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by Caitlin Burke

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Daniel Pipes is a Middle East expert, and Conspiracy grew out of a similar study that centered on the Middle East. The book is located firmly in Europe and the United States, however, and offers an extremely interesting discussion of an inherently interesting phenomenon: the origin and development of conspiracist thinking. Intending to present an overview rather than a comprehensive work, Pipes's short volume traces the U.S. idea of conspiracist thinking back to Europe's middle ages, and he divides it into two main strains -- antisemitism [sic] and anti secret-society beliefs -- which have, to some extent, merged over time.

Pipes qualifies his terms and the context of his work very carefully; in particular he distinguishes conspiracist thinking from actual conspiracy. His interest is in the style of conspiracist thinking that gave rise to the conspiracism that is prevalent in the U.S. today. He is careful to define terms such as conspiracist and to identify current lines of conspiracist thinking and describe the characteristics of conspiracist thinking before analyzing its history.

Pipes introduces antisemitism -- he deliberately uses the closed, noncapitalized form to denote what is defined as an invalid set of beliefs, with no useful relationship to facts about Jews (or other Semitic groups) -- in the time of the Crusades, which also saw the founding of the Knights Templar. He then traces the development of antisemitism in Europe from the Christian attacks predicated on an association of Jews with Muslims to the "international banker" stereotype that arose with Rothschild and Jewish emancipation. He also traces the development of attitudes toward secret societies, from misinterpretation of the aims of real societies, such as the Knights Templar and the Freemasons, to development of actual "secret societies" based on those misinterpretations and on to today's conception of secret societies as agents or puppet-masters of governments, particularly the U.S. government.

Readers seeking voluminous documentation of today's wilder conspiracy theories, particularly the aliens-made-a-deal-with-our-government crowd, will find little satisfaction in Pipes's book. Pipes is particularly interested in the way Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany embodied both conspiracy and conspiracist thinking, and he dismisses even the Kennedy assassination with a few references to the obviousness of the absurdity of conspiracy theories offered to explain it. The modern conspiracy that attracts the lion's share of his attention is the U.N.-flies-black-helicopters-and-is-installing-a-one-world- government(-so-it-can-take-away-our-guns) theory, particularly as articulated by Pat Robertson.

Leftist readers, however, might detect a conspiracy behind Pipes's analysis of the groups promulgating today's conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theory knows no bounds; it appears in the minds of the educated and the ignorant, the Right and the Left, the rich and the poor. But while Pipes is happily negative about conspiracism from all walks of life, his context for Leftist conspiracism seems a little broad. What he calls "conspiracist" could be construed as healthy skepticism about politics and economic life, although the example he uses are apt for his thesis (the O.J. Simpson trial among them.)

More interestingly, his characterizations of Rightist conspiracy theorists trots out the usual contemptible picture of fascists who can barely spell -- facists, perhaps -- but his characterization of Leftists is no less stereotypical and even ironic in the context of the study. Citing liberal orientation of the news media and academe, Pipes characterizes Leftist conspiracist thinking as "more subtle", with "better credentials", and Leftist conspiracists as seeking to "delegitimate conservatives". In short, Rightist conspiracists are obviously disaffected and cut off from power, but Leftist conspiracists are around us, and in positions of influence besides. Pipes, by the way, is, a founding editor of Middle East Quarterly, a journal whose January 1997 Usenet announcement (of the journal's Web page) stated in part, "We believe in standing by our allies, such as Israel and Turkey, and in being resolute toward our opponents; we also think it is in our national interest that the price of oil remain low." A political slant to keep in mind when reading the journal, to be sure.

Conspiracy is an appealing book. Fundamentally reasonable and filled with all kinds of interesting stuff about the Freemasons and the Illuminati, it's a helpful primer on the terms that always pop up when conspiracy theories are described. The descriptions of wily Leftists with their access to the corridors of power is appealing, too, at least to this liberal feeling pained by a swing to the conservative side of America's political spectrum. And so, as all good books that concern paranoids should, Conspiracy both models and requires nimble critical thinking.

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