The Economics of Conspiracy Theories
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Barry Chamish is convinced that Shimon Peres, Israel's wily old
statesman, ordered the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, back in 1995, in
collaboration with the French. He points to apparent tampering with evidence.
The blood-stained song sheet in Mr. Rabin's pocket lost its bullet hole between
the night of the murder and the present.
The murderer, Yigal Amir, should have been immediately
recognized by Rabin's bodyguards. He has publicly attacked his query before.
Israel's fierce and fearsome internal security service, the Shabak, had moles
and agents provocateurs among the plotters. Chamish published a book about the
affair. He travels and lectures widely, presumably for a fee.
Chamish's paranoia-larded prose is not unique. The transcripts
of Senator Joseph McCarthy's inquisitions are no less outlandish. But it was the
murder of John F. Kennedy, America's youthful president, that ushered in a
golden age of conspiracy theories.
The distrust of appearances and official versions was further
enhanced by the Watergate scandal in 1973-4. Conspiracies and urban legends
offer meaning and purposefulness in a capricious, kaleidoscopic, maddeningly
ambiguous, and cruel world. They empower their otherwise helpless and terrified
New Order one world government, Zionist and Jewish cabals,
Catholic, black, yellow, or red subversion, the machinations attributed to the
freemasons and the illuminati - all flourished yet again from the 1970's
onwards. Paranoid speculations reached frenzied nadirs following the deaths of
celebrities, such as "Princess Di". Books like "The Da Vinci Code" (which deals
with an improbable Catholic conspiracy to erase from history the true facts
about the fate of Jesus) sell millions of copies worldwide.
Tony Blair, Britain's ever righteous prime minister denounced
the "Diana Death Industry". He was referring to the tomes and films which
exploited the wild rumors surrounding the fatal car crash in Paris in 1997. The
Princess, her boyfriend Dodi al-Fayed, heir to a fortune, as well as their
allegedly inebriated driver were killed in the accident.
Among the exploiters were "The Times" of London which promptly
published a serialized book by Time magazine reports. Britain's TV networks, led
by Live TV, capitalized on comments made by al-Fayed's father to the "Mirror"
alleging foul play.
But there is more to conspiracy theories than mass psychology.
It is also big business. Voluntary associations such as the Ku Klux Klan and the
John Birch Society are past their heyday. But they still gross many millions of
dollars a year.
The monthly "Fortean Times" is the leading brand in "strange
phenomena and experiences, curiosities, prodigies and portents". It is widely
available on both sides of the Atlantic. In its 29 years of existence it has
covered the bizarre, the macabre, and the ominous with panache and
It is named after Charles Fort who compiled unexplained
mysteries from the scientific literature of his age (he died in 1932). He
published four bestsellers in his lifetime and lived to see "Fortean societies"
established in many countries.
A 12 months subscription to "Fortean Times" costs c. $45. With a
circulation of 60,000, the magazine was able to spin off "Fortean Television" -
a TV show on Britain's Channel Four. Its reputation was further enhanced when it
was credited with inspiring the TV hit series X-Files and The Sixth Sense.
"Lobster Magazine" - a bi-annual publication - is more modest at
$15 a year. It is far more "academic" looking and it sells CD ROM compilations
of its articles at between $80 (for individuals) and $160 (for institutions and
organizations) a piece. It also makes back copies of its issues available.
Its editor, Robin Ramsay, said in a lecture delivered to the
"Unconvention 96", organized by the "Fortean Times":
"Conspiracy theories certainly are sexy at the moment ... I've
been contacted by five or six TV companies in the past six months - two last
week - all interested in making programmes about conspiracy theories. I even got
a call from the Big Breakfast Show, from a researcher who had no idea who I was,
asking me if I'd like to appear on it ... These days we've got conspiracy
theories everywhere; and about almost everything."
But these two publications are the tip of a gigantic and
ever-growing iceberg. "Fortean Times" reviews, month in and month out, books, PC
games, movies, and software concerned with its subject matter. There is an
average of 8 items per issue with a median price of $20 per item.
There are more than 186,600 Web sites dedicated to conspiracy
theories in Google's database of 3 billion pages. The "conspiracy theories"
category in the Open Directory Project, a Web directory edited by volunteers,
contains hundreds of entries.
There are 1077 titles about conspiracies listed in Amazon and
another 12078 in its individually-operated ZShops. A new (1996) edition of the
century-old anti-Semitic propaganda pamphlet faked by the Czarist secret
service, "Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion", is available through Amazon.
Its sales rank is a respectable 64,000 - out of more than 2 million titles
stocked by the online bookseller.
In a disclaimer, Amazon states:
"The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion is classified under
"controversial knowledge" in our store, along with books about UFOs, demonic
possession, and all manner of conspiracy theories."
Yet, cinema and TV did more to propagate modern nightmares than
all the books combined. The Internet is starting to have a similar impact
compounded by its networking capabilities and by its environment of simulated
reality - "cyberspace". In his tome, "Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy
in Modern America", Robert Alan Goldberg comes close to regarding the paranoid
mode of thinking as a manifestation of mainstream American culture.
According to the Internet Movie Database, the first 50 all time
hits include at least one "straight" conspiracy theory movie (in the 13th place)
- "Men in Black" with $587 million in box office receipts. JFK (in the 193rd
place) grossed another $205 million. At least ten other films among the first 50
revolve around a conspiracy theory disguised as science fiction or fantasy. "The
Matrix" - in the 28th place - took in $456 million. "The Fugitive" closes the
list with $357 million. This is not counting "serial" movies such as James Bond,
the reification of paranoia shaken and stirred.
X-files is to television what "Men in Black" is to cinema.
According to "Advertising Age", at its peak, in 1998, a 30 seconds spot on the
show cost $330,000 and each chapter raked in $5 million in ad revenues. Ad
prices declined to $225,000 per spot two years later, according to CMR Business
Still, in its January 1998 issue, "Fortune" claimed that
"X-Files" (by then a five year old phenomenon) garnered Fox TV well over half a
billion dollars in revenues. This was before the eponymous feature film was
released. Even at the end of 2000, the show was regularly being watched by 12.4
million households - compared to 22.7 million viewers in 1998. But X-files was
only the latest, and the most successful, of a line of similar TV shows, notably
"The Prisoner" in the 1960's.
It is impossible to tell how many people feed off the paranoid
frenzy of the lunatic fringe. I found more than 3000 lecturers on these subjects
listed by the Google search engine alone. Even assuming a conservative schedule
of one lecture a month with a modest fee of $250 per appearance - we are talking
about an industry of c. $10 million.
Collective paranoia has been boosted by the Internet. Consider
the computer game "Majestic" by Electronic Arts. It is an interactive and
immersive game, suffused with the penumbral and the surreal. It is a Web
reincarnation of the borderlands and the twilight zone - centered around a
nefarious and lethal government conspiracy. It invades the players' reality -
the game leaves them mysterious messages and "tips" by phone, fax, instant
messaging, and e-mail. A typical round lasts 6 months and costs $10 a month.
Neil Young, the game's 31-years old, British-born, producer told
"... The concept of blurring the lines between fact and fiction,
specifically around conspiracies. I found myself on a Web site for the
conspiracy theory radio show by Art Bell ... the Internet is such a fabulous
medium to blur those lines between fact and fiction and conspiracy, because you
begin to make connections between things. It's a natural human reaction - we
connect these dots around our fears. Especially on the Internet, which is so
conspiracy-friendly. That was what was so interesting about the game; you
couldn't tell whether the sites you were visiting were Majestic-created or
normal Web sites..."
Majestic creates almost 30 primary Web sites per episode. It has
dozens of "bio" sites and hundreds of Web sites created by fans and linked to
the main conspiracy threads. The imaginary gaming firm at the core of its plots,
"Amin-X", has often been confused with the real thing. It even won the E3
Critics Award for best original product...
Conspiracy theories have pervaded every facet of our modern
life. A.H. Barbee describes in "Making Money the Telefunding Way" (published on
the Web site of the Institute for First Amendment Studies) how conspiracy
theorists make use of non-profit "para-churches".
They deploy television, radio, and direct mail to raise billions
of dollars from their followers through "telefunding". Under section 170 of the
IRS code, they are tax-exempt and not obliged even to report their income. The
Federal Trade commission estimates that 10% of the $143 billion donated to
charity each year may be solicited fraudulently.
Lawyers represent victims of the Gulf Syndrome for hefty sums.
Agencies in the USA debug bodies - they "remove" brain "implants" clandestinely
placed by the CIA during the Cold War. They charge thousands of dollars a pop.
Cranks and whackos - many of them religious fundamentalists - use inexpensive
desktop publishing technology to issue scaremongering newsletters (remember Mel
Gibson in the movie "Conspiracy Theory"?).
Tabloids and talk shows - the only source of information for
nine tenths of the American population - propagate these "news". Museums - the
UFO museum in New Mexico or the Kennedy Assassination museum in Dallas, for
instance - immortalize them. Memorabilia are sold through auction sites and
auction houses for thousands of dollars an item.
Numerous products were adversely affected by conspiratorial
smear campaigns. In his book "How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where it
Comes From", Daniel Pipes describes how the sales of Tropical Fantasy plummeted
by 70% following widely circulated rumors about the sterilizing substances it
allegedly contained - put there by the KKK. Other brands suffered a similar
fate: Kool and Uptown cigarettes, Troop Sport clothing, Church's Fried Chicken,
and Snapple soft drinks.
It all looks like one giant conspiracy to me. Now, here's one
theory worth pondering...
About the Author
Sam Vaknin is the author of "Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited" and
"After the Rain - How the West Lost the East". He is a columnist in "Central
Europe Review", United Press International (UPI) and ebookweb.org and the editor
of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory,
Suite101 and searcheurope.com. Until recently, he served as the Economic Advisor
to the Government of Macedonia.
His web site:
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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2007-11-03 23:11:24 in Economic Articles