Conspiracy by Daniel Pipes
Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where it Comes From
by Daniel Pipes
Free Press. 258 pp. $25.00
Shortly before sitting down to read this book, I had a lunch-table conversation with the sister of a friend of mine in Buenos Aires. She was explaining to me the real sources of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, complete with multiple bullets, CIA plots, and Cuban exiles. When I expressed some doubt as to the likelihood of her theories, she said—as if to deliver the final, devastating coup de grâce—“Well, you obviously haven’t seen Oliver Stone’s movie, JFK.”
Welcome to the world of conspiracy theorists, where knowledge is ignorance, truth is falsity, and anything can happen—and usually does. To judge by Daniel Pipes’s latest book, there are, and always have been, quite a few people dwelling in the same intellectual penumbra as my friend’s sister. Conspiracy is a broad conspectus, a kind of vade mecum, of theories that are truly global in their extent and surprisingly homogeneous in their content and methodology.
This work is a by-product of Pipes’s primary interest in the Middle East, which recently led him to write The Hidden Hand: Middle East Theories of Conspiracy1 There he reported that in the Islamic Middle East (as indeed in other peripheral areas, including Latin America, Africa, and South Asia), conspiracism, which one tends to think of as the characteristic intellectual tool only of the ignorant and the pseudo-sophisticated, instead dominates mainstream political thinking. In this book he extends his range to other parts of the world, including the United States.
As Pipes points out, conspiracy theories originated in Western Europe in the century after the French Revolution and enjoyed a surprisingly robust existence both there and in the United States. The principal targets in Europe were Jews and Freemasons (or members of other secret societies like the Rosicrucians); in this country, conspiracy theories tended to focus on our then-small Catholic minority or on immigrants generally. Today, as if to underscore the centrality of Western culture to civilization in general, some of these same ideas have spread outward, forming the meat and drink of newspaper readers in societies as disparate as Iran and Japan, Russia and Argentina, Syria and India.
Conspiracy brings forward three points worth pondering. First, when it comes to the targets chosen by conspiracy theorists, there is a surprising lack of originality; they tend to be pretty much the same everywhere, though they may appear and reappear in different and even contradictory combinations. Secondly, anti-Semitism (or, more accurately, hatred of Jews) recurs as a central theme with disturbing regularity—yesterday and today, in the West and the non-West alike. Thirdly, in the world of the conspiracist there is no Left or Right—or, rather, Left and Right dissolve and work together in strange and unexpected ways (Pipes calls it “fusion paranoia”); a glance at Louis Farrakhan’s newspaper, the Final Call, or any of the publications of Lyndon LaRouche demonstrates this quite clearly.
Among the persistent targets of conspiracism, Pipes identifies both the United States and Great Britain. Naturally, the latter occupied a more central place in 19th-century theories, though even today we see, for example, the widespread belief in Egypt that Princess Diana was assassinated by British intelligence (to prevent her from marrying her Muslim beau, Dodi Al Faid). The United States, as the only remaining superpower and the principal exporter of popular culture, is inevitably assigned the greater weight today.
But if hatred and suspicion of powerful entities like Britain or the United States may have some basis, however warped, in reality, hatred of the Jews—and of Israel—is less easy to explain. For over two millennia Jews have been objects of, as Pipes puts it, “intellectual disdain by sophisticated atheists . . .; resentment among fervent Christians and Muslims; jealousy among peasants; social snobbery among aristocrats; political anger among defeated Arab leaders”—not to mention repudiation by apostates or individuals out to deny their own Jewish origins. To all this, the idea of a Jewish conspiracy lends a spurious aura of “rational” justification.
Remarkably, the notion of a Jewish conspiracy continues to flourish in countries that no longer have Jewish communities, or where no significant number of Jews have ever lived. The permanent disability under which Poles labor in this regard is well known, but a similar phenomenon exists in Japan and Malaysia. The latter country is described by Pipes as “a minor hotbed of conspiratorial anti-Semitism”; its prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, has even blamed criticism of him in the Chinese-language press on Jewish control of the media.
My own favorite example of this phenomenon, not included in Pipes’s book, concerns Jaime Roldós, the President of Ecuador, who in the 1980’s was killed with his wife in a plane crash widely attributed to a Zionist plot. The “proof” was that Roldós’s wife came from one of the country’s leading Syrian-Lebanese political families, and more conclusive still—as I heard from an Ecuadoran journalist—was that Roldós was “well-known” to be opposed to Israeli settlements on the West Bank. QED.
Although conspiracism flourishes at both extremes of the political spectrum, in the United States it has often been identified almost exclusively with the far Right. This, for example, was the argument of the late Richard Hofstadter in The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1967), which centered on the Barry Goldwater phenomenon. But conspiracism has many left-wing practitioners as well. Without even reaching for the index to Pipes’s book, I can name Richard Falk, Noam Chomsky, Ramsey Clark, Michael Lind, Gary Sick (author of the fictitious “October Surprise”), Pierre Salinger, and Seymour Hersh, the author, most recently, of The Dark Side of Camelot.
That being so, why is it that we hear so little about left-wing conspiracy theorists and so much about Pat Robertson and his alleged obsession with “Bavarian Illuminati”? In addressing this question, Pipes reminds us, first of all, that while most right-wing conspiracists are identifiable cranks, nuts, or semi-literate political primitives, the left-wing variety tend to sport fancy academic credentials, to be more subtle, and to show a greater appreciation for the restraints of common sense. In addition, they operate in an environment, particularly in the media and the universities, where many people are sympathetic to their overall political views. This and only this can explain how Lee Harvey Oswald, an avowed Marxist and Castroite sympathizer, a virtual defector to the Soviet Union, could have been successfully morphed (as in the imaginings of my Argentine lunch companion) into an instrument of a right-wing plot against the (hardly left-wing) John F. Kennedy.
As Daniel Pipes observes in his sometimes diverting, sometimes shocking book, conspiracism is in many ways a form of pornography—in this case political rather than sexual. Like the latter, it has lately discovered the Internet: in his final appendix, Pipes lists sites on the World Wide Web where one can visit some of its wilder shores. What is depressing is that, just as in the case of sexual pornography, those wilder shores have begun to wash a good deal closer than many of us would like to imagine.
1 Reviewed in COMMENTARY by Joseph Shattan, February 1997.