A review of Daniel Pipes' "Conspiracy: how the paranoid style flourishes and where it comes from"

By Jerry Russell and Richard Stanley

Revision 1.1, 3/25/2003

Many historical conspiracies (starting with the murder of Julius Caesar) are widely accepted facts.  When it comes to current or ongoing conspiracies, however, we are much more likely to find that the predominant view is set by the conspiracy naysayers.   These are social commentators of various ilk, ranging from network news anchors to public relations spin doctors to bar stool jockeys.  Daniel Pipes' 1997 book "Conspiracy: how the paranoid style flourishes and where it comes from" is a prime example of the naysayer's art, and yet (as we shall see) Pipes is also very good at promoting "conspiracy theories" when it suits his purposes.

The Swiss army knife in the naysayer’s toolbox is the skillful exploitation of the persona of the public.   In a Jungian view:  every individual maintains a vital defense mechanism called the persona,  which is their constructed  image or facade which is presented to the world.  The persona is not so much a self-consciously aware construct, but rather it is built up and internalized throughout the process of socialization during childhood.

In American culture, the persona includes a strong conviction that we are surrounded by people with benign intentions -- and that by joining enthusiastically in the American consumer culture, we are ourselves participating in an expression of the best of human aspirations.  We are deeply convinced, as part of our social make-up, that our culture represents the highest flowering of justice and democracy.  Of course, this psychological construct is continuously fortified by educational institutions, employers and the corporate media.

The persona also includes an  inbred social desire to belong to the currently favored social clique. By adhering to the conventional wisdom, anyone can leverage or protect their position in society, whether this be in elementary school playgrounds, in a corporation, or at the heights of governance.  By contrast, anyone who draws attention to wrongful acts within society, is acting as a cassandra or alarmist -- and risks a punishment proportional to the severity of the disconnect between the persona and the reality.

The ideas that emerge from the conspiracy literature --  that government is not always good but rather might be murderous and evil, that our society is to some extent based in trickery and deceit, causing pain and suffering around the world -- represent deep attacks on our own conception of ourselves.  In Jungian terms, these are part of the shadow world, the deeply repressed, unconscious archetypes of evil.   The conspiracy literature is not approached with normal cognitive facilities of critical evaluation, but rather it is attacked (if it is confronted at all) almost as a form of pornography, a tool of the Devil himself.

Daniel Pipes: Common Sense turned on its head. Daniel Pipes' book is best interpreted as an exquisitely crafted appeal to the deep-seated psychological prejudices in the persona of his readers.  Remarkably, Pipes frames the topic of "conspiracy theory" so that, by definition, his opponents must be, essentially,  wacko.  In an Orwellian semantic reversal, Pipes writes (p.21):

"A conspiracy theory is the fear of a nonexistent conspiracy. Conspiracy refers to an act, conspiracy theory to a perception. While the first is an old term, dating to Middle English, the latter goes back only some decades."

In a footnote, Pipes adds that a German term Verschworungsmythos, meaning "myth of conspiracy" is much more explanatory.  However,  he cannot bring himself to use this straightforward terminology in English, although it works just as well as in German.  Pipes ignores the fact that  the word "theory" is in itself quite neutral, as in "the theory of gravity" or "the theory of relativity", a scientific description of a thought process that may be quite accurate and factually based.  In fact, as hinted at by Pipes, it's highly likely that the pejorative use of the term "conspiracy theory" dates back to the controversies over the murder of John Kennedy and other liberal political figures of the '60s, when the term was hi-jacked and abused by media apologists for the mythical "lone nut" theories promoted by the FBI and other Federal agencies.

At any rate, the pejorative use of the term "conspiracy theory" is now widely accepted.  Our recommendation is that activists avoid the term, or else use it only in Pipes' sense --  such as the following expression --  "The myth of Islamic responsibility for 9-11 is a fraudulent conspiracy theory promoted by corporate media shills and the US government."

Pipes admits that conspiracies do occur, and have at times played an important role in history. He also states that there is a vast literature concerning conspiracies and their historical importance, and states that the quality of this literature varies widely, from tabloids and hysterical mimeographed handouts to highly scholarly and encyclopedic efforts by the most eminent scholars. Nevertheless, when it comes to determining the factual validity and historical effect of a conspiracy, Pipes recommends that the primary tools should be "Common Sense" and "A Knowledge of History" (pp. 38-39). In practical terms, this means accepting as axiomatic that "Catholics, Jews and Democrats do not use such methods" (that is, White Folks Like Us can never commit conspiracy, especially not if homicide is involved) and that "killings that make sense in Moscow do not in Washington".

In other words, rather than relying on factual analysis, Pipes asks that we enshrine our own parochial prejudices as the supreme and ultimate basis for judgment. Of course, Pipes' prejudices lead to a wholesale rejection of the real importance of many historical conspiracies which he summarily dismisses as fictional.

Other conspiracies (such as the Illuminati) are admitted to be factually based, yet Pipes avoids any analysis of their real significance.  He can only approach this literature with his hand firmly placed holding his nose: "I deal not with the cultural elite but its rearguard, not with the finest mental creations but its dregs.... conspiracist writings constitute a quite literal form of pornography (although political rather than sexual)." (p. 49)

To his credit, Pipes does suggests some valid criteria for assessment of the conspiracy literature; for example, he shows that some analysts rely too heavily on forged documents, or that they dismiss contradictory evidence, or have a cavalier attitude towards the facts. Unfortunately, these valid criteria are applied only sporadically in Pipes' survey of the literature.  Furthermore, as Pipes points out -- a sense of perspective is often lacking in studies of conspiracy, which fail to acknowledge their place in a broad tradition. Pipes' survey is something of an antidote to this problem, although seriously marred by his overt ideological bias.

Because of Pipes' presumptions, some of the most interesting conspiracies in recent history get very short shrift.  His analysis of the assassination of John F. Kennedy is remarkably inadequate.  Pipes notes that public opinion polls show that Americans overwhelmingly believe that Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy (in fact, a recent CBS poll shows that only 10% believe the Warren Commission conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, and only 13% are convinced that the government is innocent of perpetrating a cover-up.)  Pipes rejects the conspiracy model on the grounds of Occam's razor: the assassination and cover-up would have required too many participants in his view.  He also notes that conspiracists argue that the CIA was active in suppressing evidence, a charge which he argues is simply bad logic: "piling on conspiracy theories" and "dismissing contradictory evidence"(p.41).  Pipes agreeably quotes the analysis of Gerald Posner: that the enduring interest of the public in the JFK assassination is ultimately driven by a simple, vulgar profit motive, as conspiracy theorists make money by selling videtapes, memorabilia and books.   "The JFK murder has, regrettably, become an entertainment business," said Posner, who also contributed a ringing endorsement for the back cover of Pipes' book.

Unfortunately for Pipes, the Warren Commission account of the Kennedy assassination also has serious problems with Occam's Razor.  As noted by Michael T. Griffith, the Lone Nut Theory  relies on the "magic bullet":

the same 6.5 mm metal-jacketed Carcano bullet which supposedly hit Kennedy in the back of the neck exited his throat, struck Governor John Connally in the back, tore through his chest, transited his wrist, and ended up in his thigh, causing all of Connally's extensive wounds, to include the smashing of a rib bone and the shattering of the radius bone in the governor's right wrist, and yet emerged in nearly pristine condition to be found at Parkland Hospital shortly after the President was pronounced dead.

Obviously Occam cries out for a simpler explanation, that more than one bullet caused the damage.

Pipes also notes that literally thousands of books have been written on the JFK assassination; of those, only a very few diehards still remain, who advocate the Lone Nut Theory.   Gerald Posner is perhaps the most notable recent advocate of the Lone Nut.  Because Posner's 1993 book "Case Closed"  attracted a great deal of favorable media attention, the JFK "conspiracy buffs" have carefully examined his work.   At the "assassination web" site, editor David Starks has gathered a fusillade of critical reviews.  As Starks notes, these reviews exhaustively demonstrate that Posner's work  "overflows with mistakes, distortions, selective presentation of evidence and surprising misrepresentations."   Stark also notes that various reviewers have discovered that "Several people Mr. Posner claimed to have interviewed say they never spoke to him."

Stark furthermore notes that:

At the end of Case Closed, Posner acknowledges help from Peter Earnest (who is listed as "the chief of the CIA's Office of Public and Agency Information"). Mr. Earnest was described by Posner as being "very generous in his assistance."

Which raises the interesting possibility that the flaws in Posner's book may be related to this "generous assistance" whose nature is not otherwise disclosed.

Another well-known advocate of the Lone Nut Theory is John MacAdams, whose abusive behavior and covert activities are documented at the MacAdams FAQ page, while his analytical absurdities are exposed by Michael T. Griffith at his excellent web site.

So Pipes' examination of recent American conspiracies is not only  brief, but also bogus.  However, the book does include an interesting analysis of the role of paranoid conspiracy myths under Hitler and Stalin. Pipes showed that Hitler began with a crude model of Jewish conspiracy as promulgated by the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" and undertook to convince the German people that every Jew in the land was equally responsible for the calumnies described there; while at the same time, Hitler himself was at the center of a small secret society of psychopathic individuals who were busily implementing an exact replica of the evil plan described in the Protocols. Yet even regarding this remarkable set of circumstances, Pipes' analysis is strangely myopic. He ascribes the paradox to a simple ironic effect, that individuals who believe in the power of conspiracies, are likely to want to apply that power to their own projects.  There is no discussion of the probability that the occult secret societies essentially created Hitler (rather than the other way around), nor any acknowledgement of the crucial role of American high finance.   Any serious analysis of the curious, well-documented collaboration of the Zionists and Nazis in pursuit of a hidden agenda, would also cause difficulties for Pipes' oversimplified view of the Hitler regime.

The naysayer himself is a conspiracist: Since Pipes is so well aware of the problems relating to fraudulent conspiracy theories, it is indeed strange to find that he is himself one of the foremost proponents of a conspiracy theory that militant  Islamics intend to destroy the United States.  As Justin Raimondo notes in his column of Nov. 14, 2001, "it is in Pipes that the anti-Islamist ideology takes on its purest, most extreme form." Raimondo points to an interview with Pipes by Salon Magazine in which Pipes accuses that the Islamic public relations group CAIR (Committee for American Islamic Relations) is part of a subversive conspiracy to replace US law with Islamic Sharia law, and bring Islamic fundamentalist fascism to power in the US. He admits that CAIR has never publicly advocated any such thing, but claims nevertheless that he can "sense" their secret motivations.  Raimondo rightly chides Pipes for his attempts at clairvoyance.

But Pipes' feud with CAIR has apparently been going on for years.  For the most part, Pipes' arguments are a pastiche of unproven accusations and second-hand gossip.  The centerpiece of Pipes' case against CAIR is this article from the San Ramon Valley Herald July 4, 1998, where Omar M. Ahmad (CAIR's board chairman) is quoted as saying:

"Islam isn't in America to be equal to any other faith, but to become dominant, " he said. "The Koran, the Muslim book of scripture, should be the highest authority in America, and Islam the only accepted religion on Earth," he said.

While this statement proves that Ahmad is no ecumenical religious liberal, there is still a difference between evangelical advocacy of a religion, and utter authoritarian fascism.  For whatever it's worth, CAIR disputes whether Ahmad's remarks were correctly reported (although their denial is perhaps somewhat Clintonesque.)  At CAIR's web page, the following statement appears to explicitly reject a militarily aggressive or fascist interpretation of Islam:

"Jihad" does not mean "holy war." Literally, jihad means to strive, struggle and exert effort. It is a central and broad Islamic concept that includes struggle against evil inclinations within oneself, struggle to improve the quality of life in society, struggle in the battlefield for self-defense (e.g., - having a standing army for national defense), or fighting against tyranny or oppression.

Pipes fails to address this (or any other) exculpatory evidence, but persists in his belief that CAIR is a vital component of an internationalist conspiracy.  An immensely worse failing is that Pipes extends his unsupported conspiracy theory to embrace Islamic mosques in America, most or all of America's major universities, and ultimately to all American Islamics.  In a post-9/11 editorial in the City Journal, with the Orwellian title "Fighting Militant Islam -- Without Bias",  Pipes argues (without any basis whatsoever, certainly not from any public opinion polling) that "From 10 to 15 percent of the millions of Muslims in America are Islamist radicals."  Furthermore, Pipes goes on to argue that "Individual Islamists may appear law-abiding and reasonable, but they are part of a totalitarian movement, and as such, all must be considered potential killers."  Imagine if the same sort of syllogism were applied to some other ethnic group: for example, "David Duke and his followers are white supremacist fascists; individual Whites may appear law-abiding and reasonable, but all must be considered potential killers???"

Of course, conspiracy theories are at the heart of George Bush's case for war in Iraq.  The conspiracy to destroy the World Trade Center (itself a matter of serious controversy) is melded seamlessly with the Anthrax letters (a proven hoax, clearly meant as a frame-up of Arab-Americans).  Bush repeatedly names Saddam Hussein himself as a co-conspirator in terrorism, until many Americans start to believe Saddam was responsible for 9-11 as well (in spite of the complete absence of evidence).   Pipes functions in the role of providing pseudo-academic support and depth for this government policy.

In Conspiracy (pp. 179-180), Pipes wrote:

Conspiracy theories very often provide a reason, truly believed or conveniently manufactured, for an aggressor to take up arms.... Conspiracism also creates a bellicose climate that primes populations for war and can create an illusion of strength conducive to war.... Conspiracy theories have a key role in developing murderous instincts, whether in every step of preparing and carrying out mass murder (as in the Nazi slaughter of Jews, Slavs and others) or only indirectly present (as in the Japanese murderousness during World War II).  Conspiracism deprives the accused of their humanity and makes them vulnerable to elimination as though an unwanted pest.  The killing fields begin by turning citizens into saboteurs, counterrevolutionaries, and spies, and then go on to make them into vermin, dogs, bacteria, or just "garbage".  No other set of ideas so thoroughly turns neighbors into enemies worthy of extermination.  Without such a view of victims, it is difficult to incite cadres to carry out atrocity after atrocity.

It is important in this context to make a distinction between conspiracies involving small numbers of elite, wealthy individuals, and conspiracy theories which indict whole races and creeds.  It is only the latter type of conspiracy theory which has the poisonous effects Pipes describes so well.

Broad masses of people cannot "conspire" together.  However, if they are openly assaulted by  fear-mongering and hate,  in the media or in the churches, they can be reluctantly cajoled into supporting the murderous policies of government.  "Jews" do not conspire, but Zionist leaders might.  "Americans" as a whole are not naturally war-mongers, but the Bush Administration is, and the media is doing its best to encourage a war frenzy.

Pipes is completely blind to the poisonous power of his conspiracy-mongering and his promulgation of suspicion and hate against all Islamic people.  The very best we can say about Pipes is that he seems to be a dupe, a spoke in a hub-and-wheel conspiracy promulgated by the US government in its attempts to prepare Americans for a genocidal war against Islam.  And we also note that Pipes is a member of the Council of Foreign Relations, one of the wealthy and powerful organizations which, Pipes himself assures us, could never act in a conspiratorial manner.

Could it be that Pipes'  persona is so strongly constructed, and his shadow is so solidly repressed, that he unaware of this deep self-contradiction?  Or is some deeper psychopathy in operation here, as Pipes tunes his fraudulent message to the psychological prejudices of his readers?  This is the enigma which we ultimately confront in our attempt to understand Daniel Pipes and his virulent and paradoxical combination of conspiracism and conspiracy denial.

REVISED 3/25/2003: added information about Pipes' membership in the CFR.