A less-than-fascinating look at America’s fascination with conspiracy theories.
Goldberg (Barry Goldwater, 1995; History/Univ. of Utah) has written a dry-as-dust tome on the kind of conspiracy theories that are described with gusto and humor in underground cafes and supermarket tabloids. In a sprawling first chapter, too scattered and general to be informative, he whips through various conspiracies that excited the American imagination during the country’s first two centuries. Each of the next five chapters is devoted to a post-WWII “conspiracy”: the Red Menace, the coming of the apocalypse, the assassination of JFK, the Jewish plot against the black community, and the supposed federal coverup of a UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico. These theories and their supporters are described in an evenhanded, non-judgmental tone: admirable, but bland. There’s little thought-provoking analysis, unless you count an occasional comment about the roots of countersubversion and the appeal of conspiracy theories to downtrodden or threatened communities. Goldberg ambles through half-hearted mini-biographies of Pat Robertson, Louis Farrakhan, and others, wondering if there’s any connection or overarching theme. Part of the problem is that he doesn’t seem to have a working definition of “conspiracy.” He refers on a number of occasions to the legal definition (which bears no resemblance to the way the word is used in common parlance) but also includes standard examples of right-wing politics, religious faith, minority outrage, and distrust of the federal government. In addition, Goldberg gives implausible and unexplained weight to the popular media, especially The X-Files, blithely asserting that years of watching Agents Mulder and Scully have so acclimated Americans to conspiracy theories that they increasingly apply similar logic to the “real” world. This may be so, but it has to be argued, not just asserted.
In the end, there’s a simple lack of value added: most Americans are familiar with the conspiracy theories described here, and mere description without any compelling synthesis or analysis is pretty dull stuff.