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Password, Please

The inside story on conspiracy theories.

Sep 7, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 47 • By STEFAN BECK
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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.