Chip Berlet, a Senior Analyst with Political Research Associates, will be speaking at the Museum on Saturday, October 24th, 2009, at 2 p.m. in the Farr Conference Center. His talk is in conjunction with "Freemasonry Unmasked! Anti-Masonic Collections at Van Gorden-Williams Library and Archives", on view through May 15, 2010. To learn more about this free public lecture generously funded by the Lowell Institute, click here.
The man accused of killing a guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., warned of a conspiracy of Jews and Freemasons to control the world and keep White Christians subjugated while at the same time elevating Blacks to under-served positions of power.
How could such a bizarre and bigoted claim make any sense?
The alleged shooter, James W. von Brunn, wrote a book that was like a catalog of historic conspiracy theories, including references to the infamous antisemitic hoax document, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. His website included links to White Supremacist and Holocaust denial sites. According to von Brunn, between 1881 and 1914 a series of political assassinations were “traceable to Bolshevism, Freemasonry … and other ILLUMINATI sponsored terror groups.” Czar Alexander II of Russia, King Humbert of Italy, U.S. President McKinley, Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, and others were killed in order to provoke World War I.
The library at Political Research Associates, where I work, has shelves full of books making the same false conspiracy claims in elaborate detail. These conspiracist tracts and volumes trace back to the late 1700s. Now many of these false claims are posted on the Internet and available worldwide. The exhibit "Freemasonry Unmasked!", now at the National Heritage Museum traces how these conspiracist allegations often include the demonization of Freemasonry.
The current political environment is awash with seemingly absurd, but nonetheless influential, conspiracy theories, hyperbolic claims and demonized targets. The political right blames sinister plots on a vast conspiracy supposedly run by liberal secular humanists and Democrats, portrayed as running a covert network of subversives. Scratch the surface of these stories and commonly scapegoated groups emerge: Jewish bankers, Freemasons, civil rights activists, labor union leaders, community organizers.
On the political left, conspiracy theories portray conservatives, neoconservatives, and Republicans as staging the terror attacks on 9/11 as part of an elaborate scheme to justify war in the Middle East and the erosion of civil liberties at home.
These are not legitimate criticisms of public policy or the institutions of power in our society; they are populist anger and anxiety exploited by demagogues to undermine the democratic process. Democracy requires informed consent. When conspiracy theories enter public debates, they are toxic to democracy.
Conspiracy theorists use the same four “tools of fear." These are: 1) dualism (the division of the world into a good "Us" vs. a bad "Them"); 2) scapegoating; 3) demonization; and 4) apocalyptic aggression. The basic dynamics remain the same, no matter the ideological leanings of the demonizers or the identity of their targets.
Meanwhile, our ability to resolve disputes through civic debate and compromise is hobbled. It is the combination of demagogic demonization and widespread scapegoating that is so dangerous. Some angry people already believe conspiracy theories in which scapegoated groups are targeted as subversive, destructive, or evil. Add in aggressive apocalyptic ideas that suggest time is running out and quick action is mandatory and you have the conditions for a perfect storm of mobilized resentment threatening to rain bigotry and violence across the United States. Historically, the violent attacks target marginalized groups, especially people of color, immigrants, and Jewish institutions. In the last decade, the list has expanded to include Muslims, Arabs, and people in the gay community.
We can stop this. Law enforcement needs to enforce laws against criminal behavior. Vicious bigoted speech, however, is often protected by the First Amendment. We do not need new laws or to encourage government agencies to further erode civil liberties. We need to stand up as moral people and speak out against the spread of bigoted conspiracy theories. That's not a police problem, that's our problem as people responsible for defending and expanding democracy and building a free and just society.