Did the U.S. government hide evidence of UFOs? Were some of the Founding Fathers members of a satanic cult? Is there a secret cabal of wealthy billionaires controlling the world from behind the scenes? American culture is unique in the degree to which conspiracy theories have been incorporated into the fabric of American society, finding support even among America’s popular leaders and major public figures. This volume of Opinions looks at the unfolding of some of the biggest conspiracy theories in the history of America—from the assassination of JFK, to the alleged links between vaccines and autism, to QAnon and the imagined pedophilia ring of the “deep state.” Looking deeper into the origins and development of these theories will reveal how fear and mistrust have shaped American popular culture and continue to shape attitudes about the perceived secret, hidden nature of America, the world, and even the universe.
Conspiracy Theories is the nineteenth volume in the Opinions Throughout History series. Each volume in the series is designed to follow the evolution of public opinion on a current and controversial topic that has changed throughout history. Each volume discusses both primary and secondary documents such as newspaper and magazine articles, speeches, court decisions and other legislation. Accompanied by expert commentary and analysis, these documents showcase the changing attitudes on these important issues of public interest over time.
This new volume starts with a detailed Introduction that discusses the meaning and origins of conspiracy theories; this is followed by a comprehensive Timeline of significant events.
The 28 chapters that follow cover familiar conspiracy theories like anti-Semitic conspiracies, anti-vaccination theories about autism or pharmaceutical cabals, and election denialism, QAnon and the January 6 Capitol riots, as well as delving into more obscure propositions like the Hollow Earth theory. In journeying through the events and places that have proven fertile ground for conspiracy theories to flourish in, patterns emerge that are present as early as the first denunciations of the Illuminati in the eighteenth century as well as in the Pizzagate phenomenon of the twenty-first. Alleged secret plots are often attempts to explain a complex situation in a simple, apparently logical, manner to reduce fear and create a false sense of control over events.
These alleged schemes divide the world into good and bad actors and target specific groups as the perpetrators of malevolent activity. Societal upheaval plays an important role in engendering outlandish beliefs, and often older conspiracy theories— world domination by the Illuminati or by the Jewish people are among the oldest—are rehabilitated or modified to fit current circumstances. Psychological research has also shown that believers in conspiracy theories share certain traits, which can include a lower level of education, a desire to be part of a group that has access to information that others don’t, and a belief that one is unique in some way and so not gullible enough to believe the mainstream consensus.
The chapters are as follows:
Each chapter starts with a brief Introduction, List of Topics Covered, and the source document discussed in the chapter. The body of the text discusses the document from its historical context to its relationship to contemporary public opinion. Most documents are reprinted in their entirety and clearly distinguished by a shaded title bar. In addition to helpful subtitles, photos and other images enhance the text, and sidebars provide a profile of an individual who has espoused, legitimately or for personal or financial gain, a conspiracy theory of the time period being discussed. Each chapter ends with a brief Conclusion, thoughtful Discussion Questions, and a list of Works Used.
The concluding chapter discusses some common elements of conspiracy theories, some shared characteristics of true believers, and the dangers of conspiracy theories as well as their persistence. It is followed by the Historical Snapshots section—a broad, bulleted overview of political, social, and cultural developments from 1880 to 2022 that help provide context and understanding of the political and social climate of the broad timeframe of the work.
This exciting series offers a wide range of insights into long-standing issues that Americans are most concerned about, and those that have encouraged vigorous debate among politicians and citizens at large. Using carefully chosen original documents that cover a wide time span, Opinions Throughout History weaves a thoughtful and easy-to-understand analysis of how public opinion is formed and evolves, starting the discussion at an historical, seminal moment, and ending with where we stand today. This comprehensive, timely volume is a must for large public libraries, university libraries and social science departments, along with high school libraries.
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