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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.