Fantasyland 5. Why Americans are so prone to believing in conspiracies

Preface. This is the fifth of nine posts about this very important book on how and why a large percent of Americans have has been irrational for 500 years.

Links to the 9 parts of this book review:  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]


Kurt Andersen. 2017. Fantasyland. How America Went Haywire.  A 500-Year History. Random House.

Why American religion also led to a belief in conspiracies

For starters, consider Protestantism—an alternative system of truth-telling to replace the Vatican conspiracy’s false and corrupted version. The Puritans, oppressed by conniving elites, developed a self-identity focused on victim hood that sent them into American self-exile. When the Dissenters’ new American society promptly produced its own dissenters, the subversives and oppressors each saw the other as a conspiracy.

Christian religiosity itself, in particular our pseudo-hyper-rational kind, amounts to belief in the grandest and greatest conspiracy of all: God the mastermind plotting and executing His all-encompassing scheme, assisted by a team of co-conspirators, the angels and prophets. Like religious explanations, conspiratorial explanations of the world tend to connect all sorts of dots, real and imaginary, drawing lines to impute intention and design and purpose everywhere, ignoring the generally greater power of randomness and happenstance.

During their first century, Americans believed themselves beset by satanic conspiracies of witches and Indians.

Conspiracy thinking

The recipe for what came to be America—our peculiar history, our peculiar psychology, the symbiosis between them—was also specifically a recipe for a tendency to believe in conspiracies.

Fantastical conspiracy theories tend to imagine secret plots of colossal scale, duration, and power. Beliefs in American conspiracies in the 1800s, the Yale historian David Brion Davis has written, usually consisted of hard grains of truth connected with a mucilage of exaggeration and fantasy. But the central theme, which is so central to the paranoid style, is the conviction that an exclusive monolithic structure has imposed a purposeful pattern on otherwise unpredictable events. One suspects this conviction is a product of the liberal faith, inherited from the Enlightenment, that history can be shaped in accordance with a rational plan…. When the irrationality of events proves that the children of light have lost control, then the children of darkness must have secretly seized the levers of history….

Another result of America’s Enlightenment roots is that thick strain of skepticism. That reflex, to disbelieve official explanations, seems antithetical to religious belief and faith in hidden purposes and plans. Skepticism, after all, is an antonym for credulity. But when both are robust and overheated, they can fuse into conspiracy-mindedness. Take nothing on faith—except that the truth is deliberately hidden and can be discovered and precisely diagrammed.

During America’s second century, there were panics about foreign conspiracies—despotically inclined leaders in league with European monarchs, other despotic leaders in league with European revolutionaries. Americans learned of the all-powerful master cabal controlling the European subversives from a 1797 book called Proofs of a Conspiracy, about the Freemasons and Illuminati.

Dangerous nonsense, other conspiracy theorists insisted—the Illuminati conspiracy was imaginary, concocted by Alexander Hamilton in conspiratorial league with the British to incite American panic.

In 1798 Congress passed and President John Adams signed the Alien Acts, giving him the power to imprison or deport any suspicious foreigner—especially French ones, whose recent revolution, people said, had been an Illuminati undertaking.

Besides, the French were nearly all Catholic, and paranoia about the Vatican conspiracy to destroy our nation went into overdrive during the 1800s. The pope’s agents in America—that is, Catholics—were doubling every decade.

At the same moment, Americans also awoke, finally, to the elder Morse’s warnings about the Freemason conspiracy. Masonic lodges, which had started in England, were then more or less what they are now: adult fraternities, clubs where public-spirited men gathered to eat, drink, network, and perform goofy secret rituals. George Washington and dozens of signers of both the Declaration and the Constitution had been Masons. “Their Grand Secret,” the young Freemason Ben Franklin said, “is that they have no secret at all.

The abolitionists were just as convinced of an all-powerful conspiracy on the other side. In 1852 the abolitionist party’s presidential candidate saw that “the inexplicable labyrinths of American politics for the last sixty years,” including the War of 1812 and the dismantling of the national bank, were all explained as parts of the slaveholders’ perfect plot, because “the Slave Power, like the power of the pit, never lacks for a stratagem.” In the 1850s it seemed obvious to many Northerners that the current president and previous president had conspired secretly with the chief justice of the Supreme Court to entrench the Slave Power conspiracy.

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One Response to Fantasyland 5. Why Americans are so prone to believing in conspiracies

  1. hugh owens MD says:

    Alice , we must be on the same book frequency as I am just finishing this amazing book. It is stunningly informative. It fills in the early centuries of America and American’s peculiar mystical predilections. Kurt really drills down into why we are the wackjobs we are. What amazed me reading the book is how completely unaware I was of most of the societal pathology going on while i was growing up. I decided very early in my college years that American society was trivial, materialistic, violent and insubstantial. I also decided that my conservative Catholic upbringing was foolish and morally corrupt so I ditched the church early.After I returned from the army in the Viet Nam war I was thoroughly disgusted, angry and disillusioned with my country and wanted nothing more to do with American Society. And I (we) haven’t. I read a great deal but we had no TV for decades. We have a TV now which we may turn on to Sunday night PBS if a good show is on masterpiece theater and sometimes PBS News.Our antenna is over the air. No cable. We occasionally watch a dvd netflix movie. We get 3 channels besides Wyoming PBS, one of them the bizarre Telemundo Mexican channel. I didn’t even buy the TV. My son did because he thought I needed to have some connection to the culture. He was wrong. Kurt Amdersen’s book blew me away with the crazy memes and panics of the past 50 years and Alice, here is the rub, I was unaware of almost all of them, all of the participants, the whole shebang. I realize that if you live in a rural area and never watch TV or rarely see a movie and pay no attention to political or economic news and just tend to the livestock and the farm, you are going to miss all the nuttiness going on out there in Fantasyland. Devils and demons taking over America, satanic rituals, recovered traumatic memories, anti- rational anti-scientific behaviors of all stripes. Mostly news to me. Thank you for covering his book but I have yet to meet anyone who is reading it. I am thinking it is time to pack up and leave.