A Culture of Conspiracy
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A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America is a 2003 book by Michael Barkun, a political science professor at Syracuse University who specializes in political and religious extremism. It is a study of crank magnetism in action, tracing the history of various conspiracy theories about the Antichrist, the New World Order, and UFOs and exploring how what were once completely separate ideas came to overlap over the course of the 20th century.
Christians discover the NWO...
Barkun finds that, in the 19th century, conspiracy theories about secret societies such as the Freemasons and the Illuminati were largely secular in nature, with such groups attacked less for eschatological reasons and more for their perceived pernicious influence on American politics and culture. Even most anti-Catholic conspiracy theorists typically focused on the Church's secular power and alleged desires to subvert American liberal democracy. Christians of an apocalyptic bent, meanwhile, mostly ignored politics, feeling that the signs of the times would come from heaven above rather than the world of men.
However, after the October Revolution in Russia, right-wing Christian writers began to see secular politics, and communism in particular, as the vehicle by which the Antichrist would rise to power. Illuminati theorists like Nesta Webster and Gerald Winrod were also animated by the rise of communism, seeing the hand of the Illuminati (and, of course, the Jews) at work in Moscow. Later events, such as the birth of the United Nations and the state of Israel, the formation of the European Economic Community with a treaty signed in Rome (many Antichrist theorists envisioned his rule as a reborn Roman Empire), and the growth of mass media and computer technology, only intensified the idea that the Antichrist would rise to power through preexisting political, economic, and cultural structures, with the Illuminati supporting him every step of the way. The crimes of the Nazi regime, meanwhile, made the often latent (and sometimes blatant) anti-Semitism of older Illuminati theories increasingly unpalatable outside of the neo-Nazi fringe. As such, many later writers, most notably Pat Robertson in his 1992 book The New World Order, came to swap out "the Jews" for "the devil" even as they drew upon the same scholarship.
…and the NWO discovers the UFO
The UFO community, meanwhile, started out in the mid-20th century as broadly apolitical and separate from this mess. However, ufology always had a conspiratorial edge to it, what with its basic proclamation that the government is hiding the existence of extraterrestrial visitors, and the more elaborate tales going further and postulating the existence of underground bases, mysterious men in black, and secret treaties between human governments and alien empires. This made it attractive for proponents of other, more radical and far-reaching conspiracy theories, who realized that there was a vast audience much closer to the political mainstream who would be receptive to their ideas, especially given that many bookshops, magazines, and websites specializing in either UFO or radical right material would sometimes sell and advertise books of both genres.
Barkun traces the gradual synthesis of the two to figures like Stan Deyo and William Cooper, who argued that the Illuminati, in possession of technology far in advance of what most people have access to and knowledge of, would use it to fake an alien invasion in order to unite Earth under their rule. (Cooper tended to waffle on whether or not the aliens were real; at other times, he argued that the invaders were already here and using the Illuminati as pawns to take over the world.) Both Deyo and Cooper drew on Alternative 3, a 1977 Anglia Television (now ITV Anglia) mockumentary that proclaimed that scientists were being whisked away to work on secret continuity-of-government facilities on the Moon and Mars, in anticipation of pollution and climate change rendering Earth uninhabitable. Not only did the program cause an uproar in the UK as people mistook it for real (it was originally meant to air on April Fools' Day, but its broadcast was delayed until 20 June), its accompanying supplemental book was published in the US without indication that it was a work of fiction, causing it to be swallowed whole by conspiracy theorists. To this day, much like with The Report from Iron Mountain and the McPherson Tape, proclamations of the true nature of Alternative 3 are often dismissed as part of the cover-up.
Later conspiracy theorists like David Icke and Jim Keith took these ideas further, mining the Earth-based conspiracy lore of the past and shoehorning it into their UFO theories. Now, instead of "the Jews" or "the devil", it was "the reptilians" who secretly ruled the world, infiltrating human governments and using the vast majority of humanity as cattle. By the 2000s, large portions of the ufologist community had been absorbed into the conspiracy memeset of the radical right, routinely referring to Area 51, reptilians, and the Majestic 12 in the same breath as Project Monarch, Satanism, black helicopters, and FEMA concentration camps.
Barkun describes the process as "improvisational millennialism", where people pick, mix, and remix from existing conspiracy theories to invent their own synthesis of ideas that would seem to be mutually exclusive to non-believers. For instance, combining fundamentalist Christianity with Western esotericism, New Age ideas, and Eastern religions may not make sense to an outside observer, but these ideas are united in this particular memeset by being shoehorned into the believers' ideas of good and evil. When such theories share the same transmission channels (bookshops, magazines, websites, etc.), as happened with UFO and NWO conspiracy theories, synthesis becomes even easier.
- Michael Barkun (2006). A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-24812-0.