Conspiracy Theories Are Not Funny

Conspiracy theories are poisoning the United States. That's no joke.

Americans have a tradition of laughing at conspiracy theories that is as long as America’s strange predilection for believing that sinister cabals are working hard against all that is good and decent. However, it’s time to stop laughing at conspiracy theories, given how pernicious they are. Conspiracy theorizing has complicated American politics before, and now it is even a bigger destructive force.

I’ll admit, I’m guilty of the occasional chuckle at conspiracy theorists. While the stereotypical tin foil hat person is just silly, I did enjoy the antics of the Lone Gunmen on The X-Files. There was a memorable episode of a related TV show, Millennium, in which someone drew on every square foot of a room an elaborate map of a conspiracy in which all arrows ultimately led to himself. I used to play a conspiracy theory card game, Illuminati!, understanding that it was intended to be tongue in cheek and deliberately ridiculous. (“The Disciples of Cthulhu control the Trilateral Commission through the Boy Scouts? Who knew, but now it all makes sense!”)

At the same time, I felt a little guilty about the humor. Now, I feel very guilty. Conspiracy theory humor needs to go to the same cultural dump as the 1950s meme of horny bosses chasing secretaries around their desks, blonde jokes, and whatever the hell Micky Rooney was doing in Breakfast At Tiffany’s (and whoever voted to give him an Academy Award for doing it).

Conspiracy theories are poison. The body politic can tolerate them in small amounts, when the conspiracy theorists are a small, relatively isolated demographic. The problem is, at times in American history, they haven’t stayed on the fringes. Not surprisingly, there is a strong connection between many conspiracy theory movements and nativism. For example:

  • The fear of the Bavarian Illuminati’s purported influence over world affairs goes as far back in American history as the 1790s. Fear of foreign ideas (French Jacobinism in particular) helped fuel these anxieties.
  • Jacksonian populism congealed into the Anti-Masonic Party in the 1820s and 1830s, when there were fears about the immoral secret organizations working behind the scenes against the salt-of-the-earth Americans. Masons were the original focus, but eventually the aperture of fear expanded to include Catholics and Jews.
  • The Know-Nothing Party saw, in an era of large Catholic immigration from Europe, a vast Catholic conspiracy against a Protestant America. The Party’s propaganda often featured cartoon versions of immoral Irishmen and lecherous priests.

These early conspiracy theories exacerbated tensions that already existed in the early history of the United States: rural versus urban; elites versus average people; nativists versus immigrants; Protestants versus Catholics. As you slide ahead in the timeline of American history, you find new conspiracy theories, such as the Red Scare.

I grew up in Orange County, California, where a contemporary conspiracy theory got its legs. The John Birch Society had 38 chapters in Orange County in the 1960s, and its membership included notables like the actor John Wayne and Walter Knott, jelly magnate and owner of the theme park Knott’s Berry Farm. Congressman John Schmitz, who represented the wealthier part of Orange County in the House of Representatives, was a very vocal supporter of the John Birch Society, and a promoter of the ideas in extremist books like None Dare Call It Treason.

In all these cases, the establishment successfully ignored, curbed, or absorbed the conspiracy theorists. (An interesting example of absorption: a Know Nothing politician elected to Congress, Nathaniel P. Banks, later switched parties and eventually became one of the Union’s “political generals” during the Civil War.) While there were scary moments for the establishment, such as the fuel that Bircher-minded right wingers added to Goldwater’s campaign in 1964, the establishment always won.

Now, the Oval Office is occupied by the conspiracy theorist in chief. Aside from his support for conspiracy theories, such as the infamous birther charge against Barack Obama, he and many of his followers display the dangerous mindset of conspiracy thinking. Enemies are everywhere. Every factual challenge to the conspiracy theory (no, there is no basement in the Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor in DC) can be rebutted with even more tortured thinking. People who are in positions of authority are not to be trusted, because they’re really trying to inject tracking chips into you, or harm you in some other way. This thinking is inherently anti-democratic, because there is no democratic debate with secret devils who are trying to kill or enslave you.

We now have candidates for public office who are avowed supporters of the QAnon conspiracy, so the problem isn’t confined to the Current Occupant. We are far beyond the point where the establishment can ignore conspiracy theorists, and it may not be possible to blunt them in the fashion that, say, William F. Buckley was able to provide a conservative counter-balance to Birch founder Robert Welch’s wild ravings, such as Eisenhower was a secret communist, and (yet again) the Illuminati are running the world. Instead of the establishment absorbing the conspiracy theorists, the conspiracy theorist in chief has absorbed the Republican establishment.

Therefore, there’s nothing funny about conspiracy theories. The people in real or metaphorical tinfoil hats aren’t pestering people in their community, one unhappy person at a time. They find fellow travelers and new converts through social media and other mass channels dedicated to preventing vaccinations and “proving” that the Earth is flat. They are organized and mobilized at a scale that rivals, or possibly exceeds, the Anti-Masons and the Know Nothings. That’s no laughing matter. As Richard Hofstadter ended his famous essay, “The Paranoid Style In American Politics”:

We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.

We are now trapped in these fantasies with the fantasists.

FILED UNDER: US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
About Kingdaddy
Kingdaddy is returning to political blogging after a long hiatus. For several years, he wrote about national security affairs at his blog, Arms and Influence, under the same pseudonym. He currently lives in Colorado, where he is still awestruck at all the natural beauty here. He has a Ph.D in political science that is oddly useful in his day job.


  1. Nightcrawler says:

    I’m just commenting because of your TLG photo. I met all three of them at X-Fest last year. They’re hilarious!

  2. CSK says:

    Conspiracy theories appeal to people who feel they’ve been screwed by life. Whatever happens isn’t your fault; no, it was caused by sinister forces arrayed against you.

    And…believing in a conspiracy not only gives you a feeling of belonging to a group of like-minded people, it also makes you feel special.

  3. Kingdaddy says:

    @CSK: Agency is important in conspiracy thinking. Political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset once pointed out that one of the attractions of conspiracy theories is the underlying notion that someone is in charge. The notion that evil people are pulling all the strings might be more comforting to someone than the idea that no one is actually in control of events.

  4. CSK says:

    Indeed. And, in theory anyway, evil people can be fought and vanquished. (Don’t the QAnon followers believe that any day now Donald Trump will rise and smite the globalist cabal of pedophile-cannibals?) It’s much more comforting to believe that than that events occur at random.

  5. Monala says:

    @CSK: I once tried to actually read some Q threads. In between all the paranoia and speculation, a few people made comments like, “This is so much fun! It’s like being a part of your own mystery novel!”

  6. DrDaveT says:

    Have you read Foucault’s Pendulum? If not, you’re in for a treat.

  7. Kylopod says:


    In between all the paranoia and speculation, a few people made comments like, “This is so much fun! It’s like being a part of your own mystery novel!”

    There is of course an entire genre of conspiracy thrillers, from The X-Files to Dan Brown’s novels. It’s generally believed that the moon-hoaxers were partly inspired by the 1970s film Capricorn One, which features literal black helicopters and a fake Mars mission filmed in a Hollywood studio. And there are also attempted deconstructions of this genre, such as the (underrated) book and movie Shutter Island.

  8. JohnMcC says:

    I bet the name of the book you cite in the body of this post is actually “None Dare Call It Treason”.

  9. CSK says:

    Didn’t everyone as a kid want to belong to a secret club? QAnon isn’t terribly secret, but maybe it satisfies that desire.

    You’re a braver person than I to wade through that crap. Those people will never wake up to the fact that they’re being jerked around.

  10. Blue Galangal says:

    @DrDaveT: One of my top 5 favorite books of all time. I reread it every couple of years.

  11. Kingdaddy says:

    @JohnMcC: Thank you, corrected.

  12. Joe says:

    I tend to gloss over when someone rolls out the conversation starter, “it is no coincidence that. . . .” Actually, more often than not, it is.

  13. Kathy says:

    Don’t forget the 9/11 truthers.

    I’d take advice variously attributed to Ben Franklin and Mark Twain: Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.

  14. JohnMcC says:

    @Kingdaddy: Interesting. Before I wrote that little note I googled the name to see if ‘none dare call it conspiracy’ would pop. Of course, it didn’t. But I did learn that there are numerous booksellers who are charging $35 to 60 bucks for a copy of that trash.

    I have no idea what that means but it definitely isn’t something that would happen in a rational world.

  15. Kathy says:


    It’s generally believed that the moon-hoaxers were partly inspired by the 1970s film Capricorn One,

    I saw that move for some reason. What would have given the conspiracy away, was they used a Saturn V rocket to launch people to Mars.

  16. Jen says:

    Okay–this post opened a random crack in my brain. IIRC, the Lone Gunmen from the X-Files got a spin-off show, and the pilot episode is now totally creepy in retrospect. The episode featured a plane *out of Boston* that had the controls taken over and was supposed to crash into the World Trade Center.

    It aired in early 2001 (just checked Wikipedia, apparently the episode aired March 4, 2001). While not that far-fetched (WTC had been attacked before, so clearly it was a target), the prescience of it all is strange, insomuch as it was so close in method and timing. {shudder}

    People like puzzles. To me, that’s the “appeal” of conspiracy theories, they take straightforward events and make people think there’s some kind of hidden puzzle that needs to be solved. Nope. Truth is usually not that complicated.

    And you’re right, it’s not funny, it’s destructive as is clearly being demonstrated.

  17. grumpy realist says:

    @Jen: I think people also have this desperate need to believe that Good People Win and We’re Always Increasing Upwards. The fact that incompetence can end up totally trashing a system not out of malice but out of pure blundering is something no one likes to admit.

    Plus, a lot of conspiracy theorists are bored with existence. Much easier to come up with an elegant conspiracy where everything links back into each other as part of a well-thought-out plan.

    The rest of us prefer opera.

  18. JohnMcC says:

    Never thought this particular thread would keep me coming back, BUT….

    When mysterious federal policemen in unmarked uniforms and anonymous vans are roaming Portland snatching people they deem likely malefactors…. Or are they?

    When Vladimir Putin seems to have the American President by the short hairs…. Or does he?

    What is a ‘conspiracy theory’ exactly? When we have to figure all this out pretty much on our own it’s no wonder that some unifying sinew is presumed by someone who is otherwise reasonably intelligent.

    The ‘unifying vision’ behind ‘None Dare Call It Treason’ was that the Soviets had NO WAY to succeed in the post WW2 world. They’d been backwards before the Wehrmacht destroyed the entire nation west of the Urals. They couldn’t keep electricity running in their major cities. And they were apparently beating our socks off in the huge foreign policy contests of the 40s and 50s. So our leadership was either stupid or…. COMMIES!

    Actually, if the foundation of that argument is accepted (that the Russkies were backwards) it’s not dumb to hold it in your mind.

    Lots more similar issues are all around us.

  19. Joe says:

    @Kathy: If it were so easy to run a conspiracy, evidence of weapons of mass destruction would have been “found” after the invasion of Iraq.

  20. MarkedMan says:

    KingDaddy, I completely agree with what you are saying and want to amplify something you alluded to. Belief in conspiracy theories can be dangerous to any individual who goes too far down the rabbit whole. In this case, “that way lies madness” is all too real. But the deliberate use of conspiracy theories by the powerful is dangerous to a society as a whole. That way lies destruction of norms and the rule of law. These deliberate conspiracy theories are almost always propagated to allow sweeping and immoral actions that would not be tolerated absent the theories.

    One of the common tropes of conspiracy theorists is that Jews control all the money. The seed from which this germinated is illustrative of the horrible power of the deliberate use of conspiracy theory by rulers.

    In the Middle Ages Christian kingdoms typically did not allow non-Christians to own property or lands, which was considered the only noble and “clean” source of wealth. Commerce was considered beneath a nobles station. Because of this, non-Christians, including Jews, tended to go into commerce as the only available path to prosperity. Commerce often includes travel to distant lands at a time when it was not unusual for even the wealthiest landowners to spend their entire lives within a day’s ride of their birthplace. Because Jews tended to be isolated within their cities and could not intermarry with Christians there was not much opportunity to find marriageable partners in the smaller localities. So the journeys abroad resulted in close family ties between groups that were hundreds or even thousands of miles apart.

    As commerce became more important the transfer of small and large sums of money between individuals far apart was crucial, but roads were dangerous. So some of the merchants set themselves up as the prototype of bankers. A merchant in one city could send a draft from one banker to another and the actual cash transfer was then handled entirely locally. At first these drew no notice of the power but as commerce grew and grew and grew the sums involved became large enough to, say, hire an entire army to fight your war, or to literally pay a kings ransom.

    It was inevitable that these vast stores of treasure would draw the attention of the rulers. It had long been a technique of kings To steal a fellow lords lands by “discovering” a betrayal and using it as an excuse to seize all they owned, putting the hapless landowner to the sword to boot. But using this too often would result in grumbling and eventual assassination or overthrow.

    The rich Jewish merchants were a glorious opportunity. Conveniently located nearby but not actually considered by anyone to be part of the kingdom. No family ties which would trigger revenge. All one had to do was develop a scandalous enough conspiracy theory and spread it far and wide, then seize every Jew with treasure and put them to the stake, taking everything they owned. The rabble in the street, inflamed by the demon haunted conspiracies, would do with the poor Jews what they would.

  21. Rick DeMent says:

    Hey an Illuminati fan! Great Game, spent hours playing it. Still have a couple different editions including the original box set.

    I thought I was one of the very few 🙂

  22. Kylopod says:

    @MarkedMan: The origin of the association between Jews and money is a very complicated topic. I was once reading a book that was supposed to be a history of capitalism in the West, and it spent a surprising amount of space discussing Jews and anti-Semitism. Part of it had to do with the fact that the Church considered moneylending a sin, yet it was increasingly considered useful in society. So Jewish moneylenders were a valuable asset to Christians yet got all the brunt of the negative attitudes Christian society had about the activity. (Medieval Italy actually had a loophole where Christians would be declared to be legal Jews so they could engage in moneylending.) These attitudes rubbed off on both capitalists and communists: both Voltaire and Marx invoked the Greedy Jew in their writings.

    But it wasn’t until the Protocols in the late-19th century that the image of the conspiratorial Jew bent on world domination took full bloom.

  23. Gustopher says:

    There was a memorable episode of a related TV show, Millennium, in which someone drew on every square foot of a room an elaborate map of a conspiracy in which all arrows ultimately led to himself.

    I loved Millennium. Lance Henrikson is amazing in it.

    But, onto the main point… a year ago, if you were to tell me that unmarked vans were patrolling the streets of American cities, and government agents from unknown agencies were leaping out and abducting people and then hauling them off for processing… I would have thought you were a loon. And now, that’s just America under Donald J. Trump.

  24. Mu Yixiao says:

    I have two replies, one short, one long.

    1) Conspiracy theories–and those who believe them need to be laughed at more. You don’t argue facts with them, or tell them their wrong–that just adds fuel to the fire. But if you laugh at them like they’re a child, it takes away some of their ammunition. Everybody likes to be “in the know”, but nobody likes to be a fool.

    2) You’re missing a powerful aspect of conspiracy theories: The human need for fear.

    The human brain (limbic system, hypothalamus) evolved to keep us alive. It did that by making us “afraid”. That noise in the grass might be the wind… or it might be a tiger. There’s no downside to a “tiger false positive”. There is to a “wind false positive”.

    When we moved out of the Savannah and started developing intelligence and culture–the beginnings of civilization, we’d learned to defend ourselves from the tigers. But we still “needed to be afraid”. So we created gods and demons, vampires and werewolves, of which to be afraid. However, we needed the other side of fear: Catharsis. When we escaped the tiger, we got a rush. That taught us how to escape it even better next time. And we taught our tribe how to escape it.

    With the unseen gods and demons, we couldn’t tell if we’d defeated them. So we put our trust in priests and shamans who gave us “weapons” of ritual and totems with which to defeat the new danger[1]. Religion–for all of its faults–is arguably the single biggest influence in the advancement of civilization. It channeled our need for fear, gave us “protection” and catharsis. It allowed us to progress.

    With the coming of the industrial age, our fear turned to machines rather than gods and demons. Through a very long and difficult transition, scientists replaced shamans. They taught us how to “tame” technology and make it serve us. We “defeated” it.

    In the middle of the 20th century, we could fear the Nazis–and we knew how to defeat them. After that, we had the “Commies” (and they had us). Our teachers and our leaders taught us how to stand against them. We caught them and punished them. But we had to remain on the lookout for more spies–because they look just like us!

    With the fall of the Soviet block, we lost our “demons”–so our fear looked for a new target. 9/11 gave us a great one with “terrorists”… but in most cases, it was too distant (or too easily identifiable–they all look like “those people’, I can just avoid “those people” and I’ll be safe.)

    Recent flare-ups aside, we live in the safest time ever. We live in the most prosperous time ever. (reference) And yet “every stranger is going to steal my baby for sex trafficking!” (in any given year, only 115 children are abducted by strangers–for any reason).

    We’ve defeated small pox[2] and polio. We had mumps, measles, chicken pox, and dozens of other formerly devastating diseases under control.

    We’re SAFE. By any standard from even 75 years ago, we live in a virtual utopia. Our poor people live longer, healthier, “richer” lives than our grandparents could ever dream of[3].

    That’s the problem. We have nothing to be afraid of. And we need to fear.

    Conspiracy theories are the new vampires. The new demons. It gives people something to be afraid of–and the “inside knowledge” gives them the tools they need to “avoid the tigers”.

    Conspiracies are tailored to the target audience. Look at any conspiracy theory. Then look at the “opposing side”. You’ll find what the target audience fears the most.

    If you stop laughing at them, it means you’re taking them seriously. If you’re taking them seriously, they must be on to something. If you keep arguing so insistently that there is no conspiracy, the conspiracy must be true.

    Why else would you fight so hard to keep it a secret?

    So…. I’m going to keep on laughing. And try to point those in need of fear towards more deserving targets[4].

    Q: What’s that weird rock by your door?
    A: It keeps the tigers away.
    Q: There aren’t any tigers in Toledo.
    A: See! It works!

    [2] How many of you have the scar on your arm?

    [3] Okay… that kinda depends on how old your grandparents are. My paternal grandparents were literally peasants, “owned” by the local nobility. My maternal grandfather told me he remembers people laughing at him (he was a lineman for the city) when he said “some day, every house will have electricity”.

    [4] Like candy corn. And those orange, peanut-shaped, marshmallow things. The mallow-military complex is up to something–and it’s targeting our children!

  25. grumpy realist says:

    @Kylopod: It used to be that charging interest as a moneylender and a Christian would result in excommunication under canon law. This worked as long as the economy was purely agriculturally based, but as soon as banking started to drive the wheels of the economy during the Renaissance, the Shock&Horror about interest (with as said a lot of canon law to back it up) became very very inconvenient.

    ….the use of excommunication by the Church as a mechanism of implementing economic social control persisted, but was less and less effective the closer Europe got to the Renaissance. And then Martin Luther came along and nailed his Theses to the door and, well, the rest is history.

    (Martin Luther’s anti-Semitism obviously didn’t help the status of Jews in Europe.)

  26. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @DrDaveT: Well, that’s one county heard from. I’ve always thought that it was a draft of his doctoral dissertation rejected by the committee and subsequently novelized. I got all the way through, but much like Atlas, got tired of the premise and slogged through just to say I finished it.

    But as I’ve noted before, I’m not much of a *literature* guy, the advanced degree in English is only a disguise in my case.

  27. Gustopher says:

    What if I were to tell you that in 1958, retired candy manufacturer Robert Welch, in addition to founding the John Birch society, also began donating to create “History of Jazz” shows on various radio stations across the country, to help insure that instead of hearing things like “The Birth of the Cool” on the radio people would hear an interminably long story about a rare Glenn Miller performance where an uncredited Miles Davis played harmonica, before he was able to afford a trumpet, followed by a short, grainy, scratchy recording that might be that thing, all to ensure that America’s youth does not fall in love with jazz during it’s most innovating and inventive years? Because, you know, racism.

    What if I were to tell you that these terrible shows sprang up across the country, often hosted by amiable, long-winded dupes with awful voices and even worse stories and music, and long pauses in their delivery so that for up to three seconds you are not sure when the next recording was recorded (nineteen twenty … (pause) … three)? All funded by Birchers. Terrible hosts that just drive away any listeners that might have liked the music.

    What if I were to tell you that this plot against jazz continues to the present day?

  28. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @JohnMcC: I actually read the book growing up as an emerging conservative would-be intellectual titan. Wags in my company called it None Dare Call It Intelligence if I recall correctly.

    ETA: “booksellers who are charging $35 to 60 bucks for a copy of that trash.”
    Now you’re just zoomin’ us; cut it out!

  29. Kylopod says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Martin Luther’s anti-Semitism obviously didn’t help the status of Jews in Europe.

    One of the amazing things about anti-Semitism is its malleability. When Luther split off from the Catholic Church, one might have expected him to reject its legacy of anti-Semitism, but no, he became a raging anti-Semite himself. When Voltaire rejected Christianity altogether, he still carried over its anti-Jewish attitudes. And when Marx (despite being of Jewish descent himself) rejected capitalism, he adopted those same anti-Jewish tropes. In the 20th century hatred of the Christ Killers should have seemed like a hoary old religious superstition with no relevance to the modern secular age–and yet it led to the greatest anti-Semitic mass murder of all time, dwarfing all the pogroms, massacres, and expulsions of the previous 2,000 years combined. Anti-Semitism exists across the political spectrum, among Christians, Muslims, and atheists (even a Japanese doomsday cult). If you’re Jewish, the enemy of your enemy is definitely not necessarily your friend; there are tons of groups in the world who hate each other but are united in their hatred of Jews (a theme of one of my all-time favorite Daily Show skits). Yet if you don’t know the history, it can just seem totally bizarre to hear someone today obsessed with the worldwide Jewish cabal–in an age when there are very few Jews in the world and fewer still with any serious Jewish identity (religious or otherwise). So anti-Semitism has almost the quality of a mutated virus that took on a life of its own.

  30. Kylopod says:

    @Gustopher: There’s a good article in Smithsonian Magazine that includes a discussion of the Nazi government’s attempt to create its own jazz propaganda band with the name Charlie and his Orchestra, while trying to suppress the genre in general. Here is a description of some of the details of the ban:

    1. Pieces in foxtrot rhythm (so-called swing) are not to exceed 20% of the repertoire of light orchestras and dance bands.

    2. In this so-called jazz type repertoire, preference is to be given to compositions in a major key and to lyrics expressing joy in life rather than Jewishly gloomy lyrics;

    3. As to tempo, preference is also to be given to brisk compositions over slow ones (so-called blues); however, the pace must not exceed a certain degree of allegro, commensurate with the Aryan sense of discipline and moderation. On no account will Negroid excesses in tempo (so-called hot jazz) or in solo performances (so-called breaks) be tolerated;

    4. So-called jazz compositions may contain at most 10% syncopation; the remainder must consist of a natural legato movement devoid of the hysterical rhythmic reverses characteristic of the barbarian races and conductive to dark instincts alien to the German people (so-called riffs);

    5. Strictly prohibited is the use of instruments alien to the German spirit (so-called cowbells, flexatone, brushes, etc.) as well as all mutes which turn the noble sound of wind and brass instruments into a Jewish-Freemasonic yowl (so-called wa-wa, hat, etc.);

    6. Also prohibited are so-called drum breaks longer than half a bar in four-quarter beat (except in stylized military marches);

    7. The double bass must be played solely with the bow in so-called jazz compositions;

    8. Plucking of the strings is prohibited, since it is damaging to the instrument and detrimental to Aryan musicality; if a so-called pizzicato effect is absolutely desirable for the character of the composition, strict care must be taken lest the string be allowed to patter on the sordine, which is henceforth forbidden;

    9. Musicians are likewise forbidden to make vocal improvisations (so-called scat);

    10. All light orchestras and dance bands are advised to restrict the use of saxophones of all keys and to substitute for them the violin-cello, the viola or possibly a suitable folk instrument.

  31. JohnMcC says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: I also was one of those obnoxious kids who toted those books (‘A Choice and Not An Echo’, ‘The Poisons in Your Food’) around the halls of my high school. In my case, actually meeting real Republican operatives in the ’69 to ’70 time frame opened my eyes to the cynicism of the so-called-conservatives. Then Nixon…. Don’t get me started.

    And the price of a copy of ‘Treason’? Check it out. Made me feel like I’d thrown away a Mickey Mantle rookie card.

  32. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    Hey! Leave one of my favorite card games out of this! Illuminati is awesome fun.

    Conspiracy theories grow out of our brains need to impose order on chaos. The Internet has made it all worse by by allowing the gullible to find and reinforce each other, while being preyed upon by everyone from grifters and con artists to motivated purveyors of propaganda and misinformation.

  33. steve says:

    My father was a Bircher. I had to read None Dare Call It Treason. There were also records with clever anti-communist and anti-Jew songs. There were meetings for th eBirchers. As far as I can remember they were for men only.


  34. DrDaveT says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    And those orange, peanut-shaped, marshmallow things.

    Brach’s Circus Peanuts ™

    There is a legendary moment in my family history when we went to visit my great-aunt Esther, and for dessert she served a jello salad made with Brach’s Circus Peanuts and 7-Up. It fluoresced even under ordinary room lights, and tasted about like you’d expect.

  35. CSK says:

    Dear God, that sounds loathsome.

  36. @JohnMcC:

    I bet the name of the book you cite in the body of this post is actually “None Dare Call It Treason”.

    According to wikipedia, the book co-written by the congressman John Schmitz is “None Dare Call it Conspiracy”; “None Dare Call It Treason” is a book by the pastor John Stormer

  37. grumpy realist says:

    @DrDaveT: Have you ever read the book “Square Meals” by Jane Stern? It’s a lovely wander (chapter by chapter) through such American institutions as Diner Meals, the Tiki-Bar, WWII cooking…..along with actual recipes. There’s a final chapter on the ghastly concoctions that were created from such ingredients as jello, Miracle Whip, and Twinkies. Your great-aunt’s salad sounds like it would have been a memorable addition.

  38. CSK says:

    Please release me from comment purgatory.

  39. JohnMcC says:

    @Miguel Madeira: Well, kiss my grits! Thank you for checking.

  40. MarkedMan says:

    @steve: OK. Friday night, so music, and it has to be appropriate to this thread, including the Birchers. I nominate one of my favorite obscure Canadian Independent Rock songs, “Beatnik Communism”.

  41. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kylopod: I take it this wouldn’t pass
    And probably not this either.
    And definitely not this one. 🙁

    ETA: And yes, I could have gone with Charlie Parker, but that would have been too easy.

  42. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @grumpy realist: I had a copy of that when it came out. IIRC, my ex-wife asked me to leave it with her when we separated.

    I couldn’t understand why because she didn’t cook–like ever.

  43. DrDaveT says:


    If you’re Jewish, the enemy of your enemy is definitely not necessarily your friend; there are tons of groups in the world who hate each other but are united in their hatred of Jews

    …leading to that classic line in Tom Lehrer’s song “National Brotherhood Week”.

  44. Christopher Osborne says:

    In An Iron Wind by Peter Fritzsche he quotes an historian of occupied France who summarized, “Rumor creates an atmosphere which is both credulous and cynical, making people eager to believe anything they hear, however fantastic, but at the same time reluctant to believe anything, however well authenticated.”

  45. rachel says:


    Don’t forget the 9/11 truthers.

    I shared an office with one for a few years. He was a nice, polite young man and educated, but nothing I could say to him on this topic could make him see reason. Scientific analysis of the disaster and appeals to how humans actually behave both fell on deaf ears.

    He eventually said, “Huh, OK,” and stopped bringing it up.

  46. sam says:

    Hmmm. Here’s a thought: Christianity as a conspiracy theory. See, Book of Revelation.

  47. Ernie Lazar says:

    FYI: Neither John Wayne or Walter Knott were members of the John Birch Society although they may have made favorable comments about the group.

    In Wayne’s case, the confusion originated because of a report by an FBI informant in June 1960 who was speculating about what Hollywood personalities MIGHT be members of the Beverly Hills chapter of the JBS. This informant was not speaking from first-hand knowledge, i.e. he was not a member of that chapter. He then listed John Wayne, Ronald Reagan (also not a member), Morrie Ryskind (who had been a JBS member but he resigned), Adolphe Menjou (who had been a JBS member but he also resigned after he spoke with William F. Buckley Jr. at a dinner and Buckley told Menjou what JBS founder Robert Welch believed about President Eisenhower), Zazu Pitts and Hedda Hopper (but nobody has ever found definitive evidence that either of them were JBS members).

  48. Ernie Lazar says:

    The entire purpose of most political conspiracy theories is NOT to carefully present evidence and then use reason and logic to arrive at sound, verifiable conclusions. Instead, most political conspiracy theories are primarily an intellectual device by which individuals and organizations identify and demonize their perceived enemies whom they propose to vanquish.

    There is a distinction between perceiving an “opponent” (i.e. an honorable, decent, and legitimate competitor–albeit wrong-headed from one’s own perspective) versus an “enemy”(i.e. someone characterized in terms calculated to evoke fear, contempt, suspicion, distrust, and revulsion.)

    Most conspiracy theories focus upon enemies, not upon opponents. One’s receptivity to logic and evidence diminishes drastically when one confronts “enemies” as opposed to “opponents”.

    The substantive content of a political conspiracy theory is often completely irrelevant to the underlying purpose of the theory and, in any event, there is no possible way to refute or disprove most such theories to the satisfaction of its authors or adherents because most political conspiracy theories are constructed to be self-sealing so that contradictory data can be instantly dismissed, ignored, or de-valued. The reason is because the theory functions as a problem-solving device but the actual “problem” has virtually nothing to do with the details regarding people and events which are part of the conspiratorial narrative.

    The actual “problem” which political conspiracy theories seek to address is explaining one’s sense of impotence—i.e. providing plausible reasons for why one’s values, ideas, policy preferences, and political candidates seem to be repeatedly ignored, disparaged, violated, or defeated – particularly over long periods of time. Consequently, the conspiracy theory expresses the rage (and impotence) felt when a person perceives himself or his group as persistent “losers” in all matters of importance.

    Therefore, the conspiracy theory functions as a “rolodex” of people and organizations who should not be permitted to have a place at the table, because “they” despoil our country, “they” defile its true values, and “they” plan to rob us of our heritage and “they” seek to make impotence a permanent feature of our lives.

  49. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @DrDaveT: Yeah, that line from “National Brotherhood Week” occurred to me also. I sometimes played Tom Lehrer’s “Oedipus Rex” to my students when talking about Greek drama.

  50. JohnSF says:

    Anyone else heard of the latest Qanon related conspiracy theory?
    That Wayfair’s rather expensive furniture is really a cover for child exploitation?

    I think I was innoculated against any latent inclination to conspiracy theorizing in part by reading Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus trilogy in late teens, (especially at about the same time as reading Karl Popper).
    It just took conspiracy theory and turned it up to 11 in hilarious fashion.

  51. JohnSF says:

    A thought re. conspiratorial” thinking and popular culture; it’s interesting that in virtually all popular films and TV that have “conspiracies” as part of the plot setting, the conspiracy theories turns out to be true.
    It’s very unusual that said theories are found to be a load of nonsense, and their believers deluded fools.

    Scepticism of the “revealed truth” of authority is a valuable trait in a culture, but can be overdone, especially if combined with a tendency to irrationality.

    I think I’ve commented before, education that includes basics of logic, standard rhetorical tropes, critical reasoning, rules of valid evidence etc. might be a good idea.

  52. Kylopod says:


    It’s very unusual that said theories are found to be a load of nonsense, and their believers deluded fools.

    Well, I actually alluded to one example, but I don’t want to say any more, since it contains spoilers for the work in question.

  53. JohnSF says:

    Shutter Island? I’ve seen that; good film.
    Though is it classic “conspiracy theory”?
    The possible conspiracy is not really political; and the basis is more the tale of personal trauma and delusion?

    A real anti-conspiratorial movie might be one where a person or persons were peddling falsehoods for personal advantage, and/or out of sheer folly.

    The closest to that I can think of offhand would be Men Who Stare at Goats, LOL.

    Maybe also Burn before Reading?; though perhaps that’s a bit more ambiguous?

  54. JohnSF says:

    Burn Before Reading LOL
    Burn After Reading, of course.
    Excuse: it should have been Burn Before Reading!
    Coen Brothers, contact me for advice! 🙂

    Anyhoo, doesn’t fit, conspiracy theory isn’t the key to the plot, just the Coen riff on contingency and malevolent fate.