Wednesday’s Book Review: “Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture”


9780816654949_p0_v1_s260x420Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture. By Mark Fenster. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, second edition 2008.

More than fifty years ago the great consensus historian Richard Hofstadter argued in The Paranoid Style in American Politics that the particular strain of populism that fosters conspiracy in American culture operates at the fringe of society and represents a threat to the dominant consensus of the nation. We may take exception to Hofstadter’s analysis, something Fenster does to devastating effect, but few would disagree that conspiracy theories are much more common than Hofstadter was willing to acknowledge. Indeed, even those who do not accept them as the norm would probably agree with the old adage, “Just because you’re not paranoid it doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.”

Mark Fenster argues in Conspiracy Theories that these ideas swirl around us and everyone to a greater or lesser degree buy into them. We could not work effectively in society without sometimes wild explanations. What percentage of the population, for example does not believe there was a conspiracy to assassinate JFK in 1963? Is your theory the same as mine? What evidence supports these assertions?

For Fenster conspiracy theories are something of a mind game we play to help explain what we view as irrational. It is also a way to ease the boredom of our mundane modern existence. It also helps to explain an overarching cynicism about contemporary culture and especially politics, which seems both out of reach and impossible to parse. Moreover, it plays to modern society’s hidden desires for scapegoating, racism, and fascism.

Fenster’s short study, only nine chapters with an introduction and an afterword steps through several key issues. A first section explores the use of conspiracy to shape political thought and action. Here he takes down the marginalization of conspiracism of politics that was so much a part of Hofstadter’s consensus historiographical tradition. He then undertakes several case studies of conspiracy, offering sophisticated analyses of the many conspiracy themes surrounding the Clinton presidency, popular manifestations of JFK’s assassination and the X-Files, Christian fundamentalist apocalyticism, and the possibility of the using theme as an organizing principle in cultural studies.

Conspiracy Theories is very much a work of scholarship. For those seeking the scholarly situation of the theme into the larger area of American studies, media studies, and cultural analysis and criticism this is a welcome work. For those interested in a more practically and politically motivated discussion this work will be disappointing. As it is, this is an insightfully useful place to begin in analyzing a complex theme in modern American society.

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