America and the Cult of Conspiracy

Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969.

Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969. Did the astronauts actually land? Of course, but not everyone agrees.

Americans certainly, and perhaps all the cultures of the world, love the idea of conspiracy as an explanation of how and why many events have happened. It plays to their innermost fears and hostilities that there is a well-organized, well-financed, and Machiavellian design being executed by some malevolent group, the dehumanized “them,” which seek to rob “us” of something we hold dear. As David Aaronovitch wrote in Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History (2009), a conspiracy, and this represents a practicable approach to the topic, is “the attribution of deliberate agency to something that is more likely to be accidental or unintended.” This certainly happens often enough. And in many cases these tend to be exaggerated, expanded, and complexified with every retelling.

Conspiracy theories abound in American history. Oliver Stone’s film, J.F.K., while presenting a truly warped picture of recent American history, shows how receptive Americans are to believing that Kennedy was killed as a result of a massive conspiracy variously involving Cuban strongman Fidel Castro, American senior intelligence and law enforcement officers, high communist leaders in the Soviet Union, union organizers, organized crime, and perhaps even the Vice President, Lyndon B. Johnson. Stone’s film only brought the assassination conspiracy to a broad American public. For years amateur and not-so-amateur researchers have been churning out books and articles about the Kennedy assassination conspiracy. It has been one of the really significant growth industries in American history during the last 50 years.

Lest you think these are diversionary abstractions for those who have nothing better to do or that they are the hobgoblins of cracked minds, I would argue that some conspiracies have been instrumental in charting major turns in the direction of the nation.

The most striking example is the American Revolution. When the British Empire finally defeated France in the Seven Years War in 1763, Great Britain turned its attention to its colonies like it had not done before, partly to exact taxes from them to help pay for the war and the other costs of empire. The Sugar Act, the Townshend Duties, the Stamp Act, the Intolerable Acts, the Quebec Act, and a host of other laws designed to raise revenue riled American colonists to rebellion. In some respects the United States was born out of a tax revolt, and one can only imagine what would have been Sam Adams and Thomas Jefferson’s reaction had the British tried to impose an income tax.

Taken together, these and other efforts of the British government were put forward by colonists as a conspiracy to rob Americans of their rights as Englishmen (women did not even enter into the picture at that point). Ultimately, colonials argued that a grand conspiracy was underway to enslave Americans, and that they were compelled to stand together to defend their liberties and defeat a determined, evil oppressor. Interestingly, the liberty/slavery rhetorical imagery had the potential to enflame many Americans, since they saw the dichotomy between freedom and slavery every day in the cities and especially on the plantations. A conspiracy to enslave white Americans, therefore, was an especially potent force in motivating revolution.

Numerous other instances of significant movements in American history have also been motivated at least in part by the possibility of conspiracy. Most recently, the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, moved conspiracy theories to the center of American life, as all manner of conjecture emerged about the attacks, virtually all of them easily proven false and dispatched as groundless. Except, the rumors and theories evolved with every retelling into ever more complex and outrageous stories. The so-called “9/11 Truth Movement,” fed by the Internet, found conspiracy theorists debating the role of the government in allowing, perhaps even fomenting, the attacks to gain political advantage.

Numerous books and articles have identified and analyzed this aspect of American society over the years. At sum, conspiracy theories of all stripes are built upon four key elements: 1) Dualism; 2) Scapegoating; 3) Demonization; and 4) Apocalyptic Aggression. These concepts seem present to a greater of lesser degree for all conspiracy theories, and are certainly present in the denials of the Moon landings. As Chip Berlot explains in Toxic to Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization, & Scapegoating (2009):

Dualism is an overarching theme or “metaframe” in which people see the world as divided into forces of good and evil. Scapegoating is a process by which a person or group of people are wrongfully stereotyped as sharing negative traits and are singled out for blame for causing societal problems, while the primary source of the problems is overlooked or absolved of blame. Demonization, a process through which people target individuals or groups as the embodiment of evil, facilitates scapegoating. Even the most sincere and well-intentioned conspiracy theorists contribute to dangerous social dynamics of demonization and scapegoating. Apocalypticism, also a metaframe, involves the expectation that dramatic events are about to unfold during which a confrontation between good and evil will change the world forever and reveal hidden truths. Apocalyptic Aggression occurs when scapegoats are targeted as enemies of the “common good,” and this can lead to discrimination and violent acts.

Of course, these elements of conspiracism are very much alive and well in American culture. One needs only to listen to current political debate to learn of conspiracies both left and right seemingly intent on destroying American society and employing all of these key elements in them. This is just as prevalent in the denials of the Moon landings, one of my particular interests, as in other conspiracies advocated in the latter part of the twentieth century and the first part of the twenty-first.

conspiracynj4In the case of the Moon landing deniers the interrelationships of the four key elements of dualism; scapegoating; demonization; and apocalyptic aggression are linked in the utter disbelief, distrust, and apparent hatred of anyone who suggests that their presumed evidence of a massive government conspiracy is unpersuasive. I would add that their so-called evidence is outlandish and unworthy of receiving any credence. As historian David Aaronovitch commented about these arguments, “it offended my sense of plausibility.” He added:

My uncogitated objection ran something like this: A hoax on such a grand scale would necessarily involve hundreds if not thousands of participants. There would be those who has planned it all in some Washington office; those in NASA who had agreed; the astronauts themselves, who would have been required to continue with the hoax for the whole of their lives, afraid even of disclosing something to their most intimate friends at the most intimate moments; the set of designers, the photographers, the props department, the security men, the navy people who pretended to fish the returning spacemen out of the ocean and many, many more. It was pretty much impossible for such an operation to be mounted and kept secret, and inconceivable that anybody in power would actually take the risk that it might be blown.

That is the reaction of most observers who hear the argument that Apollo astronauts never landed on the Moon. The conspiracy theory, or more appropriately theories since everyone has their own and they seemingly compete with each other for complexity and lack of verisimilitude, is attractive to those wanting to disbelieve claims of authority figures. Some who know better invoke it in passing as a joke, but those who hold to the conspiracy framework often possess a deep skepticism, even a resentment of national authority.

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3 Responses to America and the Cult of Conspiracy

  1. Spacegary says:

    The last sentence of this well-reasoned piece is key. Many Conservative friends of mine believe the government is active in a conspiracy to invade their homes at any moment; which in turn must be well armed to prevent such action. That belief is destroying the fabric of this country by turning neighbor against neighbor and friend against friend and needs to be impartially examined. This piece is a start.


  2. I suspect that conspiracy theories reflect lack of critical thinking skills, but also that they are a form of entertainment. People have for a long time sold (literally) the alternate realities that underpin conspiracy theories. Perhaps they believe the theories they promote, perhaps they are laughing all the way to the bank.

    It’s fun to imagine that one knows a truth that others will not accept. It makes one feel superior, important. It peps up a dull life. This is particularly true with regards to UFOs and lizard men. One can imagine that one is living science fiction.

    At the same time, I think that conspiracy theories often point in a muddled sort of way to serious questions about our national narrative. There *are* many questions surrounding 9/11 and the subsequent invasion and occupation of Iraq, for example. With regards to the moon hoax stuff, I think it stems to some degree from the perception (mistaken, of course) that NASA hasn’t accomplished much since Apollo – though it is certainly true that we have accomplished nothing of the same scale. If NASA can’t do anything like Apollo now, how can we accept that it did Apollo 50 years ago, when technology was more primitive? The true answer(s) are complex and have to do with acceptance of risk, the relative significance of space as an arena of international competition, etc.

    Great post. Lots of fun stuff to think about.



  3. Dan Jeffers says:

    As noted re: the faked moon landing theories, conspiracies involve so many parties and so much coordination without defection that they quickly become implausible. What are the outside limits, in numbers of parties involved or in length of time, of circumstances that were actually conspiracies and did actually succeed?


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