Sunday, December 25, 2011

Zeitgeist: The Movie, or Conspiracy: The Product

One might think that there aren’t many conspiracy theories about Christmas, and one would be wrong. Today, however, I will not talk about them. Rather, I hope to show you something that rarely gets an in-depth look in book in books on conspiracy theories: their production and audience. To do so, I’ll with some words about one of the most influential conspiracist movies: the Zeitgeist trilogy, produced by Peter Joseph. Not only is it a good illustration, but it mentions Christmas.

The first part of the trilogy, entitled simply Zeitgeist: the Movie, released in 2007, became a phenomenon in itself. Millions of people watched it on Google Videos, and in a sense it paved the way for other such feature-length “alternative” documentaries that, while not “fit” for mainstream distribution, made their success on being easily available to anyone with an Internet connection, and for free. Not only that, the general Internet-savvy demographic overlapped with each other, bumping the statistics. But what made the first Zeitgeist’s success were the conspiracy theories.

The documentary consists of three parts, all of them barely related for the inattentive reader. The first is one of those “heavy-duty” eye-openers: Jesus Christ did not exist, at least not in the form we know today. A big claim to make, to be sure, but Zeitgeist strives to prove, step by step, that the story presented in the Bible is just a reinvention of an ages old myth about a Sun Deity, present in virtually any culture. That would be quite ok, if not for the fact that since the advent of Christianity as a state religion in the Roman Empire, it had become a tool for manipulating the masses.

The second part is probably the most well known; I have colleagues for whom this is the 9/11 Truth documentary (however untrue it might be). This section gives the almost classic by this time “inside job” theory, claiming that the U.S. government could stop the attacks, but chose not to for personal gain. Together with Loose Change it became the most widely watch documentary about the alternative views on 9/11.

Finally, the third part is a head-on critique of the current economic system, with claims that it essentially is the root of all evil. Not only does it thwart creativity, as we do only the things that can become profitable and we make no innovations unless we get paid, but also drives the governments and “international bankers” to lie to the people, cause wars and suffering for the sake of profit, and many other. The movie ends with a relatively short description of the “Venus Project” headed by Jacque Fresco, which it lauds as one of the ways to escape the current vicious circle of monetary economy.

The documentary was peculiar in its reception. The first part got a lot of flak for inaccuracies, quite justifiably, as it did simplify a lot, and in some places outright twisted the facts to fit the thesis. The second part made it popular and memorable; in 2007 Dylan Avery’s Loose Change went into its “final cut” version, and Zeitgeist provided “more of the same”, but in a new ideological package. Moreover, Avery paved the way for Joseph, and by 2007 the widely understood 9/11 Truth organizations became a respected, if notorious, social phenomenon. The third part, the real crux of the whole movie, the original thesis, the “new thing” (at least for the popular audience, as Joseph’s theories are not something new, only presented in an accessible way) was largely ignored. In 2007 the War on Terror was all the rage. But then the late 2008 happened.

In interviews and statements Peter Joseph claimed that the first two sections of Zeitgeist: The Movie were to demonstrate the specific pathological effects of the money economy. If they were, this demonstration was unnecessary after the 2008 market crash. The next two movies, Zeitgeist: Addendum from 2008 and especially this year’s Zeitgeist: Moving Forward needed no such examples. Both of them strongly downplayed the conspiracy theory element, with the last one even outright ridiculing those who claimed that to change the world one must expose some nefarious conspiracy. So why was this element dropped? Probably it was never the focus, but was used to win over an Internet so keen on new conspiracy theories. Now the audience knew that the bankers were evil. People became hooked, the name got exposure in the media, so now Peter Joseph would go for the real deal.

In the grander scheme of things, Zeitgeist demonstrates one thing: conspiracy theory is a product. Like a logo, a catchy tune, or a witty advertisement it can help to sell a product. And it does so through the same mechanism as your favourite brand: familiarity. People who went to watch Zeitgeist already knew most, if not all, of the theories about 9/11 presented therein. Yet still they watched. Perhaps they wanted to hear their convictions reiterated by an authority, or perhaps they simply liked the narrative. Maybe they simply did not want anything changed. The same mechanism makes conspiracy theories so frequently used in popular fiction, from novels to computer games. Like a primal myth, an archetypal scenario, we love to watch it repeated endlessly, for it reaffirms our view on the world (which does not mean such people are “crackpots” or “conspiracy buffs”, a future post will try to prove).

Fluoridation - From poisoned
wells to poisoned vaccines
Historically, such reinvention of conspiracy theories happened many times. The myth of the Illuminati was used in Europe to vilify the French Revolution, but it got “imported” to the newly created United States to claim that moral degeneration will bring a like revolution and slaughter. Every anti-war conspiracy theory since the First World War is alluringly similar. And every economic crisis in America’s history brings almost the same rhetoric. It is not only because the problems are, in general, like those in decades past, but because the makers of conspiracy theories use and readapt the old motifs, and the old enemies and scapegoats.

We, the audience (if not believers) accept or reject the content, we click the “like” or “dislike” buttons, but we watch. Like with the “adult” or modernised or steam-punk or science fiction retellings of the Tales of Brothers’ Grimm or Shakespeare plays, we do so not to learn something new, but because we want someone to tell us again about the cowboys and the Indians, the gangsters and the feds, about how good will ultimately triumph over evil...

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

An Infamous Day and a Reptilian Setting

It took me some time to produce a new entry here, so if I left someone sitting on the edge of their seats waiting, sorry. Life, both real and unreal, got in the way. And Skyrim. But, just like last time, I got jolted into life by another anniversary.

Seventy years ago the American base at Pearl Harbor was a shouldering ruin, with many ships and sailors left dead and destroyed by an Japanese attack. Almost instantly, the American Congress declared war on the Empire of Japan, while on the 10th of December, 1941, the Third Reich declared war on the U.S., an act that contributed to Hitler’s downfall. The event became a part of the American mythos: an archetypal struggle and victory against a dishonorable opponent, a proof of American enterprise and ability to win honorably in any conflict. President Barack Obama’s “70th Anniversary of the Attack on Pearl Harbor” speech attests to that; here, the struggle is the economic crisis, with the today’s middle class to fight as bravely as the soldiers in the Pacific campaign.

But, you are probably here for conspiracies, right? The outline above is what you’ll find in history books, in official texts and documentaries. In reality, a conspiratorial interpretation of the attacks was, for a long time “the” conspiracy theory of America. The theory has some variations, depending who penned it, but the gist is this.

President Roosevelt wanted the U.S. to get in the war. By 1941 he did as much as he could to help the Allies, sending munitions, supplies and money to the beleaguered Great Britain. But the society was very much against entering a foreign war. By the 1930’s many questioned the American presence in the First World War. The only thing the “war to end all wars brought” were deaths of millions and an economic crisis, and all it took for a new global conflict to emerge were twenty years. So the FDR administration effectively goaded Japan into attacking, and did not inform the military so that the losses would be more shocking. In truth, the question of how much the U.S. knew before the supposedly “surprise” attack is still and open one among historians.

Curiously, this theory became widely popular not soon after the attacks, but in the 1950s and after 2001. The time of McCarthyism saw claims that the FDR years and the New Deal were all concocted by Soviet agents, with FDR manipulated by his advisors into helping Russia. This, as one might guess, stemmed from the need of the Right Wing Republican opposition to slam their political opponents, but was also connected with the post-war disillusionment. Not long after the victory over Hitler, the Soviet Russia not only became the other global superpower, but seemingly surpassed the U.S. by stealing their military secrets and, in the early 1950’s, defeating the United Nation forces in Korea. The FBI fueled a feeling of helplessness with revelations about spy rings present in America. Pearl Harbor became the most terrible act of self-inflicted villainy and a proof of the existence of the conspiracy in the higher echelons of the government.

Those two "myths" of Pearl Harbor were used by both the official discourse and the 9/11 Truth counter-narratives. When used in the former, it affirms the notion that the U.S. could only be defeated by a treacherous, barbaric attack. The latter, on the other hand, repeats the 1950s theories, even though then they were voiced to attacks the other side of the political spectrum. I wrote about 9/11 some time ago, so I'll only point to this highly telling fact and leave it at that.

But what about the lizards? The second part of this post will talk about a setting I put together for a pulpish RPG campaign using the Savage Worlds system. I do it as a step-by-step demonstration of how a conspiracy theory can be used in world building, so often employed in RPG. The underlining idea behind the campaign, as you may guess, was to put American player characters in a world where the U.S. did not enter the WWII, where Pearl Harbor did not, and probably would not, happen. This would give me, the GM, all the richness of the popcultural , modern fantasy depictions and revisions of the conflict to explore in the sessions. The players could go anywhere in the world, and while the Nazis would obviously remain the villains, there would be more to the conflict than the tried Allies vs. Third Reich shtick.

The first element was a book by Philip Roth entitled A Plot Against America. The novel depicts the fates of a Jewish American family, the Roths, in an alternate version of America where the 1940 election were won not by FDR, but by the aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, whom Roth depicts as a staunch isolationist and sympathizer of the Third Reich. Rather than following the novel to the letter, I only took the central idea: What if the U.S. were to become an ally to Hitler?

The theme would be that of occult spies – the characters were to work for the American special services, vaguely based on the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) led by William Donovan. The characters would visit their Nazi counterparts of the Ahnenerbe, hear their wild pseudoscientific theories (all of them historical, based on the concept of “ariosophy”), and soon find out behind the Germans there is a far greater evil that threatens the whole of humanity.

The theme, however, is quite popular, if fun, so I decided to add a little twist. Here I used a book I researched for my dissertation: The Biggest Secret: The Book That Will Change the World by David Icke. This conspiracy theory is “super” in many ways, as it not only tries to tie all such texts into one narrative, but provides a literal creation story of humanity and reality. The main point Icke makes, is that all conspiracies are controlled by the annunaki an extraterrestrial race of shape shifting, blood drinking lizards.

They just begged to be a monstrous, behind-the-scenes antagonist that the characters can combat, adding another layer to the standard antagonisms of a war-driven setting. As a possible evolution, I plan to include some elements of the Savage Worlds setting “The Day After Ragnarok”, with its main premise of Jormundgard itself being summoned by desperate Nazi occultists, only to be killed by an America atom bomb, its gigantic carcass literally changing the face of the Earth. It is a really great setting- try it!

So, there you have it - the Nazi racial occult pseudoscience and Icke’s theories blend together quite nicely, with a spice of apocalyptic snakes. What I did above was not strict adherence to a conspiracy theory. Rather I took those elements that I liked and merged them to create a setting. This could also be done on a smaller scale – a heretical sect of the Followers of Set or a Call of Cthulhu game could both make use of Icke’s theories, to give an example.

The sky is the limit, and the best benefit is that even though you will be trying something different, I can guarantee that most of you players will be more or less familiar with the motifs you will use.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Conspiracy Theory as a Setting: Initial Thoughts

This post may be a bit more rambling than usual. I think I tried to put too much in it, so sorry for the length.

I have been always fond of alternative histories. Given the number of novels, books, films and series trying to depict how the world could look like if some things went differently, I am not the only one. From the sci-fi series like Sliders, through Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, to academic books based on complex simulation models, many of us seem to take comfort in this act of exerting control over history, which at the same time has this nice, sensationalist tang.

From the perspective of a “non-believer”, conspiracy theories are exactly such a thing; to most o us, they are fiction and we read them as fiction. Some of them, especially those created in the last couple of centuries, are complex enough to create such alternate realities. However, instead of being different due to some important event going another way, they are so because of the existence of a secretive conspiracy guiding world events.

Here lies the crux of the matter – conspiracy theories can very easily become world-building texts. When watch movies or read books by Alex Jones, Peter Joseph or David Icke we invariably hear that what we see and hear on a daily basis is a lie – the true reality, history, even spirituality, is hidden from us, replaced by a lie used to keep us in check. Moreover, the apocalyptic nature of conspiracy theories allows their author’s to create future scenarios – Alex Jones would herald the decimation of humanity, while David Icke a new step in spiritual evolution. For clarity I will refer to them as “Deny Everything” and “The Truth is Out There” strategies.

Dark City (1997)
More than their usefulness during gaming sessions, it is this world-building that makes conspiracy theories so useful for settings of RPGs, though the same could be said of books or movies. There are three different approaches to it: the two named above and a “background”. In the latter, you simply include some elements or themes from conspiracy theories, often not the conspiracy itself The notion of mind control, lone gunmen, or even a symbolically present conspiracy (like the Illuminati in the Tomb Raider movies) serve as a decoration, enhancing the mood of a game.

The “Deny Everything” approach supposes that the conspiracy is pivotal to the setting and that the PC know that the everyday life is just a facade. Both the Matrix and Dark City did that, even though none of these movies scream to you “conspiracy theory”. Incidentally, the movie Conspiracy Theory is also an example of this, with the protagonist's tormentors being just a rouge unit of a cancelled government program. The notion here is to go head on and make every conspiracy theory or urban legend true, like The X-Files and the upcoming MMO Secret World did.

For RPGs, you use “Deny Everything” either in a setting or a campaign. Many systems employ the notion of a conspiracy, but it is only one of the possible themes. White Wolf's Vampire: the Masquerade can be easily set up in a paranoid game where everyone, and everything, are both pawns and agents of the ancient vampires. A game of Dark Heresy could be devoted not only to rooting out heretic conspiracies, but also exposing an anti-Imperium group within the Ordo Xenos itself. Even a campaign of the Legend of the Five Rings could fit, if the focus on the Kolat or the Gozoku is strong enough. Other games have the “Deny Everything” as their main focus, including Kult (with its famous tagline “reality is a lie”) and the underappreciated Mage: the Awakening.

What I find most interesting though are not the themes, but what people do with the worlds created by conspiracy theorists. “The Truth is Out There” (TTiOT) strategy relies on those effectively ready-made setting. TTiOT is a strategy of trying to show what would happen if the conspiracy won or progressed their plans. In popular culture, examples could include the first Deus Ex game, with its imagery of a world ravaged by both terrorism and a new plague. We, as the protagonist, soon learn that all of this is a part of a plan to bind all of humanity under one monolithic organization, with references to FEMA easily implying the contemporary conspiracy theories. A foreshadowing of this can be found in the recently released Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

Both the Deus Ex franchise and Eclipse Phase is an ideal example of the clever use of a particular plan becoming reality. Within the latter's setting humanity was essentially decimated during a war with rouge Artificial Intelligences. When I first read it, it just screamed “New World Order” at me. The basic premise is similar as in Deus Ex, but here the contemporary is less pronounced.

So what is the vision of the NWO here? Essentially the one I came across in a number of texts can be summed up thus: The NWO is a globalist conspiracy that plans to control the world through corporations and extranational institutions, downgrading the importance of nation states. They control the development of technology, plan to decimate humanity or make it docile through pharmaceuticals. Environmentalism is also on their agenda, as they want the planet clean, but only for themselves. The end goal of the NWO is to install the selected few as rulers of the Earth, virtually immortal through technological apotheosis.

The ideas in Deus Ex seem to be directly inspired, but some echoes can be found in EP as well, giving rise to interesting (though a bit non-canon) speculation. Was the rise of the T.I.T.A.N.s a fluked attempt of NWO seizing power? Did it succeed, rendered transhumanity divided and helpless with the techno-elite waiting to deal a final blow (the number 95 per cent appears both in EP and in conspiracy documentaries)? Is the Fall really a sham, with large territories of Earth quite intact, though obscured and defended by killsats?

Curiously enough, conspiracy theorists do that as well. One notorious example are the Turner Diaries, a book published in 1978 by William Luther Pierce under the pen-name of Andrew MacDonald. Full of overtly racist content, the text describes a world in which the white race had most of its civil rights taken by an Afro-American and Jewish ruling class. Those rulers inflict all sorts of injustices on the whites, which leads the protagonist to become a suicidal terrorist fighting for white supremacy. Sounds like racist science-fiction until you realize that the book is effectively a propaganda tool showing what would supposedly happen if the liberal mindset was left unchecked by “heroic” neo-Nazi and post-KKK activists.

Another interesting theme is turning fiction into reality. I was quite surprised when one of the conspiracy documentaries claimed that Aldous Huxley's Brave New World is not a dystopian vision, but an account of what will happen to humanity if the conspiracy, of which Huxley was a rebel member, would not be stopped. In a fascinating reversal, these are claims that the conspiracy theory inspired the fiction that, in truth, inspired the conspiracy in the first place.

The ultimate goal when employing such strategies, it would seem, is to achieve familiarity. Both the conspiracy theorists and the popular media choose those elements which many of us might have heard about in passing, the media of the 1990s almost guaranteed that. Most of these ideas may seem crazy if one was to treat it as reality, but in the guise of fiction they seem more interesting. Moreover, once one becomes aware of the inspirations, they can shift the focus and add new elements, as with EP above.

And this brings us to a topic I wanted to explore for a long time, namely the dynamic of a conspiracy theory, utopia and dystopia. This one will be more academic and theoretical, but hopefully interesting. After that I hopefully will give you a working example of a campaign based on the principles above.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Conspiracies in Popular Culture: Eclipse Phase RPG

A word of warning – this entry will be the first in a series about the role of conspiracy motifs in role-playing games, pen-and-paper ones to be exact (RPG). If you do not know what they are you are missing a lot, and you may find these posts a bit confusing. For this, I apologize. 

Now, the topic of how to use conspiracies and, more importantly, conspiracy theories, in RPGs has been on my mind for quite some time. Admittedly, there are a multitude of games that deal with this motif, either as an element of the setting, or as the axis around which the game revolves. Of the RPGs I know, the former could be the World of Darkness series released by White Wolf or FFG’s Dark Heresy and Black Crusade, as well as Warhammer Fantasy Role Playing. It can easily be found in any corporate setting, from Cyberpunk to Shadowrun. Examples of the former would be Paranoia, Conspiracy X and, to some degree, Eclipse Phase (EP), to which I will return in a moment. 

Truth be told, most RPG allow the usage of conspiracy theories and conspiracies, with some it will fit better, with others less. And here really lies the crux of the matter – how do I, as a GM, employ the conspiracy (theory) to benefit the plot and make it more fun. A number of approaches can be taken: 

1. The conspiracy theory is just a background, which may incite a feeling of paranoia among the PCs, but nothing more. The problem here is that unless the game is of the second type, this “flavour” will soon be lost due to more down-to-earth concerns, or be simply a quirk of some PC. 

2. The conspiracy is the antagonist – a shadowy group that the PCs strive to defeat and destroy. This would be the most standard application, different from any other RPG antagonist because of an air of secrecy. 

3. A mixture of both, which would follow the pattern of spy movies or series like The X-files. Here the players would fight a conspiracy, only to find that these are only patsies of some greater power, which becomes the new antagonist. I tried to write such campaigns a number of times, but ended up dropping the motif. On the one hand, they can easily turn into a repetitive “monster of the week” sort of thing, 

These would be the most obvious ones, but there is one more option:

4. The players are the conspiracy (theory). Believe it or not, at some points most of the campaigns will result in such a scenario. Don’t believe me? Let’s see... The PC will plot and conspire against the NPC, forming a tightly knit cabal intent on gaining more power and influence. Does sound familiar, right? What makes it even funnier, is that some RPGs, Eclipse Phase amongst them, encourage a similar style of play. 

Point four, after some deliberating made me think of Richard Hofstadter again. In “The Paranoid Style...” essay he mentions one thing I failed to address in the previous posts. Namely, he notices that the conspiracy theorists (the enemies of the conspiracy) often form groups extremely similar to those they claim fight. Examples are numerous – Adam Weishaupt modelled the structure of the Bavarian Illuminati (the historical ones) on that of the Society of Jesus, while the members of the far-right John Birch Society formed “cells” just like the supposed Cold War Communist infiltrators. The reason, as other scholars suggested is that the theorists, deep in their hearts, want to emulate the conspiracy they are fighting against, to feel as all-powerful and in control as their enemies. 

And then in struck me: It is not the Game Master who should look how to use conspiratorial motifs, but the players. For the GM they are a problematic motif, for the PCs they are tons of fun. 

Eclipse Phase, to my mind, is the perfect demonstration of how all the motifs describe above converge. Granted, I currently GM one campaign focused more on gatecrashing (exploration of other planets through stargate-like artefacts) than conspiracy, but with a setting like that conspiracy is almost a must. The tagline of the game is, after all, “roleplaying game of post-apocalyptic transhuman conspiracy and horror”. The introductory chapter of the book defines all of these themes, including what a conspiracy theory is: 

‘To conspire means “to join in a secret agreement to do an unlawful or wrongful act or to use such means to accomplish a lawful end.” As such, a conspiracy theory attributes the ultimate cause of an event or a chain of events (whether political, soci­etal or historical) to a secret group of individuals with immense power (political clout, wealth, and so on) who hide their activities from public view while manipulating events to achieve their goals, regard­less of consequences. Many conspiracy theories contend that a host of the greatest events of history were initiated and ultimately controlled by such secret organizations. Of equal importance is the silent struggle between clandestine groups, waging a secret war behind the scenes to determine who influences the future.’ 

I love this definition. Of all that I have seen (non-academic ones at least), this is the best so far. What is great is that it immediately, though discretely, defines what is important for the game. Notice the last sentence; it is not something you would find in your typical anthology on conspiracy theories. We, as potential players and GMs learn what will be the focus of a conspiracy-heavy Eclipse Phase campaign – a “secret war behind the scenes”. This war, as the setting's most recent sourcebook Panopticon demonstrates, is not a lost cause, for transhumanity has even more means to detect groups trying to remain hidden than we have today. 

But, just for the sake of it, let’s go through the points above in relation to EP: 

Point one is easy enough. The book itself tells us that “the Fall left behind a persistent legacy of fear. This has faded over the past decade, but a great many humans still unconsciously expect the other shoe to drop and the TITANs to return at any moment”. So, the PCs can explore, smuggle, or play a political game, but the fear will be there, in the background, vocalised by some of the more paranoid NPC. It will, however, have little to with the plot itself. 

Point two can be used in a number of different ways. For a game that focuses so much on conspiracy, there are few “obvious” conspiratorial antagonists (in the sense of the Illuminati or the New World Order of our real world). The choices are, however, many. From the defined potential baddies of the Hypercorps and Project Ozma, through the followers of the TITANs, to the mysterious Prometheans. The problem here is that most of them would work in a rather similar manner; a better use would come through... 

... point three, with the Hypercorps controlled by TITAN loyalists, who in turn are infiltrated by agents of the Prometheans, whose shadowy masters so far remain hidden. This is potentially the most fun version, with the PCs not really fighting the conspiracies, but rather trying to find out whether they pose a threat to transhumanity. This is, after all, the PC’s job in the generic EP campaign. 

This brings us to point four, which seems the generic setting of the game. A typical EP group will be members of “Firewall”, a secretive organization that identifies and eliminates what they believe are threats to transhumanity. This part really blew my mind – these guys are exactly like the counter-conspiracies described by Hofstadter. They have a very rigid structure, opaque even to its own members. Field operatives, called “sentinels” are “soldiers of Firewall, the reserve troops called to instant active status whenever danger is perceived”. Just like the minutemen, or Communist agents, they live normal lives until they are told to go on a mission. Their “handlers” are called “proxies”, people who run the organization full time and have different roles, though no centralized leadership. Firewall can be quite nasty in their decisions, sacrificing human life if they feel the cause is just. They are different from their enemies only because they claim they’re “doing the right thing”. 

There you have it, ladies and gentlemen. In Eclipse Phase, you are a member of a conspiracy waging a secret war against other conspiracies, with the continuous, paranoid feel that the more crazy conspiracy theories may turn out to be true, and all s*** will break loose.

The game is really fun and well researched, which many of my co-players confirmed. From my perspective, it is one of the best uses of the conspiracy theory motif in a work of popular culture. It avoids the fetishization of the term, escapes the worn-out cliches, and tries to answer the question how would conspiracy theory making and conspiracies work both in-world and for the players rolling the dice. By looking at this one slice of the setting, we can tell a lot about its culture, and it can give us lots of fun. 

Friday, October 28, 2011

Why do we investigate 9/11?

Taken from

To say that the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, remain a thorny subject would be an understatement. Same goes for most American conspiracy theories as viewed by Americans. While I've limited experience, most of my conversations on this topic with people living in the U.S. fall into two categories: some are quite enthusiastic and share their own thoughts, while others are very tight-lipped, with the second group visibly bigger when I try to raise the more recent events, like 9/11. 

I particularly recall one conversation in which my interlocutor suddenly snapped something about the „crazy bastards” of the 9/11 Truth Movement (9/11TM). Granted, it is hard to be an „inside job” believer after November 2001, when President George W. Bush effectively called the propagators of 9/11 conspiracy theories culprits of the terrorists, and in front of the UN Assembly no less. It may seem obvious that such people wanted respect for their tragically deceased countrymen, one that cannot be denied. There are, however, factors other than recentness that make the 9/11 conspiracy theories and their reception unique. 

The problem with interpretations of 9/11 is that it can become quite easy to believe the conspiracy „theory” version, while the official one, even though branded as „truth”, can be much harder to stomach. The confusion is heightened when we realize that the two versions have much structurally in common. This is the claim made by Peter Knight, a University of Manchester scholar, who compared the 9/11 Commission report to the supposed “ravings” of conspiracy “nuts”. As it turned out, the vision of highly competent terrorists, who outwitted the CIA, FBI and many other governmental acronyms fits the definition as much as the “inside job” theories do. But that could be a topic for another post. 

So, to the point. To accept the official version one has to accept that the U.S. can be a world superpower at one time, but totally helpless when it comes to national security on the other. The first part is easy enough; actually, it may have accounted for why so many Americans stood behind G. W. Bush during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, as well as initially accept the Patriot Act. The reason, as Elizabeth Anker argues in her yet unpublished book, seems quite simple – the society needed someone strong to identify with and able to combat the new threat. You can stock up with guns as much as you want, but you cannot fight a terrorist with them, while he can strike at you from the mountains of Afghanistan. It is the second part that brings problems – how could such a mighty state be so helpless? The official narratives, the 9/11 Commission report most notably, favored the “failure of imagination” line, stating that no part of the Federal government or the armed forces should take the blame, for an idea of ramming a skyscraper with a jet plane was inconceivable. 

Now, if you believe that the American government was in some was directly responsible for the attacks, either by allowing them to happen or doing the deed themselves, the situation is fully reversed. Since the “bad guy” is the government, one does not need to fear the terrorist. This, I believe, could be read between the lines of the comments regarding Osama bin Laden’s death, especially those claiming he was never really killed. While I’ve not encountered any that stated it outright, the veracity of this event is irrelevant – for the “conspiracy theorist” bin Laden was just some invented patsy, that may have been long dead before the 9/11 attacks (a claim that appears in one of the versions of “Loose Change”). Now, since I do not believe in the terrorist threat, the argument goes, I do not need any protection from some organization, I can deal with the “real” culprit on my own terms and turf with my guns, the voting ballot, and the Constitution, the true laws of the land passed to me by the Founding Fathers. 

This process, while not true in every 9/11TM, demonstrates how conspiracy theories give acceptable answers. They may not be the truth – in fact many of those reading them will not treat them as gospel. Rather, for a slight moment of guilty pleasure, they will feel the world is not the random, excessively complex machine the postmodern age made it to be. For it is important to remember that no black-and-white distinctions exist when conspiracy theories are concerned. Most of their audience will be people, whom the theories will amuse, provoke to think on the topic, or simply evoke laughter. Few, in fact, would be committed to join a rally or a “truth movement”; most seek comfort. And to end on that note, here is one of my favorite quotes from any academic paper on conspiracy theories, one written two years prior to 9/11: 

[Those who believe in conspiracy theories] are some of the last believers in an ordered universe. By supposing that current events are under the control of nefarious agents, conspiracy theories entail that such events are capable of being controlled.

Brian L. Keeley, „Of Conspiracy Theories”

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

From the Boston Tea Party to the Tea Party Movement

„What can you tell us about the historical impact of the French Revolution?” - a journalist supposedly asked a professor of history. „To early to tell” - replied the academic. This is of course one extreme, but the principle applies to some relatively recent events. Take the Tea Party protests of 2008 and 2009. Can we really tell what mark will this movement leave in the annals of American history and politics? Did its influence end with the 2010 Congressional elections? Will it have an effect on the 2012 presidential elections? Rather than answering those questions, this post will try to analyze the rhetoric of the Tea Party movement. We all know that it opposed the Democrats, then newly elected president Barack Obama, and the way they dealt with the economic crisis, but what is even more interesting is the particular style (also paranoid) and themes that dominated the rallies. 

A word of warning: I am writing from a outside perspective, based on what I read over the Internet. I've not participated in any of the rallies, I haven’t talked to people doing so – a mistake no doubt, and if any of you did, please drop me an e-mail, such experience would be very valuable for me. Taking this into account, remember that I am not siding with anyone here nor will I attempt to sort out the various organizations that comprised the Movement. I am just tracing some historical background. 

The basic precept of the symbolism used by the Tea Party Movement seems quite innocuous; as the very name implies it is a reference to a particular event from American history. Of course, it went deeper than the name – you can easily google images of people dressed up like 18th century soldiers, wearing tricornes next to protest signs full of quotes from the Founding Fathers. 

The historical Boston Tea Party of 1773 has been mythologized to a degree, but most would agree that the act of dumping a transport of tea into the Bostonian harbor was brave, if a bit foolhardy, act of defiance against unfair taxes and tariffs. After all, said ship contained tea that was to be sold by the East India company effectively free of the tax, the Tea Act written so that it would help the Company get out of financial troubles. The colonists, however, would continue to suffer this and other taxes. 

Laws written specifically to benefit the establishment at the expense of the majority may ring a bell, but the seeming similarities do not end here. In the decade after the end of the Seven Year’s War Britain imposed a number of taxes on the Thirteen Colonies. The rationale was pretty straightforward – North America was one of the main theaters of the war, but France was defeated, its territories (current Canada) became British. The American colonists were now safe, so free of danger thanks to the British army, is it stands to reason that they could cover some of the expenses. 

Problem was, the colonists did not feel this way. They did not feel the need to pay, now that they were safe, and additionally, they looked down upon legislations passed by a Parliament in which they had no representatives. Moreover, some started to suspect some conspiracy aimed at them, from the Stamp Act to the “Intolerable Acts”. Edmund Burke at one point stated that “The Americans have made a discovery, or think they have made one, that we mean to oppress them”. Likewise, George Washington asserted that the tax laws of 1760s were “the result of deliberation, and attempted to be carried into execution by the hand of power”, at the same time stating that “the acts of a British Parliament are no longer governed by the principles of justice”. 

A radical vision came from John Allen, a Baptist minister who came to America in 1769, and four years later wrote a short tract entitled “American Alarm”. Therein he identified a “despotic” and “tyrannical” conspiracy in the form of a “ministerial power” that “has for years been seeking the destruction of [the Americans’] rights” through their legislative omnipotence. The final goal of this “plan” was to deprive the citizens the right to govern themselves, and finally enslave them through taxation and a subsequent confiscation of goods. 

So, by the time of the War for Independence many American believed that they are rebelling against a government subverted and infiltrated by a conspiracy. This cabal was interested only in their own gains, disrespected the rights of its citizens, and wanted to make literal slaves out of them. This may seem farfetched, but is relevant even today.  A small selection of Tea Party protest signs attests to that: 

“High Taxes + Big Government = SLAVERY.”

“$11 Trillion - Now That's a Lot of Change!” 

“We Want Freedom From Tax Slavery! ” 

“Taxation: The New Terrorism .” 

“3 Simple Words: WE THE PEOPLE” 

“Capitalism Made America, Not Government” 

“S. Save; O. Our; S. Sovereignty” 

“Clinging to My God, My Guns, and My Money” 

In these posters we see history making a full circle. The Federal Government of the early 21st century became the supposedly corrupt British Parliament of the late 18th century, a total opposite of the American Ideal. At the same time, the protesters saw the only remedy to the economic crisis in returning to the idealized beginnings of the country, shortly after the penning of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Then, it would seem, America did not need any other legislations, but when they appeared, the “City upon a Hill” lost its purity. A defunct banking system of the type George Washington condemned in his Farewell Address; the unnecessary growth of the Federal Government, which overstepped the Congress; finally, the new carbon taxes as a recent weapon in the arsenal of those who want to ruin the American economy. 

To give some examples, the Boston Tea Party "supports reducing the size, scope and power of government at all levels and on all issues", and opposes its increasing for any purpose. The Tea Party Patriots claim to be “inspired by our founding documents and regard the Constitution of the United States to be the supreme law of the land.” Americans for Prosperity: “We hope future Kansas lawmakers will put taxpayers above any feel-good environmental legislation that will wreak havoc on our economy.” Finally, a New York Times/CBS News Poll found that only 19% of Tea Party supporters said that global warming is an environmental problem that is having an effect now. The connection it would seem, came easily. As Stephanie Jasky (founder of claimed in 2009: "I was looking for answers – I wanted to know what had happened. The more I looked the more it became clear to me that the problem was our government, that the government had become the criminal. (...) All these bailouts and stimulus packages — it was taking our money and spending it without our permission. Taxation without Representation. Isn’t that what the Revolutionary War was all about? Doesn’t anyone remember King George?”

In essence, the Tea Party Movement, regardless of the veracity of their claims, seems to represent the best and worst in American society, however cliché it might sound. Their stern belief in the power of democracy is underpinned by a paranoid fear of its corruptibility. Their belief in the possibility of changing the world through protests and rallies is counterbalanced with a conviction that their enemy is equally potent at influencing reality. 

The similarities between pre-Revolutionary rhetoric and that of the Tea Party movement go deeper than the symbolism, and some of the elements of the paranoid style are visible in both. Either was born in reaction to a very particular sociopolitical problem, but soon branched out to include other related issues and construct a political antagonist. This antagonist, and all-powerful, evil entity has to be utterly destroyed to heal the country. Finally, both, despite the misgivings of their rhetoric, identified a very real problem that the authorities failed to properly address.

Friday, October 21, 2011

What is the paranoid style?

Last week I promised to explain the origins of the blog’s title.

The short version:

It comes from Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”. I thoroughly suggest reading it, as many of its points remain valid today.

The longer one:

As above, but with more information. The term itself is a peculiar one. Like “conspiracy theory” it instantly evokes some connotations: “paranoid”, so connected with the mental illness, full of suspicion, suspecting enemies and plots at every corner. “Style”, so a way of expression, a type of a rhetoric that includes a number of set characteristic elements. One American professor told me once, that when he met Hofstadter as a student, he was impressed by his ability to coin simple yet telling definitions. The “paranoid style” is definitely one of them. It may seem as surprising that the essay does not simply have “conspiracy theory” somewhere in the title. It was, after all, written shortly after the “Red Scare” of McCarthyism, in the nadir of the Cold War – the Cuban Missile crisis most notably, and was printed shortly after the assassination of president John F. Kennedy. Yet what Hofstadter focused was the presidential campaign of 1964, and the possible victory of “Mr. Conservative”, the Republican Barry Goldwater, a politician, who supported Joseph McCarthy till the end.

What scared Hofstadter more than the possibility of a radical Right at the helm, as he himself was a leftist scholar, a Marxist in youth, was the language they used. He saw it as emotional, populist, and dangerous to a democratic society in which citizens should vote according to reason, not emotion. This was what he claimed Goldwater did, the latest incarnation of the paranoid style in American history. Indeed, at the very beginning of his text Hofstadter provides a number of examples of curiously similar rhetoric, as far back as the pre-Revolutionary America.

So what is this paranoid style anyway? It is a style, we read, just like the baroque style, “a way of seeing the world and of expressing oneself”. The adjective “paranoid” is, however, used in a different manner. A paranoiac is believes everyone is out there to get him. A paranoid spokesman (the user of the style) believes that everyone is out there to get his country. He channels this anxiety through tales of a conspiracy created to destroy one’s homeland and way of life. In essence, the paranoid style is the tool, the blueprint, from which most conspiracy theories are formed. They may differ depending on the place, the circumstances, and time, but the style remains constant.

Hofstadter defined the elements of the paranoid style with simple, but alluringly all-encompasing terms. First, he concentrates on the conspiracy itself as a “motive force” in history. The members of such secret cabal can do virtually anything, from controlling local events to orchestrating entire wars. Unlike the “normal” political or economic entities, the conspiracy is not bound by laws of neither man nor nature. Moreover, it is inherently and invariably evil – Hofstadter uses the term “amoral superhuman”. In essence, the conspirators do evil because it is in their nature and, if they cannot be stopped, all will be lost. This apocalyptic tinge is inherent of the conspiracy theories' text – it call for action to utterly dismantle the conspiracy. As such, no negotiations or compromises are possible.

The paradox of this apocalyptic struggle lies in the fact that a conspiracy can never be defeated – the final confrontation, as Hofstadter argues, never arrives and the world remains perpetually on the cusp of either eternal tyranny or final liberation. As such, the conspiracy theorist, or paranoid spokesman to use Hofstadter's term, always collects more and more new data to prove the existence of the conspiracy. The most valuable of those are defectors from the conspiracy – people who not only bring “insider knowledge” but prove that the conspiracy is not that much “all-powerful”. Finally, some of the conspiracy theorists' and their believers act much like a conspiracy themselves, they become secretive, and demand total obedience from their followers.

“The Paranoid Style...” is highly critical of conspiracy theories. To its author they are a dark side of democracy, populist propaganda that offers an easy, simplified, and emotional answer instead of a balanced, rational analysis of a social problem. This notion has been rejected by some contemporary scholars. Mark Fenster, for example, claimed that while the paranoid style indeed distorts reality, its occurrence can tell us much about a given society, its history and problems. After all, conspiracy theories are created for some, often legitimate, reason.

The above text may seem a bit theoretical and dry, but I decided to write this way for a reason. Hofstadter's examples can be found in his essay, and are, at best, a half of a century old. My future posts will attempt to feature some of the contemporary movements or sites that employ the paranoid style (or conspiracy theory), and to demonstrate both how the style works, and how we can use it to learn form a given “radical” or "crackpot” group, be it the Tea Party, 9/11 Truth Movement, or the Wall Street protesters. All such movements are deeply rooted in American culture, in its hopes, history, and anxieties, and are never some isolated, marginal trends.

Friday, October 14, 2011

So it begins

Conspiracy theories are a bit like ghost stories. We know, or we wish, they are untrue, we know they so much more sensationalistic than intellectual, and most of us would be quite ashamed if someone exposed our passion for the tales of horror and grotesque. Yet for some reason we love them regardless...

The fact is ghost stories and conspiracy theories both share a single forefather – the folk tale. Of course, the two cousins are radically different in style, form, and context, but deep down they are simple storytelling. It seems a basic human instinct to gather in places of relative safety, campfire or living room, and tell tall tales of basic truths and practical advice shrouded in fantasy and wit.

“The Paranoid Style Blog” strives to go beyond simple storytelling. Not because it is bad; on the contrary, there are many, many websites that do it far better than I ever could. There is a lot to choose from: sites like contain conspiracy theories among various trivia and fringe science. On the other hand we have sites who take this as serious business, like or

Rather than emulate them, the goal of this blog is to look for answers as to why, just like with ghost stories, tabloids, fast-food, soap operas, or roller coasters, we love conspiracy theories so much, in spite of them being seen as infantile at best, a dangerous, subversive habit at worst. The blog will not try to judge them, to verify or vilify them, but rather show where they came from and what function they serve in a society.

The academic bit does not mean it has to be boring. Far from it, during my research I came across stories, texts, and historical facts that were not only interesting, but put our contemporary world into perspective. Academic in theory also means objective – this site is not sponsored by any organization what would want to frame the theories one way or the other. The posts contained here will be ideas and reflections I came across during my research and studies. Hopefully, they will be both enlightening and entertaining.

NEXT TIME: The title of the blog revealed, or how a certain Pulitzer-winning American historian defined conspiracy theories in a way that remains valid half a century later...