Architects of Fear

by George Johnson

copyright 1983 by George Johnson. All rights reserved.

about this book

Who runs the world? Most of us wonder that at times. Is there a mysterious They, a group of secret conspirators who manipulate world events? Almost as soon as we ask the question, we dismiss it as absurd. We are taught to believe that the world works in more complex and subtle ways.

When, for example, we consider what started World War II, we see many possibilities: the tensions resulting from carving up the Austro-Hungarian empire; the tangle of treaties and secret pacts among the European nations; the effect of the world depression on the German economy; the pressures resuiting from German, Italian, and Japanese expansionism. And there are the less tangible factors as well-the character of a nation, the spirit of an age, the pathological drives of leaders seeking power.

Explanations for the way the economy operates are equally elusive. When we ask why prices rise and fall, we are presented with a web of interrelated factors: the rate of production of the nation's factories; the relative size of the gross national product, federal deficit, and money supply; the price of gold compared to the price of the dollar; the fluctuations of the world currency exchange; the balance between U. S. imports and exports; the changing demographic characteristics of the population; the social and psychological aspects of consumption.

In other words, there are no final answers. History and economics are not puzzles to solve. There is no "right" solution, but only models to help us understand. Faced with the world's complexity and uncertainty, we don't stop seeking explanations. The search for order is one of the most elevating of human activities, even though we know it is a quest that can never end. As the amount of information we possess increases, and we are exposed to an accelerating number of theories and conflicting points of view, we learn to absorb into our world view the idea that there are a number of different ways to interpret events - that there is not a single all-embracing system. We learn that knowledge is dynamic, not static - that reality looks different to different people.

This book is about a large number of Americans who reject this pluralistic view. They have taken to an extreme the desire to find connections between events, to find a cause for every effect. They don't react to new information and ideas by adapting. Instead they try to squeeze the world into their systems. They have a deep-seated suspicion that someone is responsible for the world's problems: Communists, Jews, Catholics, bankers, intellectuals, secular humanists - or, simply, Satan. To rationalize their fear and hatred they build elaborate systems explaining all the world's troubles as part of a conspiracy. Inflation, they say, is caused by Jewish bankers plotting to wreck America - or by Communists, or by a combination of the two. World War II is dismissed as a Vatican (or Jewish or Communist) plot.

Most of us at one time or another engage in this kind of thinking. After the Kennedy assassination, many people found it easier to believe in a plot involving the CIA, KGB, and FBI than to accept the seemingly absurd notion that an angry gunman could kill a president and change history. But there is a difference between those who occasionally succumb to the attraction of pat, conspiratorial explanations and the conspiracy theorists examined in this book, who believe everything bad that has ever happened is part of an all-engulfing, centuries-old plot.

The late historian Richard Hofstadter coined the phrase "the paranoid style in American politics" to describe the tradition of casting one's enemies as pawns of a vast, mysterious conspiracy. Paranoia is a psychiatric term for a mental state in which people, seized with a sense of grandeur, believe enemies are scheming against them. A paranoid might, for example, hear imaginary voices and conclude that the FBI is invading his mind with radio waves because he is the last sane person on earth. In political paranoia, people exalt their own race, nation, or religion above all others; they feel persecuted as a group. They imagine that NBC, CBS, ABC, the newspapers, schools, and publishing industry are invading everyone's mind with new ideas, trying to overthrow the old way of life.

In a sense, they are right: society is in constant flux; the media and the schools are agents of change. Those who believe mankind's salvation lies with progress see modernization as an advance; the less enthusiastic see it as inevitable. But those who believe traditions are sacrosanct see change as erosion.

To the conspiracy theorists, the erosion is planned. They see their way of life not as one of many that must contend in the political marketplace, but as the expression of absolute truth. They believe their religion is the one true faith, that American democracy is the one true political system, that laissez-faire capitalism is the one true economic system. In a society that is coming to reject such absolutism for a more flexible, cosmopolitan view, they feel like outsiders. Because they assume the world is divided between forces of good and evil, they consider their opponents not as representatives of a rival philosophy but as dark conspirators.

Political paranoia is most obvious in the conspiracy theories of extremist groups like the John Birch Society and the hundreds of survivalist and right-wing political organizations that form what is known as the radical right. There are at most several hundred thousand Americans who support these groups or subscribe to their publications. But beliefs that are overt among the extremists can be implicit in much larger segments of the population.

I first became aware of how widespread the paranoid style of politics has become when I worked as a reporter for the Minneapolis Star, covering what my editors and I called the "idea beat." By writing about philosophy, politics, religion, and science, I tried to penetrate the surface of the daily news to get readers to think about the ideas and beliefs that motivate events. I was interested in uncovering the underlying assumptions that determine the way we perceive the world. I was especially interested in the way reality looks to people whose beliefs are very different from mine.

As I wrote about fundamentalist Protestants, creationists, survivalists, antiabortionists, and members of right-wing political movements such as the Moral Majority and the new Right, I was struck by the degree to which their world views coincide. Although the details of what members of these groups believe vary widely, many of them share a way of thinking that is very similar to the paranoid style. They tend to perceive reality as a tightly constructed system in which good fights evil for control of the earth; in which all problems occur because of satanic plans; in which civilization is declining toward an inevitable Armageddon. As I interviewed members of these groups and studied their writings, I realized that the most important difference between them and their opponents is not so much that they disagree on specific issues, but that they believe the world works in different ways.

As a pluralist who believes there are many possible ways to explain reality, and as a secular humanist who believes that knowledge discovered by humans must take precedence over the biblical word of God, I was considered by members of many of the groups I studied to be an enemy. As a representative of the press, which champions a pluralistic, secular view, I was often eyed with suspicion.

When I interviewed Robert White, leader of a national right-wing organization called the Duck Club, he told me that the Minneapolis Star was part of an anti-American plot because its publisher belonged to the Trilateral Commission, an organization that promotes stronger international ties. After I wrote a series of articles about conspiracy theorist Lyndon LaRouche's pronuclear political cult (the people in the airports with the signs that say Feed Jane Fonda to the Whales), his followers denounced me in one of their magazines as part of a conspiracy of elitists that began in ancient Egypt.

White's and LaRouche's reactions were extreme - even within the fantastic world of political paranoia - but they demonstrated to me the friction that develops when world views collide. Like oil and water, the worlds of absolutists and pluralists are microscopically structured such that it is difficult for them to mix. They are immiscible paradigms - systems of thought that are, by nature, almost mutually exclusive. This book is an attempt to overcome that built-in barrier and help the people caught on each side learn to see how the world looks through alien eyes.

In writing this book, I have tried to avoid becoming a conspiracy theorist myself. As I chart the course of political paranoia, names of leaders of various extremist groups appear on the rosters of other groups, which have traits in common with still others. But what I believe I am mapping is a way of thinking, not a monolithic plot. While these groups share the same style of thinking, many of them differ in the substance of their beliefs. While some conspiracy theorists are antiSemitic, others, like Jerry Falwell, are strong supporters of Israel. Some conspiracy theorists are anti-Catholic; others are devout followers of the church. Leftists, of course, have conspiracy theories of their own, though generally not as all-embracing and supernatural as the right-wing versions described in this book.

I have also tried to avoid succumbing to the conspiracy theorists' tendency to paint the world black and white. Although political paranoia is destructive, its targets are not all necessarily admirable. I have no desire to defend or condemn groups such as the Trilateral Commission or the Council on Foreign Relations.

And, finally, I do not contend that there are no such things as conspiracies. Consider Watergate, or the Italian banking scandal of 1981, which involved a secret Freemasonic lodge and led to the resignation of the country's prime minister. But even real conspiracies are not the rigid, mechanistic closed systems the political paranoids see. They consist of people, not mindless pawns of evil. They are best understood and combated without the blinders of paranoia.

The purpose of this book is to demystify. At the root of even the strangest legend there are often seeds of truth. By understanding how history can be rearranged and used as a weapon against enemies, perhaps we can learn the dangers of seeing the world through what William Blake called "mind-forged manacles."