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Not-So-Vast Conspiracies:
A Review of Robert Alan Goldberg's Enemies Within


Friday, Dec. 28, 2001
Robert Alan Goldberg, Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America (Yale University Press 2001)

In America society, conspiracy thinking is a time-honored tradition. For those who subscribe to conspiracy theories - whether to explain not only who shot President Kennedy in Dallas nearly 40 years ago but why, or to account for the mysterious statues on Easter Island - events are connected by causation rather than coincidence, intention rather than inadvertence, and conspiracy rather than confusion or chaos.  Now, with modern technological developments ranging from the cinematic techniques that made "JFK" such a beguiling movie to the rumor-spreading capacities of the Internet, the examples of and possibilities for conspiracy thinking have never been greater.

Not as popular - yet no less creative - are efforts to explain the enduring appeal and occasional popularity of conspiracy thinking.  The historian Richard Hofstadter gave a psychological explanation for this strain in American thought, arguing that belief in vast conspiracies followed from the "paranoid style" of those who lacked status on the margins of American society.  Others - such as Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, in their account of the Salem witchcraft trials - have emphasized the political and economic stakes in accusations of conspiracy. Professor Robert Goldberg's Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America is the latest contribution to this literature. 

Goldberg examines a number of different strains of conspiracy thinking in American society after World War II. He focuses, in particular, upon five different case studies: the "master" conspiracy (which historically emphasized the Communist fifth column but recently has shifted to concern about the New World Order); the theory positing the rise of the antichrist; the multiple-culprit theory of the assassination of President Kennedy; the claimed plot against Black America, and the purported Roswell UFO incident. 

Paranoids As Cranks: The View From Before September 11

Goldberg is not interested in diagnosing those who subscribe to a conspiratorial view of such topics, and does not offer a psychological explanation of why they believe what they do despite evidence to the contrary.  Instead, Goldberg provides a detailed account of the origins and growth of conspiracy thinking on each subject, focusing his attention on "rhetorical strategies, . . . business acumen, and the interplay within conspiracy-minded communities." 

Goldberg does not judge those who believe; indeed, his objectivity verges on sympathy as he patiently describes, for example, the career of Stanton Friedman, who worked as a nuclear physicist at General Electric, Westinghouse, and McDonnell Douglas before dedicating his life to proving the existence of UFOs and convincing others of the same. 

Goldberg's approach is reasonable, even generous, though at times - notably in the chapter on Roswell - he need not have strived for such a sympathetic approach.  Some cranks are not prophets. Nor is their failure to persuade others of their views proof of a greater conspiracy, as they themselves often suggest.

Intriguing Biographies, But A Reluctance to Judge

Still, one of the most commanding aspects of the book is the biographical sketches of various central figures in the conspiracies studied.  There are intriguing portraits of Robert Welch (who founded the conservative John Birch Society), Louis Farrakhan (who has kept the Nation of Islam vital after the turbulence of the 1960s, which included the assassination of Malcolm X), and Oliver Stone (who elevated conspiracy thinking to new aesthetic and popular heights with "JFK"), among others.

"Invasion of the Body Snatchers," for example, is considered to be a classic document of the political fears of the 1950s. The aliens - almost identical to the humans they replace, but slightly duller and united in their mindless conformity - appear to represent the dangers posed by the totalitarian Soviet Union and the ideology of Communism. Or do they represent the danger posed by unthinking adherence to any political system? The movie was released in 1956, shortly after Senator Joseph McCarthy had been sent into political exile after his crusade against Communism at home had flared out. Regardless of the soundness of either interpretation, why would a science fiction film involving an alien invasion serve as such a rich document of that era's political anxieties?

Goldberg summarizes "Invasion" in less than a paragraph, and does not always pause to answer such questions about that movie, or other movies and television shows he describes. He thus misses an opportunity to further educate and entertain the reader.

The View From After September 11:  Even Paranoids May Have True Enemies  

Reading Goldberg's book - written before September 11 - after September 11 gives it new significance. Conspiracy thinking is a timely topic in light of the attack upon America and subsequent events, including the anthrax mailings, the perpetrators of which are still unknown. 

On one hand, the September 11 attacks were the result of an extensive international conspiracy that involved rather detailed planning. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger (or perhaps something said to him by Golda Meir), even the United States has murderous enemies that act in concert secretly. Realizing this, the public, at least so far, appears to have generally accepted the federal government's restrictions upon personal freedom and commercial activity, crediting the notion that the risk posed by terrorist conspiracies justifies such measures. 

At the same time, as Laura Miller recently noted in the New York Times Magazine, the frustrating and mostly fruitless investigation of the hijackings and the subsequent anthrax scares seem to debunk at least one quasi-conspiracy theory. That is the notion - popularized on "The X-Files" - of an omnipotent federal government that has been capable of dictating the flow of history ever since the assassination of President Kennedy.

That the attack upon America could result in conflicting views about the dangers posed by conspiracies is consistent with Goldberg's analysis and approach. In the end, through no fault of the author, and certainly not as the result of any larger conspiracy, Enemies Within is both relevant and incomplete as a result of the events of September 11.  We will have to wait for another book from Goldberg to investigate current conspiracy theories, and those to come.

Rodger Citron, formerly an editor of Writ, is an attorney in Washington, D.C.

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