Graphic from the John Birch Society's magazine, American Opinion - notice the hammer-and-sickle in the left eye and what seems to be Congress in the right
Continuing the theme of historical background on current rightwing trends, I've been looking at a collection edited by historian David Brion Davis published in 1971 called, The Fear of Conspiracy: Images of Un-American Subversion From the Revolution to the Present. It thought of this theme today when I saw Atrios post, They're All Birchers Now 04/21/07, which references this Glenn Greenwald post about the amazing capacity of our Republicans to swallow preposterous conspiracy theories, Right-wing blogs discover massive conspiracy to hide WMDs in Iraq Salon 04/21/07.
One of the longest-running conspiracy theories on which Davis gives some background is that of the Illuminati. Pat Robertson, whose Regent University alumni we've learned in the current US Attorneys scandal apparently now has a decisive say over who gets appointed to be the chief federal prosecutors, used this concept as part of his grand conspiratorial theory of history espoused in books like The New World Order (1991) and The Turning Tide (1993).
Davis traces the Illuminati conspiracy theory to a book by one John Robison, Proofs of a Conspiracy Against All the Religions and Governments of Europe, Carried on in the Secret Meetings of Free Masons, Illuminati, and Reading Societies, published in Scotland in 1797. He was inspired in turn by a Frenchman name Abbé Barruel who, Davis writes, "helped to popularize the view that every stage of the [French] Revolution had been planned and implemented by secret societies, largely Freemasonic in origin, as part of a master conspiracy to overthrow Christianity and legitimate government." But he thinks that Robinson's book was probably more responsibible for popularizing the notion.
This conspiracy theory was deeply reactionary in its origins and intent. It opposed not only the bloody excesses of the French Revolution but the very notion of democracy and the Enlightenment, a reactionary viewpoint that is at the heart of the Christian dominionist viewpoint of which Pat Robertson is one of the best-known advocates today (though most of them don't describe themselves as "dominionists").
Davis describes the background of Robison's tract this way:
Robison had become alarmed by Masonic "innovations" and by supposed evidence that many lodges had been infiltrated by Jesuits, deists, and heretical sectarians. After a close study of various obscure documents, he concluded in 1797 that Freemasonry had finally been taken over and exploited by the secret Order of Illuminati who sought to destroy Christianity and overturn all the governments of Europe, and who had in fact engineered the French Revolution. In Robison's inflamed mind, the Illuminati appeared as the most dangerous conceivable enemy to British Protestantism: they combined the secular rationalism of the left-wing Enlightenment with all the diabolical traits once ascribed to the Catholic Counter-Reformation.He summarizes the book and its impact this way:
Although John Robison was not an American, he served as a bridge between English and American concepts of conspiracy, and had an enormous influence on Federalist writers and on the later anti-Masonic movement. Robison was anything but an ignorant fanatic. He was a professor of science (natural philosophy) at the University of Edinburg and secretary to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. His book exhibits the careful massing of evidence, the plausible scholarship, and the quick jump to breathtaking conclusions which Richard Hofstadter has described as among the hallmarks of the paranoid style. There is a note of modernity to Robison's protest against a movement governed by the belief that a noble end justifies any means. He also anticipated later patterns of thought when he sensed that systems of ethics could become ideological weapons, and that tests of loyalty should concern one's commitment to "approved principles" rather than to specific leaders or groups.Davis includes a selection from a speech of 06/04/1964 by Robert Welch, the head of the far-right John Birch Society. Welch wasn't satisfied with going back to the 18th-century Enlightenment to find the root of all social evil. He took it back to the dawn of Western civilization in ancient Greece. But he works the Illuminati into his grand theory of an immense conspiracy against good Christian white folks:
There is actually no evidence that the Order of the Illuminati was anything more than a short-lived organization dedicated to the humanitarian and rationalistic principles of the Enlightenment. It was certainly not responsible for the French Revolution. On the other hand, there can be no doubt that in the years preceding Robison's book, the repressive measures of the British government had provoked conspiratorial movements among pro-French radicals and oppressed English workers. By defining all social protest as subversive, the Pitt administration drove protest under ground. Pitt's spies and informers gathered extensive evidence on some of the "Secret Assemblies" that worried John Robison. Robison's theories must therefore be understood as a somewhat hysterical and reactionary response to genuine social unrest. It is significant that Robison, as a defender of the existing order, was especially fearful that revolutionary ideas were contaminating the young. The same apprehension would later be shared by American anti-abolitionists and anti-Communists. (my emphasis)
The precedent had been set, however [by the collectivism of Sparta], and the vision obviously reoccurred to many evil men during those two thousand years. There were many small sects and heresies and societies and associations of which we catch fleeting glimpses now and then from the early centuries of the Christian era until they proliferated into numerous clumps of unsightly or even poisonous intellectual weeds after 1700. How many of them there were, each of which intended to be the embryo of an organization that would grow in power until it ruled the world, we do not know. How many revolutionary coups or insurrections, or how many more gradual and more peaceful impositions of tyrannical power by ambitious criminals mouthing the hypocrisies of collectivism, may have been "masterminded" by such esoteric groups, we do not know. How extensive or long lasting was the once well-established cult of Satanism, which incorporated into its beliefs, methods, and purposes practically all of the foulness now associated with our contemporary tyranny, Communism, we do not know. For a high degree of secrecy was not only essential to any even temporary success on the part of any of these nefarious collections of criminal con men, but the thrill of belonging to some mysterious and powerful inner circle was one of the strongest appeals any such group could offer to prospective recruits.One thing to keep in mind about this, although conservative hero Barry Goldwater famously repudiated the John Birch Society in 1964 during his Presidential run, the Birchers' ideas play more than a small part in the thinking of today's Republican Party, especially among the activists of the Christian Right.
We do know, however, from hundreds of small leaks and published accounts that the doctrines which gave many of these secret groups their cohesiveness and continuity would fall clearly, and bv the most tolerant classification, into the category of evil. Also, that by the eighteenth century A.D. these various doctrines had pretty much coalesced into a uniformly Satanic creed and program, which was to establish the power of the sect through the destruction of all governments, all religion, all morality, all economic systems; and to substitute the sheer physical force of the lash and the bayonet for all other means by which previous governments, good or bad, had contrived to rule mankind. And a most important one of these groups, which is now generally meant when we use the term Illuminati - although many others had called themselves by that same name - was founded on May 1, 1776, by Adam Weishaupt.
Despite the extreme secrecy with which this group cloaked itself from the very beginning, one early raid by the Bavarian government, another raid about three years later, the partial confessions at one arraignment of four men fairly high up in the conspiracy-all of whom, incidentally, were professors - and a few more or less accidental discoveries or disclosures from other sources have made the original nature, purposes, and methods of the Illuminati quite well known. Since by 1800 they were able to pull the veil of secrecy over themselves almost completely and permanently, we do not know to what extent Weishaupt's group became the central core or even one of the main components of a continuing organization with increasing reach and control over all collectivist activities after 1776. But that there have been one or more such organizations, which have now been absorbed into the top echelons of the Communist conspiracy - or viceversa - is supported by too much evidence of too many kinds to permit much doubt. (my emphasis)
Also, where John Robison in 1797 may have really feared the Freemasons and the Illuminati, those are terms which among the far right today are commonly used as synomyms for "the Jews". In Germany and Austria, where overt expressions of support for Nazism or anti-Semitism carry legal jeopardy, it is common for the extreme right to complain about the evildoings of the "Freemasons".
The John Birch Society in its official publications has always tried to avoid overt anti-Semitism, though that was clearly part of their schtick. A closely affiliated organization, the Liberty Lobby, wasn't nearly so discreet about its attitude toward Jews. It's easy to guess that one of the Birchers' main objections to Barry Goldwater, maybe even the main one, is that he parents had been Jewish before they converted to Protestant Christianity.
Welch goes on at length about the sinister designs and actions of the Illuminati-Satanist-Communist-Spartan conspiracy. He traced this evil thread from the French Revolution to the civil right March on Washington of 1963, the one that is remembered today for Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech:
The further truth is that the French people under Louis XVI had as little cause to let themselves be led by conspiratorial destructiv-ists into insane horrors and a murderous clamor for "liberty" as the Negroes in America have today in a demand for "freedom." Both are being stirred and led into the same kind of cruel idiocy by exactly the same kind of revolutionary criminals, for exactly the same megalomaniacal purposes on the part of the real instigators of these monstrous crimes against God and country. If the march on Washington had been more successful from the point of view of the Communists; if the common sense and basic morality of the American people - white and black - had already been sufficiently eroded by Communist "wiles and propaganda so that the marchers could have been whipped up into the same kind of frenzy as were a smaller contingent of three hundred such marchers recently in the city of Chester, Pennsylvania; and if carefully planted armed goons of the Communists within the ranks of the marchers on Washington could have arranged for the burning of the city, and for murders and atrocities to be perpetuated on a number of loyal congressmen and senators, all to look like the spontaneous actions of an infuriated, resentful mob seeking freedom, then you might easily have seen the date of that great lie established in due course as the new national holiday of a "liberated" United States. And at least you would have seen an almost exact parallel to the sack of the Bastille. The French Revolution turned out to be, in fact, a rehearsal in almost every particular of what the whole world is facing today. Compressed into one city and a period of six years, 1789 through 1794, were all of the lies and crimes and horror and propaganda and destructiveness which are now being applied to the whole world over a period of about six decades. (my emphasis in bold)The Birchers were never as influential among Southern segregationists as were other extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan or (especially in Mississippi) the White Citizens Council. The Birchers were more literate, though hardly more enlightened. But this kind of thinking was considered within the respectable range of opinion about Southern whites in the segregation days, and much of that thinking has carried into today's Republican Party and the Christian Right, especially the radical clerics.
Tags: conspiracy theories, david brion davis, illuminati, john birch society, paranoid style, robert welch