Yesterday I noted that I am reading Michael Barkun’s 2006 academic investigation of American conspiracy culture, A Culture of Conspiracy. Barkun offers some interesting insight into the development of conspiracy theories, and I was rather amused at how easily his outline for the defining traits of conspiracy culture also serve as the template for how an episode of America Unearthed (or, really, most cable TV pseudo-documentaries) is put together. I thought it might be amusing to present Barkun’s breakdown of the beliefs of conspiracy culture practitioners and compare them to the presentation of Scott Wolter’s beliefs in his books and on America Unearthed.
Interestingly, Barkun’s conspiracy outline applies less perfectly to Ancient Aliens since that program moved further toward what Barkun sees as an eclectic form of New Age religion. It shares some of the same traits, but the emphasis on cover-ups and suppression of truth is secondary to the promise of spiritual revelation at the hands of enlightened proponents of the doctrine, taking the ancient astronaut theory beyond its conspiracy origins more toward the form of a New Age cult.
Barkun begins by defining what he means by a conspiracy: “the belief that an organization made up of individuals or groups was or is acting covertly to achieve some malevolent end.” This implies a world where human relations and historical events are “governed by design rather than randomness.” This is an easy one: Scott Wolter attributes most historical events to the machinations of an eternal cult of goddess worshipers who manifest as the “proto-Templars,” Knights Templar, and Freemasons. Where he differs slightly is that he attributes to these groups a confusing and incoherent agenda that simultaneously creates the conditions for human freedom by founding the United States in the name of religious freedom but is also responsible for innumerable evils, including the suppression of truth and enforced ignorance of the divine.
Next, Barkun outlines three related elements on conspiracy belief that form subsets of the conspiracy theorist’s argument from design. Each of these also manifests in America Unearthed.
This much was probably obvious to most readers long ago. But the next section, on the empirical validity of conspiracies is one of the most surprising to me, for it outlines precisely how America Unearthed follows the structure of a conspiracy.
First, conspiracy theories “claim to be testable by the accumulation of evidence about the observable world.” Each episode of America Unearthed purports to focus on a specific artifact whose observable traits contribute to the accumulation of evidence for an “alternative” view of history; several episodes present previous results as supportive of future claims. “Those who subscribe to such constructs do not ask that the constructs be taken on faith. Instead, they often engage in elaborate presentations of evidence in order to substantiate their claims.” Here, Scott Wolter engages in elaborate presentations of alleged geological evidence—though, typically, little more than superficial observation—coupled with fragments of historical narratives and unusual interpretations of art. Each episode also promotes one of Wolter’s books, which purport to provide more detailed evidence for his claims, though the actual sources are often other fringe authors.
Barkun quotes Richard Hofstader’s famous essay on the “Paranoid Style in American Politics” to the effect that conspiracy theorists’ literature (and TV shows) both (a) ape the conventions of mainstream scholarship and (b) “lead to heroic strivings for ‘evidence.’” As an author, Wolter uses the form of an academic article and the convention of end notes, but without the academic substance of either, as mentioned with the aforementioned poor quality sources. There is also a notably lack of primary sources. As a geologist, Wolter often uses his position to suggest that his findings, no matter how untethered from the scientific method, meet the standards of mainstream science by appealing to his scientific training and to his own unique interpretation of peer review, which for him does not involve publishing in academic journals but rather the process by which fellow geologists sign off on geological reports. As a warrior against the conspiracy, both Wolter and the producers of America Unearthed present him as a “hero” for exposing the “truth,” going so far as to liken him in publicity materials to heroes of film such as Indiana Jones.
Barkun next explains that conspiracy theorists see the reduction of the complexity of life to a single cause as analogous to Occam’s Razor or the scientific method’s preference for parsimonious explanations. Wolter frequently describes his claims as the most logical or simplest explanation for anomalous artifacts or ambiguous mythologies since he requires only one explanation—the goddess-worshiping Templar cult complex—to understand dozens of cultures across thousands of miles of territory.
According to Barkun, conspiracy theorists believe that the conspiracy is vast enough and powerful enough that it can control all channels of knowledge and prevent the public from discovering its operations. Scott Wolter complains time and again against the power wielded by “academics” to control the textbooks. He also believes that the Smithsonian Institution is capable of suppressing vast amounts of data about pre-Columbian contact with the Old World, not to mention his belief that the United States government (in the form of the National Park Service and the National Forest Service) are actively using federal power to suppress the truth. As a result of efforts by these groups as well as the Freemasons and the all-powerful Catholic Church, nearly every scrap of evidence has vanished into hidden vaults and caves. Barkun says that conspiracy theorists see skeptics as having been fooled by false evidence planted by the conspiracy or are a part of the conspiracy themselves. Wolter has accused me of being in league with his enemies, of purposely publishing false information to discredit him, and of being fooled by mainstream scholars and thus unable to see the correctness of his beliefs.
“The problem that remains for believers,” Barkun writes, “is to explain why they themselves have not succumbed to the deceptions, why they have detected a truth invisible to others.” He says that there are two primary stratagems believers use, and Scott Wolter uses them both.
1. Claim access to authentic evidence that escaped the conspiracy. Wolter claims to investigate just such anomalies, viewing them as being suppressed even when they are, as with the Bat Creek Stone, owned by the supposed conspirators and on public display. Otherwise, the pieces of “evidence” Wolter “investigates” tends to be found in the possession of other conspiracy theorists, jealously and zealously kept from government and “academics,” whom they fear will repossess and suppress it—as actually happened with the obsidian spear point in Hawaii.
2. Distance oneself ostentatiously from hated mainstream elites. Wolter’s posturing against academia marks him as an outsider and truth-teller. Just yesterday, Wolter wrote on his blog: “The academic process is horribly flawed in the Humanities disciplines which includes Archaeology. One of the reasons is they don't receive formal training in the scientific method, and it shows.” Even though this is untrue (it was foundational to my own archaeology course work) and Wolter has no direct knowledge of archaeology curricula, it marks Wolter as separate, as the “true” scientist.
Barkun then describes two remaining characteristics of the conspiracy style: paranoia and millennialism. Paranoia refers not necessarily to clinical paranoia but rather to the belief that a conspiracy is tangibly directed against the values, security, or way of life of the theorist and also countless others. Wolter frequently refers to his belief that the forces of the conspiracy are directed personally against him (the Park Service, the Forest Service, “academics,” etc.) to stop his work and deny him access to special artifacts or sites, as well as against those who side with him in advocating fringe theories.
In terms of millennialism, Wolter does not usually discuss this on America Unearthed, but in his books and in his radio interviews he makes frequent mention of his belief that an ecological and/or social catastrophe is impending and that the revelation of the “truth” about goddess worship and the real history of Jesus can somehow help to avert the calamity by setting humanity on the path toward responsible environmental stewardship and true equality. In Akhenaten to the Founding Fathers (2013), Wolter declares America the “New Jerusalem” of Revelation 21 and further asserts his millenarian belief that the cycle of zodiac is about to inaugurate the Age of Aquarius in which revelation of the truth about Mary Magdalene will usher in a dramatic restructuring of human belief systems and full equality for women: “One thing is certain, if we humans as a species are going to make it on this planet, some things have got to change. […] I am confident the New Age of Aquarius will inspire that positive change we have all been looking for” (266). His extended discussion of the peace and prosperity to come in the Aquarian Age (265-266) is almost exactly parallel to the Millennium of apocalyptic Christian belief (Rev. 20:1-6).
The astonishing thing is that Barkun’s theoretical template for analyzing conspiracy theories maps so perfectly onto the work of Scott Wolter. It has predictive value, and by applying the theoretical framework, we can predict how Scott Wolter and/or America Unearthed will approach any given piece of evidence and fit it into his/their conspiratorial worldview. This seems like a useful tool to keep in mind for future use.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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