Feb 20, 2021

Conspiracy theories — unmasked! From Winston Churchill to QAnon in a few easy steps


Do we live in a golden age of wacko paranoia? No, says German scholar Michael Butter: It's always been with us 

"Many people may believe that we live in a golden age of conspiracy theories. That's not really the case, according to German academic Michael Butter, who teaches American literature and culture at the University of Tübingen in Germany. But we do live in the golden age of conspiracy-theory studies. Butter's recent book, "The Nature of Conspiracy Theories," published just after the presidential election, does an invaluable job synthesizing a wide range of research across multiple disciplines — from psychology and sociology to philosophy, literature and cultural studies — over a period of decades.   

While conspiracy theories are certainly much more prominent now than they were 20 or 30 years ago, they remain widely stigmatized. Before the 1950s, as Butter explains in his book and this interview, they were taken for a granted as a legitimate framework for describing the world. After the Nazi period and the McCarthy era they were driven to the political and social margins, and then returned under a cloud. The internet has played a central role in providing an environment where they can flourish, but the role of media is in itself hardly a new thing: Before the invention of the printing press, conspiracy theories as we know them today simply didn't exist, as far as we can tell, except in more limited scope in ancient Greece and Rome. 

With America's conspiracist in chief now gone from the White House, such paranoid beliefs are not going to suddenly disappear, any more than the populism structurally associated with the dominant forms of conspiracy theories today. But what role will conspiracy theory play in the political future of the United States and the West, and what can its history tell us to expect? Salon reached out to Butter to explain the secret forces at work behind the surface of reality — or at least to discuss those questions and his new book. This interview has been edited, as usual, for clarity and length. 

Winston Churchill probably isn't the first person who comes to mind when we talk about conspiracy theory, but you begin your introduction by discussing a short speech he gave in 1920. Why begin there, and what does the most famous British statesman of the 20th century have to tell us?  

I begin with Winston Churchill for two reasons. On the one hand, because it's a prototypical conspiracy theory that he develops in this speech. All the elements — nothing is at it seems, nothing happens by accident, everything is connected — are there, so this allows me to define what a conspiracy theory is. Secondly and equally important, I begin with Winston Churchill because this cuts to the major point of my book, which, besides providing a general introduction to conspiracy theories, is that it used to be quite normal to believe in conspiracy theories. People that you usually do not associate with conspiracy theories, but regard very highly — people like Churchill, but also George Washington or Abraham Lincoln — spread conspiracy perfectly normal." 

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