“A Culture of Conspiracy” by Michael Barkun is by far the most coherent, scholarly material I have ever read on the contentious issue of “stigmatized knowledge.”
It is not a book written to “expose of the TRUTH” about the hidden reality of… whatever. It is also not a debunking of the conspiracy theories that abound about everything. The problem with the fringe, as I have said, is that the stuff out there is contradictory, so at best one of the competing voices is right… and it’s a lot easier to generate that crap than it is to debunk it. A definitive volume that debunks every conspiracy theory would be impossible. And the people to whom it would be the most use would denounce it as more propaganda from the conspirators anyway.
Barkun’s book is a sort-of natural history of crazy memes. The results are fascinating. The world views that people hold are… amazing, really. There are people in our midst battling literal demons in the moments leading up to the end of the world. That’s right now. Not fiction. They are living it. And it feels important to them.
Barkun sums up nicely: “A growing number of people believe that a super-conspiracy commonly referred to as the New World Order is on the verge of consolidating world domination, possibly in collaboration with malevolent aliens.” Or, I would add, in collaboration with the Devil. “The conspirators allegedly operate through so wide ranging a network of confederates that they have co-opted authority figures in every sector of life. Through this control, in turn, they shape the information available to the general public and thus conceal the conspiracy’s existence and activities.”
Well, that presents some epistemological/metaphysical problems for the rest of us.
Dean argues that there is no longer a “consensus reality” according to which contested questions of fact can be resolved. She suggests that on such subjects as alien abduction and political conspiracies, there are multiple contending realities, which keep contested issues from being decided…Dean’s position, while extreme in its suggestion of epistemological anarchy, is sufficiently reflective of the material considered here that it must be taken seriously.
So, can we all live in radically different parallel realities? Do we need a consensus reality? Who would get to enforce it if we do need it?
That’s the real philosophical question at the heart of this strange stuff. It underlies the “culture wars” and C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures. I think it’s an issue we’re going to be dealing with a lot over the next century. What I’m afraid of is that the conspiracists and the orthodoxists (I just made up a word!) will get the limited attention of the intelligentsia and the fundamental issue will get overlooked. Or, worse, The Jester is right and nobody cares at all.