One of the definitions of religion that I use in this book is “study of the unseen.” Anything that is unseen or unknown is subject to boundless imagination. Usually, the human mind projects human-like purposeful beings into the unknown void. What is the cause of evil, strife, war, and power imbalances? In ancient times, the agents of evil were called gods and devils. In the Enlightenment, when witches and cloven-hooved demons started to sound like fairy tales, the unseen agents of evil became secret societies of men: the Illuminati, Freemasons, and of course the ever-villainized Jews. The belief that evil is orchestrated by unseen political power structures has come to be called conspiracism or conspiracy theory.
By the late 20th century, there were various schools of conspiracist fear in the West. Theories about Jewish subversion, large government, the ultra-wealthy, and communism were all percolating underground along with space aliens, Armageddon, and an Antichrist. Since the 1990s, these plots have continued to develop rapidly and become increasingly intermingled, with the Illuminati still at their core. The New World Order (NWO) has become the devil’s new name. Some of the most important developments in New World Order theory have been the fall of the Soviet Union, the War on Terror, Big Data, and the unprecedented size of governments and corporations. As with any modern movement, conspiracism has been vastly accelerated by the internet.
For those who see the world as a struggle between good and evil, the Soviet Union was the perfect enemy: domineering and enigmatic, with humorless leaders. When the “evil empire” collapsed, the Red Scare needed a new focal point. Conspiracists became increasingly concerned about global dictatorship and the loss of national sovereignty. 1 Suspicions centered on the US government, the UN, and other global agencies. According to theory, the Illuminati was already working both ends, infiltrating the UN and the United States. Ultimately the US president, most likely under pretense of a civil emergency, would hand over the reins of power to the UN, all masterminded by the NWO. Good-bye, civil rights. Hello global dictatorship, Antichrist, and the end of the world.
It makes some sense that conspiracists would attribute their fears to these mega-institutions. The UN is non-democratic and very remote from most people’s everyday experience. Other global bodies that conspiracists love to hate are the EU, World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), and World Trade Organization (WTO), which are mostly beyond civilian control. Some US agencies have become so large, powerful, and secretive that it is only natural to wonder what goes on within those walls. The Illuminati are especially rumored to be in control of the Federal Reserve, CIA, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Some private parties and corporations round out the pantheon of evil. Those at the highest level include the Rockefeller and Rothschild families, the British Royal Family, the Bilderberger Group / Trilateral Commission (a social network of businessmen and office holders), and just about every corporation, bank, and media outlet of global scale. 1 The overriding theme of modern conspiracism is “control.” Everything of value is allegedly controlled by the New World Order, whether it be political office, money, oil, public health, the media, or even the climate.
Until a few decades ago, conspiracy theorists were a very isolated set of individuals. The internet, and especially the World Wide Web since the 1990s, enabled the movement in multiple ways. It provided a sense of community as well as endless content. A genre of propaganda videos became conspiracists’ scripture, and a handful of websites became their temples. Before too long, NWO theory was tied in with many disparate themes such as the JFK assassination, New Age medicine, UFOlogy, and the prophecies of Nostradamus. It is a fascinating if disheartening case study of religion evolving before our very eyes.
In this century, the War on Terror provokes a volcano of conspiracist imagination. Groups like ISIS and Boko Haram are on record as fighting for a caliphate within large swaths of the Moslem world, though these organizations are relatively small and mostly limited to regions of power vacuum. Western conspiracists exaggerate this to the extreme, believing that all of Islam is out to conquer the globe. In fact, it is not an uncommon belief that President Obama is a secret Moslem and is helping lay the foundations for a Moslem takeover of the US. 2
Conspiracists can spin just about any tragedy into a NWO conspiracy, weaving an elaborate web of non-falsification. According to conspiracist Truthers, “9/11 was an inside job” planned by White House and Pentagon officials to justify war with Afghanistan or heightened surveillance on Americans. Why weren’t those high-ranking officials sued or tried for treason or terrorism? Because judges, prosecutors, and lawyers are in on the plot too. Why didn’t we hear about this on the news? Because the media is in the government’s pocket. “It was suppressed, because they don’t want us to know.” 2
Paranoid fears run both ways. Islamist violence against the west is often justified by paranoid conspiracy theories, primarily against Jews and secondarily western nations. Clerics still cite the tract Protocols of the Elders of Zion, supposedly a plan for Jewish takeover of the world, though it was debunked as a hoax even as Hitler was reading it. 3 Many Moslems deny the holocaust as a Jewish ploy for funding the state of Israel at Germany’s expense. 4 A majority of Moslems deny that the 2001 World Trade Center attack was executed by Arabs, 5 shifting the blame to Israel’s defense force, Mossad. The HIV virus was allegedly created by the US government; now, the World Health Organization and Christian missionary groups are said to infect African Moslems with AIDS in contaminated vaccines. 6 The grandest theory of all is that the 2004 tsunami, with a death toll of 200,000 concentrated in the predominantly Moslem nation of Indonesia, was caused by a nuclear blast coordinated by the US, Israel, and India. 7
In all likelihood, no monolithic force will ever take over the world. Take-over scenarios are based on old-fashioned models like domination by hegemony. Every empire overextends itself eventually. Modern economists and political scientists understand the values of cooperation, diversity, and plurality. The world as a whole is best off when nations specialize and trade, rather than all trying to be self-sufficient. It is unlikely that Islam, China, the US or EU is even interested in running the whole world, let alone capable.
New World Order conspiracism can be a very attractive belief system for a wide variety of followers. It borrows millennial themes straight from the bible, lending it the authority of the ages and an easy doctrinal transition for its core constituency right wing. At the same time, it appeals to the left as a living doctrine, very much tied in to the greatest social concerns of the here and now. Regardless of politics, it is empowering for a lone conspiracist to believe that he may someday discover a thread of evidence that could unravel powers hitherto beyond his control – and many eccentrics spend decades on this addictive quest. Most of the big themes addressed in this chapter are also major concerns for conspiracists: AIDS, population, redistribution of jobs and wealth, financial crises, terrorism, security and privacy. In fact, conspiracism is not only timely but up-to-the-minute. You can witness this belief system being fabricated in blogs, forums, and comment boards in response to all breaking news bulletins, especially the most emotional ones.
At bottom, though, this is not true politics, history, or science. It is religion, for a long list of reasons:
- Believing that the world is controlled by purposeful agents is the human mind’s natural religious mode of thought.
- Conspiracies are always part of the great unknown.
- People who believe that the world is in the grips of an Illuminati-type conspiracy are unshakably committed to this belief.
- It can be comforting to put a face on evil, to have someone to blame for life’s limitations and tragedies.
- Conspiracists define themselves by the side they take in this fight. Like any religion, it gets deeply rooted in a person’s very concept of self. The thought of losing it is painful. Debates with conspiracists can get very emotional very quickly.
- There are core beliefs that conspiracists take on implacable faith.
- Continued defense of these beliefs in light of evidence or common sense requires every logical fallacy in the book.
- The belief system is fostered by a community – not a church, but the internet, radio, and some local associations or conventions.
Does it matter? After all, everyone is entitled to have faith in something. Many different religions share the world peacefully. This chapter’s focus is on conspiracism because it is the current religious trend, the epistemology that is growing most quickly. Uneducated, impressionable young minds of today are more likely to find modern relevance in NWO conspiracism than in most ancient religions. It bears a false imprimatur of intellect; conspiracists believe that they possess secret enlightenment. They are clearly insecure about it, though; many conspiracists will preface their arguments with, “I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but …”
At the nefarious extreme, paranoid conspiracy theories helped fuel the passions of Hitler, Stalin, bin Laden, and their millions of followers. We have discussed the world outlooks of millennialism and conflict theory, typified by Marxism, and how they cast the arc of history as a battle to be won. Theories based on conflict are self-fulfilling, and will never be as constructive as those based on cooperation.
On a more mainstream level, conspiracism is a diversion of intellect in an age of new and important challenges. How do we reconcile the traditions of nationalism with the necessity of globalism? How can we cure AIDS, manage population growth, and develop post-fossil-fuel energy? How can watchdog organizations keep an eye on super-secret government agencies? In order to find answers, it is imperative that we can at least agree on the questions and trust each other to cooperate. Conspiracy theories can and do cause a lot of distractions, confusion, and emotional exhaustion. Conspiracists tend to alienate themselves from the “mainstream” debate, and in so doing they perpetuate their own impression that everyone else is conspiring against them. There are many sharp minds in the conspiracist arena that would be better channeled in the real world of science, journalism, and policy.
The scope of the problem is alarming. Look at most any online video or article about the Apollo moon landings, for instance, and you will find most of the comment section dominated by Truthers who deny the moon landings as a hoax. I have found it nearly impossible to do objective research online about 9/11/01 or Kennedy’s assassination, because conspiracist websites far outweigh legitimate journalism.
Anti-conspiracism needs to be preventive, not persuasive. Like any religious mindset, once someone becomes conspiracist, he usually remains that way intractably for life. Conspiracism is often adopted in the teens or early adulthood. Critical thinking skills that identify paranoia and its emotional appeal should be taught early in adolescence. A good logic class would go beyond abstract Aristotelian principles and specifically discuss today’s world and the prevalent conspiracy theories. I don’t expect to see such a controversial program in public schools soon, so for now it may be up to private educators, writers, and bloggers.
- Barkun, Michael, A Culture of Conspiracy, UC Press, 2003, p. 64 ↩
- http://www.nowtheendbegins.com/pages/iran/muslims_plan_for_world_dominance.htm ↩
- See e.g. “Saudi cleric cites Protocols of Elders of Zion, calls to continue suicide attacks in Israel.” Videos with this theme are continuously updated by the Middle Eastern Media Research Institute TV Monitor Project, http://www.memritv.org/subject/en/363.htm . Videos posted more than two months ago are archived and behind a pay-wall. The one cited here is # 3758. ↩
- Julius et al, “Combating Holocaust Denial Through Law in the United Kingdom,” JPR Report No. 3, 2000, http://www.jpr.org.uk/Reports/CS_Reports/no_3_2000/index.htm , accessed 7/28/13 ↩
- “Muslim-Western Tensions Persist: Common Concerns about Islamic Extremism,” Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, 7/21/11, http://www.pewglobal.org/2011/07/21/muslim-western-tensions-persist/, accessed 7/28/13 ↩
- http://archive.frontpagemag.com/readArticle.aspx?ARTID=30943 , accessed 7/28/13 ↩
- http://www.prisonplanet.com/articles/january2005/060105nuketest.htm ↩
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