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Book Examines Conspiracy Theory Fascination

David Kelman’s ‘Counterfeit Politics’ Studies Political Theory

Oct. 2, 2013

David Kelman wrote “Counterfeit Politics: Secret Plots and Conspiracy Narratives in the Americas” (Bucknell University Press, 2012), to determine why fascination with conspiracies has such a hold on popular culture.

“Why do people return to conspiracy theories, even after these stories are debunked by the media? Many critics believe conspiracy theories are abnormal, ‘pathological.’ But, there's more to it than that," he said. "If you view conspiracy theories from a comparative perspective, you’ll realize that these kinds of stories not only fascinate people in the United States, but also people in Argentina, Mexico, Guatemala and throughout the Americas. And if the entire hemisphere is fascinated by conspiracy theories, this isn’t because we’re all deranged.”

So, Kelman, assistant professor of English, comparative literature and linguistics, set out to study the fascination with conspiracy theories in popular culture and literary texts, and what he found “truly took me by surprise,” he said. “Conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination and the Colosio assassination in Mexico all suggest that conspiracy theories are not just pathological, symptoms of a culture gone crazy, but rather that politics is always a conspiracy theory. And this isn’t a bad thing.”

In “Counterfeit Politics,” Kelman argues that what historian Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics” means the end of politics as negotiation or “give-and-take.” The paranoid politician replaces rational consensus with the crusade-like mentality that gives up nothing and expects everything in return.

“What distinguishes the paranoid style is not, then, the absence of verifiable facts,” Hofstadter writes, “but rather the curious leap in imagination that is always made at some critical point in the recital of events.” For Hofstadter, the “paranoid style” is clearly not a theme at all, but rather a particular way of telling a story, a way of linking events … that interrupts the rational give-and-take that defines politics of consensus. The conspiracy theorist, for Hofstadter, destabilizes the very grounds for political discussion by introducing the groundless leap in imagination.

Another excerpt from his book:

The problem of the imaginative leap is echoed in many attempts to account for events (or crimes) that are still unresolved. In general, this problem emerges as an attempt to ask what it would mean to constitute a “significant association” between events that seem unrelated. This phrase appears in the Report of the Selected Committee on Assassinations of the U.S. House of Representatives (1979), within a section on what it would mean to prove the existence of a conspiracy to kill President John F. Kennedy. The House of Selected Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) was convened in 1976 to study not only the Kennedy assassination, but also the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The primary mission of the HSCA was to respond to the increasing skepticism regarding the Warren Report. However, as Peter Knight notes, this new investigation resembled in may ways the earlier Warren Commission, by including “a mixture of public and privates hearings; the commission of elaborate scientific/forensic testing; and a lengthy final report (716 pages), twelve volumes of accompanying transcripts of hearings and appendices, together with hundreds of thousands of pages of evidence to be kept sealed at the National Archives.” Nevertheless, the HSCA’s Report remains an important document, and not only because it found that there is indeed reason to believe that there was a conspiracy to kill the president. Rather, what makes this report stand out is its way of explaining the stakes involved in investigating a conspiracy, especially what it would mean to use the word “conspiracy” in relation to an assassination attempt.

The report explains that, even if there were no evidence at the scene of the assassination to allege a conspiracy, a conspiracy could be said to exist if others assisted Oswald in the act. However, this question of Oswald’s possible “associates” brings up a troubling semantic question: what does the term “associate” mean? The report explains:

It is important to realize, too, that the term “associate” may connote widely varying meanings to different people. A person’s associate may be his next door neighbor and vacation companion, or it may be an individual he met only once for the purpose of discussing a contract for a murder. The Warren Commission in its 1964 report examined Oswald’s past and concluded he was essentially a loner. It reasoned, therefore, that since Oswald had no significant associations with persons who could have been involved with him in the assassination, there could not have been a conspiracy.

…. As the HSCA explains, the earlier Warren Report was able to discredit the idea of conspiracy, presumably showing that Oswald was a “loner” both psychologically and sociologically — he was a man who needed no one and always acted alone. The term “loner” is then crucial for any attempt to discredit the supposition of conspiracy: if a man is a loner, if he acts alone by definition, then there can be no significant association that would demonstrate the existence of the conspiracy.

Nevertheless, the HSCA does indeed find evidence that there was a second shooter in the assassination of President Kennedy, thereby pointing to the fact that Oswald could not have been as isolated as the Warren Report made him out to be. But the committee immediately stumbles upon the problem that has always plagued investigations into Kennedy’s assassination: there are gaps in the evidence that do not sufficiently prove the existence of the other gunman.

…. In the case of the assassination of President Kennedy, there is a high “probability” that a conspiracy existed, but the story of the conspiracy always remains at the level of speculation because of the gaps in the historical record.

Excerpted from “Counterfeit Politics: Secret Plots and Conspiracy Narratives in the Americas” (Bucknell University Press, 2012) by David Kelman with permission from Bucknell University Press. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.

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