Updated: Mar 3
“She Blinded Me With Social Science”
(Paranoid Planet Podcast: Season 1, Episode 2.4, Chapter 1)
The academic study of those who produce and promote conspiracy theories (let’s call it "conspiratology") has grown in popularity over the last couple decades. No doubt, this had a lot to do with the 9/11 attacks, the Truther movement, the War in Iraq, and disproven claims made by the Bush-Cheney White House about Saddam Hussein’s unfindable stash of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Soon after that came the claims that Barak Obama was a secret Muslim and an illegitimate presidential candidate with a fake birth certificate. And then Donald Trump got elected. This brought us Pizzagate, QAnon, Golden Showers, Russian spies, the Clinton Body Count, and the list goes on.
Conspiracy theories about the U.S. government are nothing new. They have been around for at least a century. Conspiratology has been around for almost as long. Cultural historians Michael Butter and Peter Knight trace the beginnings of this field of study to two political psychologists of the mid-twentieth century—Harold Lasswell and Theodor Adorno—who argued that conspiracy theories are largely the product of troubled personality types prone to authoritarianism and irrational fear-mongering. Philosopher Karl Popper took this a step further by dismissing all large-scale conspiracy claims (what he called “the conspiracy theory of society”) as products of the political fringe—Marxists on the Left and Fascists on the right. Both of these radical groups, he noted, couched their utopian revolutionary programs in paranoid conspiracist fantasies. Marxists and Fascists, argued Popper, tend to promote an irrational, simplistic, and completely unscientific view of human history, as if it were the product not of chaotic forces, warring ideologies, or random accidents, but a finely coordinated sequence of secret plots directed by a single, all-powerful, and malevolent group who never make mistakes and manage to never get caught. For Marxists this alleged enemy was a large economic elite they called the Bourgeoisie. For fascists it was the Jews. Such theories are clearly impossible, argued Popper, when we consider the thousands of accidents, indiscretions, and unintended consequences that habitually result from the types of events that foster conspiracy theories—events like elections, wars, economic crises, massive tragedies, natural catastrophes, and so on. The sheer number of people required to pull off a massive conspiracy, wrote Popper, and the rigid discipline required to keep all of them silent, suggest that no massive plot could go undetected for very long.
An even more influential critic of conspiracy theorizing was historian Richard Hofstadter, the author of a highly influential 1964 Harper’s Magazine article titled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”. Published during a highly-charged presidential election campaign, this article popularized the now-clichéd phrase “the paranoid style” to describe what its author perceived was an irrational, xenophobic, and millennialist mindset that had taken hold of the Republican Party. Conservative statesmen of the Fifties and Sixties, powered by the fear of communism and the pornography of anti-American plots, claimed that Soviet spies were creeping through every government office and rural schoolhouse, trying by force or deceit to turn the country into a collectivist, anti-Christian dictatorship. The highly-mediatized arrests of a few spies and informants—people like Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—convinced many Americans that thousands more Russian spies were lurking about, undetected. This paranoid style, Hofstadter argued, helped populist reactionaries like Senator Joseph McCarthy, presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, and John Birch Society founder Robert Welch, whip up a wide-scale moral panic based on popular myths and irrational fears.
But the anti-communist “red scare” of the period was not unprecedented. American statesmen had for centuries stoked popular fears of immigrants, religious minorities, sexual deviants, and “un-American ideas” with conspiracy claims that blamed all of America’s ills on royalists, papists, Freemasons, Mormons, segregationists, de-segregationists, weapons manufacturers, fascists, labor unions and, finally, communists. Had Hofstadter written that article today, he might have padded this list with Heavy-Metal Satanists, Islamists, Mexican migrants, Progressive “Snowflakes”, CNN, the New York Times, and other right-wing bogeymen. Hofstadter’s thesis was accused by some of being biased against conservatives, and dismissive of left-leaning paranoia. Still, it remained popular for decades as the prism through which most scholars studied conspiracy theories. Whether or not they admit it, the conspiratologists who followed Hofstatder—authors like Daniel Pipes or Robert Robins and Jerrold Post, who produced influential books on conspiracy theorists during the Nineties—are deeply indebted to Hofstadter’s view that conspiracy theories are a form of irrational pathology—the product of a mind out of touch with reality.
But such a view of conspiracism has recently come under fire by a crop of younger academics, many of whom argue that the “pathologizing model” popularized by Popper and Hofstadter is in dire need of revision. Indeed, more and more academics have examined the reasons that cause people to believe in massive plots and shadow governments. Political scientist Joseph Uscinski, whom we interviewed in a past episode [see Episode 1.1], argues that conspiracy beliefs are primarily caused by “power asymmetries” in democratic political systems, and by the feelings of powerlessness experienced by those who get locked out of the decision-making process. Psychologist Rob Brotherton, like many other biological determinists, argues that all humans have a natural predisposition to see patterns in random information. In times of high anxiety and confusion —say, during the 9/11 attacks—our “intention detector” can get hyperactive and lead the more anxious members of society to “perceive” a cabal of secret puppet masters pulling the strings of hard-to-explain events, like, say, the sequential collapse of several iconic skyscrapers. In other words, our brains are wired to look for patterns in traumatizing events and try to ascribe intention, responsibility, and blame to some person or group so that we might find emotional closure. Philosopher Charles Pigden has gone even further and stated that, since we now know of many instances in which a government engaged in conspiracies, belief in conspiracy theories is not in itself irrational; it may even be a very healthy form of political skepticism. Arguments like those of Uscinski, Brotherton, and Pigden have popularized the idea, against Hofstater’s earlier claims, that conspiracy theorising is an essentially normal and unavoidable part of living in an open society. Such arguments may or may not have more merit than the traditional pathologizing paradigm, but we must admit that they have a wide influence, and have to a significant extent pushed Hofstadter’s thesis closer to the dust bin of academic research on conspiracism.
And yet, Hofstadter’s essay has experienced a renaissance outside the university, especially among the hundreds of journalists who use it to analyze countercultural claims—from 9/11 Trutherism, to the anti-vaccination movement, to Climate Change denialism—and to depict these as forms of mass hysteria.
Our guest today is American Historian Kathryn Olmsted, who agrees that Hofstadter’s thesis was perhaps a bit biased and simplistic, but probably not as far off the mark as some of her fellow researchers now claim. It is true, she says, that the U.S. government has participated in a number of shady conspiracies, some of them reckless and counterproductive—like the Kennedy administration’s attempts to assassinate Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. But it is also true that, just because the White House has lied about, say, Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, we are not justified to assume that they also lied about the 9/11 hijackers, or that an alien spacecraft is hidden in a remote Air Force base in Nevada. To know that the government sometimes is up to no good is one thing; to assume that it is therefore out to get you is another. Still, as she points out, even paranoids have real enemies.
If you’ve been listening to our previous episodes, you know that we’ve talked a lot about paranoia. Heck, it’s right there in our program title. And when we have, we tended to focus on the paranoid actions and thoughts of people who are locked out of power. This is not unusual. Much of the literature on conspiracism tends to focus on popular mistrust of those in authority, on alternative media, and fringe ideologies. But what happens when it’s the government that gets paranoid? And what kind of impact does that have on people like you and me? And how do these true and imagined conspiracies affect our ability to read history properly, or to know when to trust or not trust our leaders? According to Professor Olmsted, conspiracy theories about a “deep state” may be false, but that doesn’t mean that the government doesn’t conspire. And when it does, and news of a government conspiracy gets out—as it did following the 1972 Watergate break-in, for instance—the end result may not be popular satisfaction that the government’s power to plot is in fact limited, but rather the emergence of more paranoid theories about non-existent government plots, and of a malicious deep state.
Michel J. Gagné, 2020.
Readings and media related to Episode 2.4:
1. Wikipedia article on “The Plague of Athens”.
See also Thucydides: The History of the Peloponnesian War (c.431 BCE), Book II: Chapter VII: “Second Year of the War - The Plague of Athens…”
2. Kyle Harper: The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire. Princeton University Press, 2019.
3. Michael Butter and Peter Knight: “The History of Conspiracy Theory Research: A Review and Commentary,” in Joseph E. Uscinski, ed.: Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them. Oxford University Press, 2019.
4. Richard Hofstadter: “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Harper’s Magazine, November 1964. See also: Richard Hofstadter: The Paranoid Style in American Politics, And Other Essays. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1966 (Out of Print).
5. Rob Brotherton: Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe in Conspiracy Theories. Sigma, 2015.
6. Kathryn S. Olmsted: Challenging the Secret Government: The Post-Watergate Investigations of the CIA and FBI. University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
7. Kathryn S. Olmsted: Red Spy Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth Bentley. University of North Carolina Press, 2014.
8. Kathryn S. Olmsted: Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism. The New Press, 2017.
9. Kathryn S. Olmsted: Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11. Oxford University Press, 2009 (2019).
10. Kathryn S. Olmsted: “Conspiracy Theories in U.S. History,” in Joseph E. Uscinski, ed.: Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them. Oxford University Press, 2019.
11. Kathryn S. Olmsted: “Just Because You’re Paranoid Doesn’t Mean They’re Not Out to Get You: Anti-Government Conspiracy Theories in American History,” Pitzer College, 2017. YouTube.
12. U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff: Operation Northwoods (Report by the Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff Representative on the Caribbean Survey Group to the Joint Chiefs of Staff On Cuba Project (TF)). 9 March 1962.
13. Diane McWhorter: Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama—The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution. Touchstone, 2001. (Simon & Schuster, 2013)
14. John McWhorter: “Racist Police Violence Reconsidered,” Quillette, June 11, 2020.
15. Radley Balko (author of Rise of The Warrior Cop): “The Militarization of the Police”. Interview on NPR: Fresh Air, July 1, 2020.
16. Rebecca Tan: “There’s a reason it’s hard to discipline police. It starts with a ‘bill of rights’ 47 years ago.” The Washington Post, August 29, 2020.
17. Jonathan Kay: “Exploiting a Woman’s Deadly Fall to Smear Toronto’s Police,” Quillette, August 30, 2020.