Many of you know that I have an abiding interest in conspiracy theories. Not that I believe them, mind you, but I am fascinated with their prevalence in American and Western history. My own interest stems from my fundamentalist Baptist background. I grew up reading books and hearing stories that were permeated with conspiracy theories about the Antichrist, the One World Government, and the like.
In grad school, I started reading scholarly works on conspiracy thinking and conspiracy theories in an attempt to understand them. Richard Hofstadter, Daniel Pipes, David Brion Davis, Mark Fenster, and Robert Goldberg were the big names who helped me understand the “paranoid style” better. My first paper at one of the two major history conferences (the 2003 Organization of American Historians in Memphis) addressed Andrew Jackson’s conspiracy thinking. It wasn’t very good, focusing too little on the theoretical explanations for Jackson’s political paranoia.
While teaching at my previous institution, I had the opportunity to devise an honors course on conspiracy thinking in American society. (This course is not unique to me, by the way. I didn’t know it at the time, but both Jeff Pasley at the University of Missouri and Bob Goldberg at the University of Utah offer or have offered similar courses.) I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of working with the students to see how conspiracy thinking in the U.S. had its roots in the medieval Crusades and continued to influence the nation through 9/11, our stopping point in the course. I have talked about offering the course at Cumberland, and the students’ enthusiasm for that possibility has far outranked their interest in any of my other courses.
While I find modern conspiracy theories fascinating (What actually happened at Roswell? Who killed JFK? Was 9/11 perpetrated by the U.S. government? Is there really a night school?), I’m particularly interested in 19th-century conspiracy theories about Masons, immigrants, Mormons, and Catholics. I’ve even considered approaching publishers with the idea of editing a collection of scholarly essays and/or primary sources on conspiracy thinking in the Early Republic. If you’re a scholar who is interested in that idea, by the way, let me know. It might motivate me to move on the project.
Michael Bonner’s recent blog post reminded me of why it’s important to understand conspiracy thinking. It continues to infuse the nation’s political discourse, and failing to consider its roots and consequences leaves us susceptible to irrational decisions about our government. It’s happened before.