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Nonfiction: You Can Never Be Too Paranoid

Jack Z. Bratich, Conspiracy Panics: Political Rationality and Popular Culture (State University of New York Press, 2008)

Jack Bratich’s Conspiracy Panics is a persuasive rehabilitation of conspiracy theories. Don’t get me wrong. Nowhere does Bratich take up the cudgels on behalf of any beyond-the-pale set of ideas; rather, his focus is on showing how defensively and often underhandedly those inside the pale assault these heterodox ideas.

Drawing from Foucault, the author first explores how establishment discourse regulates the existence of conspiracy ideas. Bear in mind, conventional political thought and metaphysics contains its own legitimated conspiracy theories. How else can you define the belief that Satan and his minions (the original Men in Black) are tempting the innocent, or the thought (as was preached during the Cold War) that the U.S. was filled with disingenuous Reds who were seducing our youth? As Bratich shows, the line between acceptable and unacceptable conspiracy thought, just like the U.S. borders, has to be constantly patrolled since it is hard to distinguish (without clear labeling) who belongs on either side.

Bratich demonstrates this theme by an illuminating study of the media’s reaction to Gary Webb’s story about the CIA’s alleged involvement in cocaine distribution. Webb’s newspaper account was ignored until substantial attention on the Internet and black radio stations required denunciation from the Times, The Washington Post and others.

That the corporate media react in this way is no surprise, but further along, Bratich directly addresses the failings of the Left, for it is his contention that in progressives’ often knee-jerk rejection of such conspiracy theories as U.S. government involvment in the dissemination of AIDS or in the 9/11 attack, they are doing themselves a major disservice, since an examination of this thought “might open the Left up to critique and rearticulation with potentially valuable subjugated knowledges.”

To repeat, he is not arguing for the credibility of any particular conspiracy theory, but explaining that a blanket condemnation overlooks the real distinctions (in each camp) between reactionary and radical perspectives. The latter (such as the idea that AIDS was an accidental byproduct of biological warfare experiments) should be seen as positions with which alliances can be formed. Thus, using the example, even a progressive who can’t imagine AIDS from a laboratory can agree with the conspiracy theorist’s contention that the state’s dabbling in the creation of diseases should be halted.

Bratich argues that, in relation to the actions of conspiracy theorists, the elite fear a democraticization of journalism. With the downsizing of TV and newspaper newsrooms, much investigative reporting has shifted to online sources. This trend is pushed further by the fact that—as Salon writer Glenn Greenwald explained to the Rail’s editor in the May issue—Internet journalists are freer in that they do not have to answer to corporate paymasters in the way those in the more established media must. Even if many conspiracy theorists go off half-cocked, the better ones are digging through background material in a way that transcends what reporters for the mass media can do. This distinction poses, as Bratich puts it, the disturbing question, “Who counts as a researcher or an investigator?”

This plays in, too, with my co-writer and my contention in AIDS: A Second Opinion that what was most threatening to the medical establishment from AIDS dissidents was not so much the conspiracy theories but the practices of doctors like Bernard Bihari, who set up Community Research Initiatives—trials of promising drugs, selected by a doctor and his or her patients, embarked on without corporate or foundation funding or institutional backing. They were taking medicine into their own hands the way some conspiracy theorists do with journalism.

Conspiracy Panics’s great virtue is that it forces the reader to rethink questioning. If, previously, a reader hearing about a new conspiracy theory was prompted to query, “Is this true?”—or, more likely, “What frigging idiot would espouse this?”—having read the book, the reader will ponder, “Are there any progressive components to this view on which I could unite with its propagators?” Or, even better: “Why are those in power in such a panic to wipe these ideas out?”


Jim Feast


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2008

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