A Culture of Conspiracy: An Interview with Michael Barkun
I had the pleasure of interviewing my colleague Michael Barkun, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Syracuse University, about the new edition of A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, first published by the University of California Press in 2003, and reissued this past summer. A scholar of millenarian and right-wing movements, Barkun is also the author of Crucible of the Millennium (Syracuse University Press, 1986), Religion and the Racist Right (University of North Carolina Press, 1997), and Chasing Phantoms: Reality, Imagination, and Homeland Security since 9/11 (University of North Carolina Press, 2011). For other discussions of Barkun's scholarship on the blog, see here and here.
The first edition of A Culture of Conspiracy ended with the impact of September 11, 2001 on conspiracy theorists. How has the subculture of conspiracy evolved since then?
I finished the manuscript in fall 2001, and it was almost completed when the 9/11 attacks occurred. I couldn’t send it off without saying something about the events of September 11. At the time, all I could do was look at what professional conspiracy theorists had to say. They had an immediate response, and their short version was: I told you so.
After ten years, I looked back and saw a number of important developments. First, the development of a 9/11 conspiracy culture, which drew in people who had not been conspiracy theorists before the 9/11 attacks. Second, the election of Barack Obama created a new form of conspiracism around him. The most conspicuous element were the birthers, who believed he was hiding his true origins. Third, the decade witnessed a rise in militia activities as well as attacks by lone wolves motivated by the belief that a social catastrophe was coming. I was supposed to be an expert witness on conspiracy theories for the trial of one militia group in Michigan, though my testimony was not allowed. This heavily-armed organization, the Hutaree militia, allegedly planned to kill one or more law enforcement officers and then launch an attack at the funeral, which would involve police from all over the country. The legal charge was sedition. There were other examples of militia activities in Georgia, where a group planned to use ricin, and in Florida. Fourth, the Mayan prophecy of 2012 was an example of the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories described in the first edition of the book. So much had happened that I proposed new chapters to the press, and they responded with enthusiasm.
Your book highlighted the place of anti-Semitism, and to a lesser extent, anti-Catholicism, in “improvisational” conspiracy theories, which draw from a range of influences. Are anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism still prominent?
Yes, I think they are. I don’t see them as having a larger place in conspiracy culture, but I don’t see them going away. They have a certain resilience. In the first edition, I wasn’t surprised at the anti-Semitism but I was surprised at the anti-Catholicism. It is still there—as is anti-Masonry. But again, I don’t think there is more of it.
The new edition considers the “birther” movement. Do you think racism has gained new influence in conspiracy circles since the election of President Obama?
I thought a lot about this question when writing the chapter on Obama. It is very dangerous to try to infer motives of people that you don’t know. There have always been conspiracy theories about the presidents, but I don’t recall, at least since FDR, when there have been so many. I don’t think it is an accident. The volume of conspiracies is greater than in the presidencies of the Bushes and Clinton, and that has to have something to do with race. The question of his birth is a way of making a radical attack on legitimacy without overtly raising the issue of race. Discussions of Obama’s birth also raise the issue of Africa. I think race is there, even if it is not overt.
As you argue, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is a common target of conspiracists, who accuse the agency of using emergencies to establish martial law and build concentration camps. Did the federal response to Hurricane Katrina change or confirm their views?
When the Department of Homeland Security formed, I predicted an upsurge of conspiracy theories about FEMA, and its integration into DHS, but it didn’t happen. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security does not seem to have changed anything. And I have not seen anything tying Hurricane Katrina to concentration camps. Suspicion of the agency has not disappeared, though the connection to DHS has not changed the way it is perceived.
The conspiracy theories focusing on FEMA go back to the 1970s. Conspiracists believed the Carter administration established these emergency capabilities so they could quickly set up concentration camps. I know an FBI agent in Michigan, and a local person told him there was a FEMA concentration camp nearby. He asked to see it, but unsurprisingly, that individual never took him to see it.
One of the things that struck me when I read the first edition was that conspiracists seem to be non-partisan. Have conspiracists become more partisan since 2001?
My research has focused on the extreme right, so I have not looked at the extreme left, though I know they exist, and they share the same characteristics. Conspiracism is not exclusively a right-wing phenomenon. A main characteristic is a deep suspicion of authority—religious, political, academic, etc. As a result, it doesn’t matter whether the political authority is Democratic or Republican. Conspiracy theorists are as suspicious of Republican presidents as they are of Democrats. For example, a tremendous amount of conspiracy developed around the figure of George H.W. Bush. So there is a non-partisan aspect to conspiracism. Their tendency is not to believe any authority.
You cite Pat Robertson’s The New World Order as the most mainstream conspiracy text. Do Christian fundamentalists still produce and consume conspiracy theories that predict the end time?
Yes, I just received an article on the apocalyptic significance of the Syrian war. I also receive a newsletter from Armageddon Books, which features books for prophecy-oriented fundamentalists, and the newsletter’s title is “Welcome to the End-Time Informer.” The most recent newsletter features a book on The 9/11 Prophecy by James Fitzgerald (“Startling Evidence that the Endtimes have Begun”) and has a reader poll, asking “Could a United States strike on Syria become the fulfillment of Isaiah 17:1 which says ‘...Damascus is taken away from being a city, and it shall be a ruinous heap’?”
Millennial thought is very resilient and adaptable, even though the end time seems to be constantly changing. Millennialists rarely make specific predictions, more often they are vague like Pat Robertson.
Another date for the millennium (12/21/12) has come and gone. How have conspiracy theorists adjusted?
The Mayan prophecy advocates formed two wings. The first group said that 12/21/12 would bring a new period of spiritual enlightenment and millennial bliss. The second faction predicted apocalypse, with numerous natural disasters, such as those depicted in the movie “2012.” When the date passed, there were three responses. First, some said that there was a change but it was intangible, or in the mind, and only evident to those who were spiritually attuned to the universe. Second, some said that the date was miscalculated. Mayan scholars had disagreed as to the exact date. The third reaction was simply to admit they had been wrong.
We have already discussed some examples of how conspiracy theory has become mainstreamed. Are there other examples of its acceptance in American popular culture?
One example is the popularity of Dan Brown’s novels. He has made an industry out of mainstreaming conspiracy theories. What is amazing is how many people read his novels. Why do people buy them? They clearly resonate. Another recent example is cable TV shows about survivalists, or “preppers,” that air on National Geographic and Discovery channels. One of the titles is “Doomsday Preppers.” They expect a terrible calamity to happen to society and they are preparing for the consequences. This is an interesting sociological phenomena, but programmers also made a judgment that there was an audience for these shows about people preparing for a societal upheaval.