerned small devices allegedly implanted in the bodies of UFO abductees. Although such stories were not numerous, they implied the existence of a powerful technology for monitoring and controlling victims' behavior. Thomas Bullard's detailed analysis of 270 abduction stories (most of them dating between the 1940s and 1980) reveals only thirteen cases of reported implants-barely 5 percent. These were almost uniformly distributed among the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Despite their small numbers, however, the implant stories contained two points of potential connection with the independently developed New World Order conspiracy theories described earlier. First, they offered apparent confirmation of the mark of the beast associated with the Antichrist. Second, they also appeared to validate the mind-control fears of more secular conspiracists.
About the same time, in 1976, a Toronto-based neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier, Ernst Zundel, published the first of several reports linking flying saucers with the Nazis. In the strangest version of this tale, Nazis, not aliens, had invented flying saucers and, with the regime's defeat, had fled to subterranean bases in Antarctica with their invention. The suggestion that flying saucers had been under development by the Third Reich and were spirited out of Germany appears to have emerged first among German nationalists in the 1950s. It was quickly assimilated into legends of Hitler's supposed escape to South America or the Antarctic. By 1960, comparable tales were circulating in English, though their full elaboration had to await the efforts of Zundel and other neo-Nazis a decade and a half later. While this scenario begged the question of how so technologically advanced a government could manage to lose the war, it was a story that turned out to have a long life for two reasons. First, it introduced the idea that a secret group of human beings might in some conspiratorial fashion develop such devices. Second, it established a link between UFOs and the much older occultic tradition of an "inner world" beneath the earth, discussed in detail in chapter 7.
Excerpted from A Culture of Conspiracy by Michael Barkun Copyright © 2003 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Michael Barkun, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the Maxwell School, Syracuse University, is author of Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement (revised edition 1997) and Disaster and the Millennium (1986), among other books.
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