Architects of Fear: Conspiracy Theories and Paranoia in American Politics — George Johnson

Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum is both more fun to read and more informative than George Johnson’s Architects of Fear: Conspiracy Theories and Paranoia in American Politics, which promises an in-depth explanation of conspiracy theories and theorists but doesn’t really deliver.

Johnson’s central claim is that conspiracy theorists see sinister links between a variety of unrelated or barely related occurrences while simultaneously lacking the ability to deal with ambiguity and change. They lack the critical rigor necessarily to separate cause and effect, correlation and causation, coincidence and connection. It’s an intriguing idea that he should have explored more, at the expense of vapid histories of mostly right-wing conspiracy theorists. The John Birch Society and Lyndon LaRouche both get prominent billing, but both now seem dated; the pinnacle of their ideas’ power came with the Oklahoma City Bombing, after which conspiracy theorists of that style receded very low-level background cultural noise—especially after 9/11 revealed real problems, as opposed to the invented ones Johnson chronicles.

Still, Architects of Fear is amusing for its depiction of bogus reasoning used by conspiracy theorists. For example, Adam Weishaupt was a Bavarian university professor who “wanted to bring the spirit of rationalism and the philosophical Age of Enlightenment to his benighted land.” To do so, he founded a group he called the Illuminati, who have provided fodder for lousy Dan Brown-style novels ever since (along with the aforementioned Foucault’s Pendulum, which is excellent, showing that cultural flowers do sometimes spring forth from the most unusual places). In turn, conspiracy theorists have cited the Illuminati, the Knights Templar, and others as possessing secret, hermeneutical knowledge, which is proven in a variety of absurd ways. For example, one section from Architects of Fear says:

As conspiracy theorists are fond of pointing out, Weishaupt structured [the Illuminati] like a pyramid […] Eventually, thirteen ranks were established. Thirteen levels, as on the dollar-bill pyramid. As initiates learned new powers and secrets, they ascended the step of the pyramid, coming increasingly closer to the light.

But virtually all organizations are structured as pyramids, with a relatively small number of leaders at the top and a larger number of functionaries below them. The United States itself functions like this, with a President as the leader, and most corporations have a CEO who is blamed, fairly or not, for what goes well or poorly in an organization, despite the amount of control she might or might not have.

Alas: Johnson didn’t point this out, and it’s one of the many examples of where his analysis is flat or inadequate. He does sometimes hit useful points, as when he says, “Many of the founding fathers were Freemasons and sympathized with Masonic aims of universal brotherhood, but sharing symbols and ideas is different from participating in a plot.” It is, and I would’ve liked to hear more on the subject.

Thin research might prevent Johnson from saying more; most of the research he does have comes from newspaper articles, and most of the chapters consist of rehashes of those articles rather than original observations built on substantial knowledge. Architects of Fear could have been a better book, but it shows the weakness of journalists-turned-book-writers, as opposed to something like Dave Cullen’s Columbine, which shows the strengths. Along those lines, in another section Johnson says that:

Modern historians […] believe the Antichrist predicted in Revelation refers to Roman emperor Nero. The book apparently was written after Christ’s death to comfort Christians persecuted by Nero’s “one-world government,” the Roman empire.

But he cited no sources for this claim in the bibliography. I have no idea whether it’s actually true because I know little about historical scholarship surrounding the Bible. He also gave no citation for his “one-world government” quote, meaning that it might have come from somewhere or merely be offset to show how conspiracy adherents might observe the Roman Empire. As far as I can tell, however, no one has come along to do it better; books like Jane Parish and Martin Parker’s The Age of Anxiety: Conspiracy Theory and the Human Sciences sound too narrow, while Daniel Pipes’ Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From is more promising but still reminiscent of an amorphous genre. Nonetheless, they seem better alternatives than Architects of Fear.

Worth keeping? No.
Worth buying? No.
Worth reading? No.

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