History Commons Groups

February 10, 2010

Wonders Will Never Cease: An Intelligent Book about Conspiracy Theories

In Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11, University of California, Davis, History Professor Kathryn Olmstead takes a refreshing look at conspiracy theories. Almost nobody will agree with every word she wrote, but what makes it different to the usual dross others turn out on the topic is that Olmstead can think out of the box some. This is best illustrated by the “conspiracy theories” she covers: Woodrow Wilson manipulated the US into World War I, Pearl Harbor, McCarthyism, JFK, Watergate, the CIA’s “crown jewels,” aliens, Iran-Contra, 9/11 and others. This is a really interesting cross-section and not one usually found in such books—while most people would probably strongly doubt aliens exist, is there anybody out there that doesn’t think Watergate was a conspiracy?

The main question analysts of conspiracy theories try to answer is this: why do people believe them? Usually, the conclusion is packaged in psycho-babble, but Olmstead has a much better response: people believe conspiracy theories because the government sometimes lies to the people and conspires against them. Take the introduction, she kicks off with 9/11,  name checks Loose Change (which she obviously doesn’t agree with) and asks why people believe this stuff: “Here’s one reason: it has happened before.” Then she goes into Northwoods.

Later on, we get this, on why Americans believe conspiracy theories:

First, as the government grew, it gained power to conspire against its citizens, and it soon began exercising that power. By the height of the cold war, government agents had consorted with mobsters to kill a foreign leader, dropped hallucinogenic drugs into the drinks of unsuspecting Americans in random bars, and considered launching fake terrorist attacks on Americans in the United States. Public officials had denied potentially life-saving treatment to African American men in medical experiments, sold arms to terrorists in return for American hostages, and faked documents to frame past presidents for crimes they had not committed.

The second reason is that the government is itself constantly packed with conspiracy theorists. The chapter on 9/11 is particular instructive in this regard as she draws a very extensive parallel between Neocon attempts to pin the attacks on Iraq and the idea that the 9/11 was performed or facilitated by elements inside the government. You might not agree with this, but it at least demonstrates that Olmstead has committed the sin of independent thought instead of trotting out the usual rubbish.

Or take the JFK chapter. She clearly does not think elements inside the government murdered JFK, but she doesn’t have much time for the Warren Commission, which she calls a coverup. I like this part especially, about the assassination researchers:

Over the years, they would convert millions to their cause. They had the virtues of dedication, diligence, and almost messianic belief in the righteousness of their cause. They also had the advantage of being partly right.

Towards the end she takes a pop at Paul and HC, which I obviously disagree with, but you don’t have to agree with every word of a book to find it interesting.

Overall, well worth reading. This is the last paragraph:

Since the First World War, officials of the U.S. government have encouraged conspiracy theories, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes intentionally. They have engaged in conspiracies and used the cloak of national security to hide their actions from the American people. With cool calculation, they have promoted official conspiracy theories, sometimes demonstrably false ones, for their own purposes. They have assaulted civil liberties by spying on their domestic enemies. If antigovernment conspiracy theorists get the details wrong—and they often do—they get the basic issue right: it is the secret actions of the government that are the real enemies of democracy.

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