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The inside story on conspiracy theories.

Sep 7, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 47 • By STEFAN BECK
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Cults, Conspiracies,
and Secret Societies

The Straight Scoop on Freemasons, The Illuminati, Skull and Bones, Black Helicopters, The New World Order, and Many, Many More

by Arthur Goldwag

Vintage Books, 384 pp., $16

I have an ugly confession to make.I used to entertain myself by composing faux-earnest query letters to conspiracy theorists. "SIR--," one might begin, "I read with interest your recent communiqué regarding the Luciferian symbolism of the 'horned' hand gesture that 'President' George W. Bush has been photographed making. An individual in whom I place considerable trust assures me that this is in fact the 'Hook 'em Horns' hand sign of the University of Texas at Austin, but I suspect that this 'explanation' is no more than Illuminist chicanery. Pls advise."

Whatever one thinks of these people, let it not be said that they aren't trying to help. I always received a prompt and (if you will) illuminating reply, in the gentle, patient tone one might take with a child. And it strikes me now, having just read Arthur Goldwag's delightful reference guide, that the conspiracists are right on one point: Things are not always as they seem. My deferential emails were schoolyard taunts, so who's to say such deceptions don't take place on a grander scale? (Hey, at least I acted alone.)

Goldwag's interest in this outré subject matter grew, he tells us, from the wreckage of the World Trade Center. "When something momentous happens," he writes, "everything leading up to and away from the event seems momentous too. Even the most trivial detail seems to glow with significance. .  .  . [This] is also the point of view that cults inculcate in their followers."

This is not to say he has much sympathy for the 9/11 Truth Movement, which "stir[s] up the same feelings in [him] as the writings of Holocaust deniers." But he seems to think that conspiracy theorizing stems from a genuine, albeit misguided, attempt to impose order on a frightening, unpredictable world.

This is a theme common to skeptical approaches to the subject, and it makes sense. The more someone professes to hate the Hidden Hand, the more likely that he wishes it were there. As Kingsley Amis wrote, "The reason Prometheus couldn't get away from his vulture was that he was keen on it, not the other way around." And anyone who's ever asked the obvious question ("Can people really believe this stuff?") should, well, ask it in earnest. The answer may be no far more frequently than Goldwag and others are willing to acknowledge. But that doesn't mean people don't wish they believed it.

Goldwag confuses the matter by lumping conspiracists and cultists in the same loony bin. He writes, "what makes a cult cultish is not so much what it espouses, but how much authority its leaders grant themselves--and how slavishly devoted to them its followers are."

What cultists and conspiracy theorists have in common is that they both believe nonsense, but that's as far as it goes. Conspiracists are anything but "slavishly devoted," even to their own "truth." Anyone who follows the "work" of the conspiracist knows that he changes his mind as often as his underwear. (Actually, in this case, that might not be the most apt analogy.) What I mean is that conspiracy theorizing is an exercise in creativity, occasionally a pathological one, but the result is nevertheless more akin to folklore than to dogma.

Pick a theory at random--crack and AIDS developed by the CIA; FEMA concentration camps; the government in thrall to extraterrestrial or demonic powers--and ask yourself why the people who purport to believe these things haven't quit their jobs at Blockbuster and GameStop and headed for the hills. After all, that's what cultists do; some of them, like Heaven's Gate, even commit suicide en masse. Why are conspiracists so comfortable living in so ghastly a reality?

Goldwag's expertly cross-referenced assemblage of strange theories, of the cults that hold them dear, and of the tenebrous groups and secret societies that are their bread and butter, holds the skeleton key: It's fun. It's fascinating. Above all, it's easy. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but it also often calls for hard work. If al Qaeda obliterated the WTC, something must be done about it--sacrifices must be made. If some unnameable and unknowable cabal is responsible, there's little one can do but sip Mountain Dew at the keyboard and blog about it.

Of course, conspiracy theories have served the purposes of real, violent movements. Anti-Semitic myths, from the notorious fabrication The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to the belief that the Rothschild family precipitates wars in order to profit from them, have been particularly and tragically long-lived. (Goldwag discusses both in considerable detail.) But these myths seem to be more a symptom than a disease, token justifications of--or clumsy, if effective, propaganda for--an irrational hatred that would exist with or without them.

Many more benign conspiracy theories gain traction this way, by reinforcing cultural trends and preoccupations already in the air. Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, with its baroque amalgamation of stories about Mary Magdalene, the Knights Templar, the Priory of Sion, Opus Dei, and of course
Leonardo Da Vinci, is a good example. It didn't create suspicion of the Roman Catholic Church, or disdain for its teachings, but its popularity revealed that those feelings had reached a fever pitch. Do people believe the book contains any literal truth? Some, perhaps, but we may assume that most simply enjoy a swipe at the authority of the Big Bad Church. As Ross Douthat recently wrote, Brown's "theology" is that "all religions .  .  . have the potential to be wonderful, so long as we can get over the idea that any one of them might be particularly true." The public is buying it.

In light of this, it's worth asking whether an interest in conspiracy theories ever derives from guilt. The average theory uproots garden-variety badness--incompetence in high office, greed, cowardice, and so on--and replaces it with truly exotic, hothouse evil. Those who worship Mammon become those who literally worship Satan. A political figure who commits adultery becomes a practitioner of Illuminist sex magic involving children and animals. The problem, psychologically, seems to be that if those with power and influence aren't several orders of magnitude worse than you or I, we all have just as much to answer for. We're denied the comfort of shouting "I'm just a patsy!" as we are, so to speak, dragged off to hell.

It's easy to see how one might take a kind of comfort in these stories. But there is a more legitimate and abiding comfort to be taken in Goldwag's book, particularly in the Secret Societies section. It is loaded with proof that human beings really aren't so bad, and that even at their worst they're rarely capable of as much mischief as their paranoid critics imagine.

Most "secret" societies are, as most adults know, charitable fellowships, whose patina of secrecy is in the name of good-natured fun--unfortunately, as Goldwag notes, not fun enough to keep membership rolls from shrinking. This is too bad, as these groups, from the despised Masons to the more often ridiculed Rotary Club, Elks, Kiwanis, Knights of Columbus, and so on, have done plenty of good and no harm to speak of. Goldwag might have mentioned Mooseheart, a "child city" that has been operated by the Moose fraternal order since 1913, and a testament to the unambiguous benevolence of these benevolent associations.

Other such fraternities are more self-serving, but similar in the willful juvenility of their secrets: See Yale's Skull and Bones, which has lost its mystique thanks to the efforts of journalists Ron Rosenbaum and Alexandra Robbins, or the Bohemian Grove, a California retreat where the country's most influential men gather to get trashed in the shadow of a giant stone owl, much to the consternation of Internet-based losers like Alex Jones. When I worked as an editor, a writer who shall remain nameless boasted to me that his piece was late because he was partying at the Grove. This was no more sinister than a sorority girl proudly showing off her first pair of Greek letter "butt pants"--though, in my view, far less impressive.

The only groups we need fear, it seems, are street and prison gangs--the latter have, particularly in Southern California, projected their reach well outside the razor-wire--and organized crime syndicates. But far from being fit objects for thrilling speculation, they epitomize the banality and predictability of evil. They're in it for the money, plain and simple. Conspiracy theorists at their best envision a world in which the stakes are higher and more interesting than that, in which men and women have not only bank accounts but also souls to empty out. And for all the gibberish they believe, or pretend to believe, is that really quite so crazy?

Stefan Beck writes on fiction for the New Criterion and elsewhere.