Why Do So Many People Believe in So Many Conspiracies?

Roundup: Media's Take

Darrin M. McMahon, writing in the Boston Globe (Feb. 1, 2004):

HOWARD DEAN SPECULATES on National Public Radio that George W. Bush may have been warned of 9/11"ahead of time by the Saudis." University professors imply with an air of sophistication that the war in Iraq was a plot to fill contracts for Halliburton. Radio shock-jocks rant against the machinations of the United Nations and the"New World Order." And the conservative pundit Ann Coulter makes the rounds of the talk shows with a book,"Treason," built on the claim that the vilification of Joseph McCarthy was the"greatest Orwellian fraud of our time." The man who warned famously of a"great conspiracy" of communists, it seems, was himself the victim of a plot by"liberals" to blacken his good name.

Hillary Clinton may have given up her talk about the"vast right-wing conspiracy." But there are plenty of others on both sides of the political divide anxious to continue the conversation. In today's popular culture and even the elite media, plots lurk behind every door.

Nor is the anxiety confined to the United States. Last month, the British government opened official inquests into the deaths of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed, fueling ongoing speculation that the couple was murdered in a secret plot. In France and Germany, books by the once-mainstream political analyst Thierry Meyssan ("L'Effroyable Imposture" -- The Big Lie) and the former Social-Democratic cabinet minister Andreas von Bulow ("Die CIA und der 11 September") have climbed bestseller lists with their shocking revelations that 9/11 was a plot by rogue elements within the US government. Uncle Sam, they claim, framed Osama. Meanwhile, major media outlets throughout the Islamic world charge that Israel, or an international Jewish cabal, were behind the World Trade Center attacks and countless other nefarious deeds.

It is tempting just to laugh at these views, dismissing them as the ranting of a lunatic fringe or the naive cynicism of the overeducated. But they are simply too prevalent to be ignored. The clearing house www.conspiracy-net.com , one of the many websites devoted to the subject, boasts over"one thousand searchable conspiracies," from child abductions in Nigeria to the invention of AIDS in CIA laboratories to the real motivations behind President Bush's proposed mission to Mars.

Are we living in a golden age of conspiracy theory? And if so, what stands behind this apparent upsurge in global anxiety? Fortunately, no shortage of observers has turned their attention to such questions. As Syracuse University political scientist Michael Barkun writes in"A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America" (California), the latest in a recent spate of academic studies on the subject,"obsessive concern with the magnitude of hidden evil powers" is just what one might expect in a turn-of-the-millennium culture"rife with apocalyptic anxiety."

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