Southern Views

“A” may be for Apple and ”J” for Jacks, at least in sweet breakfast cereal, but not when it comes to conspiracy theories.

In Conspiracy Theories in American History, “A” is for Abolitionists and “Z” is for ZOG, an acronym for Zionist Occupied Government.  Those are the first and last entries in the weighty two-volume encyclopedia edited by Peter Knight.

Never has a book about conspiracies seemed such a fitting read.

We live in an age of conspiracism that one Newsweek writer described as “a religion that blends faith and doubt.”

Today we have “birthers” and we have “truthers” and we have people who fear a vast secret plot to bring about a single world government – people who’ve clearly never watched the European Union try to reach a rational decision.

This is nothing new.  America has always had conspiracy theories.  As Robert Alan Goldberg notes in the book’s historical overview, the Puritans looked upon native Americans as “minions of Satan” and part of a “Satanic conspiracy.”   In the 1600s there were witches in Salem, and in 1712 New York, fears of a “bloody conspiracy” among slaves.

We’ve had Illuminati and Freemasons, enough to fuel any number of bad books and forgettable movies.

I’m hardly the first to draw a conspiratorial line to our present-day wingnuts.  In an excellent piece in the New York Times, Kate Zernike notes our historical love for conspiracies and cites some of the leading scholars in the field.

I’m hardly a leading scholar in conspiracies, but in my own research I’ve examined those who believe Barack Obama to secretly be a Muslim while, at the same time, managing to criticize him for his former Chicago Christian pastor.

Using national survey data, I found partisanship and racism play a big role in predicting who believed Obama was Muslim.  Keep in mind, as many as one-in-five American adults suspected he was lying about his religion.

I also thought reading or watching mainstream news, which went out of its way to correct this misperception, would help make people more accurate.  Nope.

Without getting too PhDeebish, a good theoretical approach to understanding this is something called motivated reasoning, which essentially tells us that people believe what they want to believe, especially when it’s bad about someone they don’t already like.

Or, as the guy who created the theory said, “people are more likely to arrive at those conclusions that they want to arrive at.”

I’m pretty sure he’s part of some conspiracy theory.

Right now I’m analyzing national survey data to understand the birth certificate-challenged folks who continue to believe Obama was born outside the U.S., and again the role the media and racism play in such beliefs.

Why racism?  Because while it’s politically incorrect to use race as a reason to not like our first black president, latching onto doubts about his religion or birthplace can act as a damn good surrogate.  In other words, it provides good cover.  In my first study above, after statistically controlling for a host of other factors, racism still predicted the perception that Obama was a closet Muslim.

All well and good, but what’s wrong with a good old fashioned conspiracy theory?

Nothing at all.

Scholars argue conspiracy theories go back as far as the ancient Greeks and, like the poor, they will always be with us.

But I can’t help but think that the Internet has helped nudge us into a whole new realm of wingnutdom.  Every blog is a printing press, every tweet a broadcast.  With the good of the digital revolution, that everyone is able to comment and communicate and have their say, comes the bad – that everyone is able to comment and communicate and have their say.  No matter how dumb their “say” happens to be.

In honor of this, drawing from the encyclopedia of the crazy, here are some of my favorites:

  • Flouridation of the drinking water, made infamous in Dr. Strangelove (precious bodily fluids), caused any number of conspiracies including one that it was a communist plot to make people docile.  It also has Nazis, an added plus in any decent conspiracy theory.
  • Father Coughlin was a rabble rousing Catholic priest who used radio to assert that Jews had conspired to create The Great Depression.  Glenn Beck is often compared to Coughlin, in part due to their shared love of conspiracy theories, in part due to their mastery of the media.
  • Credit card data and the mark of the beast is one pushed by a number of folks, including Pat Robertson.   It’s all tied into 666.  Too much math.
  • “Americans Beware” is a forged encyclical supposedly from Pope Leo XIII that calls on Catholics to save America from the Protestants.  As a practicing Catholic, I’m all about this one.  We’ve already got a lock on the Supreme Court.  Fear us.
  • “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” is one we all know about, the nutjob document about a Jewish cabal bent on ruling the world.  Copies continue to float around the Middle East and, no doubt, in a few crazy militia camps in Idaho.
  • And every UFO conspiracy ever invented.   These are great.  The X-files has an entry too.  As it should.

It’s a fun read.  And a little scary.

Barry Hollander

Barry Hollander

Former hack at daily newspapers, now hack journalism professor at the University of Georgia, number cruncher and longtime Net user, caffeine addict, writer of weird fiction, and a semi-retired god in an online fantasy world where godhood suits him quite well, thank you very much. He also blogs at

  1. Frank Povah

    One of the things that we furriners notice about the US – and I mean no offence here, it’s a broad generalization after all – is that the collective psyche tends to believe every “serious” film ever made is a documentary and that people like Jesus, oops John, Wayne actually did in real life what they did in the movies. Perhaps this is the reason conspiracy theories seem to abound here as nowhere else.

    Have you heard the one about the Euro? Or the bar-codes that are going to be tattooed on our wrists?

  2. Jingle Davis

    Hollander, you write really well, as one might expect, considering your credentials. Do more Dews, please. How about a Newt Gingrich probe?

  3. Will Cantrell


    The most extreme conspiracy theorists (on any theory, by the way) are fun to observe. Watching some of them is more entertaining than watching ‘Lucy Ricardo’ or even our old friend, ‘Barney Fife’. My own conspiracy theory is that the sincere conspiracy theorists are often taken advantage of by charlatans in the electronic media and in the electronic pulpit, who play into their ill-founded and poorly thought out ideas for the sake of dollars, poll numbers and media ratings. Donald Trump playing, unsuccessfully, the birther issue is one example. That whole business about Obama being a Muslim is another. There are others too, as we know.

    Another sad thing about the exploitation of conspiracy for profit has to do with the proliferation of misinformation. Last year, I read the results of a legitimate poll in which nearly a quarter of all Republicans and 6% of all Democrats believe that Obama is the Antichrist. Hell, until I read that report, I had narrowed it down to Dick Cheney, Gloria Allred, Donald Trump or Nene Leakes. Good piece. Will

  4. Some people’s brains just don’t seem to get the connection between cause and effect. So, every event is a mystery and what they believe depends to a large extent on what prior experience has led them to expect. Then too, the human brain likes what it knows and likes to be right, making any experience that’s consistent with what’s already known preferred. I’d call that the root of prejudice, but prejudice has acquired a negative slant. So, the triumph of the preconceived notion seems more accurate and “objective”–i.e. not encumbered by emotion.
    Perhaps when there’s a host of people spreading fear and agitation, resorting to one’s preconceived notions is sort of comforting. Certainly, Obama has arrived at a time when fear and trepidation had pretty much peaked. Now, just being able to spread baseless rumors without fear of retribution may be a comfort.
    On the other hand, if we don’t believe that Osama bin Laden conspired with his acolytes to inflict damage on the American people, then we are left with the obvious conclusion that America’s leaders not only exploited an event that killed three thousand to terrorize a nation for a decade, but had over four thousand sent home in body bags as a constant reminder. In comparison to the reality, conspiracies are a comfort.

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