Saturday, January 20, 2007

Book Review: Daniel Pipes, "Conspiracy"

I just happened to see this on the library shelf the other day, and I thought I'd give it the rundown. For people with an interest in conspiracy (and/or the related social phenomena of New Age thinking, self-help, and racism), this book provides a solid and critical intellectual history, giving you the names you need to know if you're trying to understand where all these crazy ideas come from. Pipes also makes some contributions to the social analysis of the conspiracy phenomena, though he falls quite short as a philosopher. Specifically, his epistemology is hazy at best, so he has some difficulty drawing meaningful lines between "conspiracy theory" and real, if complex and sometimes overzealous, attempts by intellectuals and laymen to understand the broader forces that impact society. The most egregious of these slips is his characterization of perceptions of anti-black racism and misogyny in the West as paranoia, characterizations that are both deeply offensive and demonstrably wrong – institutional racism and sexism are about as real and widespread as it gets. Similarly, Pipes harries a false distinction by claiming that the proven, documented involvement of CIA operatives in the crack trade in Los Angeles in the 1980's is not the same as a conspiracy, and that therefore Black anti-government sentiments are unfounded. Such statements are simply ludicrous.

More generally, Pipes often blurs the distinctions between conspiracy theories that place immense power in the hands of a few individuals, and known "conspiracies" that take place across the globe because of how the economy, government, or culture are structured. So, for example, he will describe people's fears of the Rosicrucians and the Jewish conspiracy in the same terms, and apply the same explanations to them, as he does people's fear of Western imperialism. This looks particularly bad reading it ten years after the fact, as documents are increasingly readily available showing that many of the economic attacks that Pipes characterizes as conspiracy theories have actually taken place – for example, the fully intentional roles of the WTO and World Bank in destabilizing developing countries.

But despite the seeming tenuousness of Pipes characterization of, for example, Noam Chomsky as the equal of Lyndon LaRouche, he did succeed in getting me to ask some hard questions about the intellectual style of the left. It is undoubtedly true that, as Pipes points out, leftist Afrocentrism is far more institutionally accepted than right-wing Farrakhanism, even though each are based on tenuous concepts. Ultimately, how much responsibility do theorists such as Chomsky have to be rigorous in their diagnoses of wider political or social situations? Pipes provocatively quotes Susan Faludi's statement that misogyny is an ideology that has moved through "the culture's secret chambers" – and while clearly Faludi is speaking metaphorically, I think Pipes is fair in pointing out the parallels in style. Left-wing intellectuals do have a tendency to cast a very wide net in searching for causes of the problems they seek to diagnose, as well as attributing observable effects to causes both subtle and widespread – invisible, mysterious and often malevolent forces such as racism or exploitation. Sometimes this style of thinking can verge dangerously close to conspiracism; it is not enough that a system or statement be true in essence, it must be true in fact.

While he may be a lummox on more recent events, the benefit of hindsight makes Pipes a very good resource, as he recounts the history of conspiracism in high style. This is a shockingly long history, but measurable, with anti-Semitism and anti-Masonism having their starting points roughly in the 11th and then 14th centuries. The passage of these originary ideas forward in time is easily where the book is most useful and least controversial, as Pipes explains quite clearly and convincingly how the anti-Semitism of the Crusaders traveled through time to fuel the Nazis and, ultimately, over the sea to Japan (the popularity of anti-Semitism in Japan makes perfect sense if you've had much exposure to that culture).

Pipes also does a very creditable job of presenting some ideas as to why people chose Jews and Masons as the overwhelming targets of their suspicions, saying that these two groups represent the Modern – they are generally sophisticated and often powerful, thus fomenting resentment among people less likely to be dedicated to intellectual rigor. The only real problem with this thesis is that it is inconsistent with Pipes' millennia-long history of anti-Semitism – Jews were not always the successful, "model minority" they are now. They could hardly have been hated for their modernism, social advancement, or financial prowess in the 12th century, when most were living in segregated ghettos and were penniless.

The most important unanswered question, though, remains that of epistemology. How do we determine where "conspiracy" theories sit on the spectrum from concrete knowledge to broader, "spiritual" truth - is there a spot available somewhere between religion and science? Ultimately, how do we determine what is a 'conspiracy theory' and what is potentially valid speculation? It is because he fails to address such questions beforehand that Pipes occasionally stumbles in his classification of specific cases. But it is also what leads him to the very interesting choice to include left-wing theorists in the 'conspiracy' category, a move which I think is manifestly incorrect, but nonetheless sends a powerful message of warning to the most extreme indulgers in left-wing rhetoric that, if you're not careful, you might be mistaken for an Antimason.

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