Russel Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum's New Book Shows Even Conspiracy Theories Have Gotten DumberHistorians in the News
Maybe Americans are obsessed with conspiracy theories because our nation itself was forged in one. In the turbulent run-up to and aftermath of the Declaration of Independence, the word on the streets — and in the pamphlets — of the colonies was not that the Crown had instituted bad or unfair policies, but rather that everything was part of a master plan to enslave the States, full stop.
“Historians have uncovered nearly one hundred resolutions urging independence issued throughout 1776 by states and counties and towns, artisan and militia associations, and the provincial congresses of nine colonies,” write Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum in A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy, a new book from Princeton University Press. “The tone, language, and form are consistent. In each, a narrative of self-defense against enslavement is built from fragmentary evidence. Each lists ‘abuses and usurpations’ adding up to a tyrannical plot.”
This conspiracy and the many, many others that have washed over Americans in the intervening centuries conform to a similar formula: Even when the underlying claims are false or verifiably nuts, the evidence for the conspiracies themselves is generally presented in a somewhat academic style, as facts supporting a thesis. Some conspiracy theories about John F. Kennedy’s assassination, for example, focus on the idea that the military-industrial complex was threatened by his policies and therefore decided he had to go. On the other end of the political spectrum, the once-mighty John Birch Society was founded in 1958 to fight what was seen as a massive Communist conspiracy to infiltrate American institutions. And some strains of 9/11 trutherism posit that dark forces within the government perpetrated the attacks — or faked them — as a pretext for waging profitable wars in the Middle East.
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