Fun_People Archive
5 Nov
Book Report: Empower the People

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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Thu,  5 Nov 98 15:35:00 -0800
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Subject: Book Report: Empower the People

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From: Phil Agre <>

Conspiracy and Reason:
	The Return of Antimasonism in American Political Life

Phil Agre

(I wrote this back in the spring, but it seems even more relevant now.)

When going to the movies, my favorite part is afterward, walking back out
into the world, seeing everything through the prism of the movie.  After
seeing Terry Gilliam's bizarre "12 Monkeys", for example, I drove across
San Diego in the grip of a delusion that I was Bruce Willis, warning
Cassandra-like about a catastophe that nobody wanted to hear about.  Of
course it didn't make sense.  Am I really warning anyone about a
catastrophe?  Is nobody really listening?  But that's how it felt for a good
couple of hours.

I got that feeling again this afternoon.  For the last few months, in
amongst my official duties, I have been reading the literature on apocalytic
social movements.  I was originally inspired in this by David Noble's book
"The Religion of Technology".  Noble observes, for example, that many of
the important early engineers, particularly in the United States, were
Masons, and he describes the development of a particular kind of
millennialism -- or at least a secularized form of religious utopianism --
among engineers that became secularized and formed the outlines of technical
movements such as artificial intelligence and -- he might as well have added
-- cyberspace.

As part of this reading campaign, earlier this week I read large parts of
Robert Fuller's "Naming the Antichrist", which is a history of social
movements in the United States that, from earliest colonial times to the
present, have claimed to identify the Antichrist that is mentioned briefly
in the visionary books of the Bible.  In reading Fuller's book, all at once
it occurred to me that the ongoing tidal wave of accusations and innuendoes
against Bill Clinton and his entire generation resemble nothing so much as
Antimasonism.  The similarities are most striking:  both involve attempts
to foment hatred by ordinary people against their slightly better-off and
more cosmopolitan fellow citizens by implicating them in an enormous
Conspiracy.  Even the fine details of the accusations are similar: in each
case, for example, the conspirators are said to undermine religion and
promote decadence through the public schools.  This analogy impressed me
for a while, but then I cooled down.  Even when an analogy is instructive,
one should determine its limits.  After all, nobody is claiming that Bill
Clinton is mounting his vast campaign of murder, drug dealing, treason, and
bank fraud on behalf of the Illuminati, right?  And with that thought I
filed the whole thing in my notebook.  That was Tuesday.

This afternoon, Friday, I happened to pass through a Barnes and Noble in
Costa Mesa, California.  I was there because the bookstore has a public
restroom and is on the way to the most excellent El Toro Bravo taco stand,
which does not.  Briefly inspecting the "New Non-Fiction Books" shelves as
is my custom, I noticed a new book by Tony Brown.  Its title, "Empower the
People", was not so promising, given that I've already read quite a few
books by conservative authors about how the free market empowers people to
make choices etc etc etc.  Yet something poked at me to look closer, and I
saw the subtitle: "A 7-Step Plan to Overthrow the Conspiracy That Is
Stealing Your Money and Freedom".  I opened the book and found to my utter
slack-jawed amazement that it described none other than the great Conspiracy
by the Illuminati, led by Bill Clinton.

I am not making this up.

Now, if the author of this book were a fringe crazy then it would only be
mildly odd to find the book in Barnes and Noble.  Just the other day I sat
on the floor in the Barnes and Noble at Pico and Westwood in Los Angeles
and read large parts of a well-produced volume entitled "A Woman Rides the
Beast" by Dave Hunt, which argues that the woman seen riding on the back of
the Beast in the Book of Revelation is none other than the Virgin Mary as
she is worshipped in the Catholic Church.  (This is part of a resurgence of
anti-Catholicism among some American evangelical Protestants that deserves
much more attention than it has gotten -- see, for example, Michael W. Smith
singing on a recent record, amidst a lamentation of various sins, of people
who are "jaded by hypocrisies behind cathedral walls").  This is the sort
of fringe weirdness that is easy to write off.  But the author of "Empower
the People", Tony Brown, is not a marginal crazy.  I hate to be the one to
break this to you, but the United States is now a country in which a man
who believes that the President is an agent of the Illuminati has a regular
program on public television.

What are we to make of this?  Several things.  First, in the astonishing
climate of political warfare now under way in the United States, when the
speaker of the House insinuates in a speech at Stanford University that the
President is systematically killing his enemies (NY Times 5/3/98) and nobody
finds this even slightly odd, we have to confront the fact that in the late
18th century, during the formative decades of the political culture of the
United States, this country was positively addled by conspiracy theories.
These theories were not prominent in the writings of the educated secular
elites who officially founded the country.  But the rank and file of the
Revolution were animated in large part (though not, of course, solely) by
elaborate claims to have located the Antichrist in the crown and church of
England, and in their adherents in America.

Nor the American cultural inclination to conspiracy theories end with the
Constitution.  As the new country fought its first round of political
conflicts, the theories suddenly shifted their attention -- to the Masons.
This happened precisely 200 years ago, in fact, in 1798, when the first
tracts appeared describing the great Conspiracy of the Illuminati, a
subgroup of the Masons from Bavaria.  After smouldering for several years,
opposition to this Conspiracy became a substantial social movement beginning
around 1830 in the "burned-over district" of upstate New York, so-called
because of the waves of evangelical religious enthusiasm that had swept over
the area.  (Madison probably had an earlier wave of revivals, the First
Great Awakening, in mind when he expressed relief in the famous tenth
Federalist Paper that social movements that rise up in one part of the
country, particularly religious movements that devolve into political ones,
cannot easily spread to other areas.)  The Antimasonic movement became a
political party which contested several elections before collapsing a decade

You will recall that many early American engineers were Masons, as were many
of the Founding Fathers.  But who exactly were the Masons?  The Masons
originated as a medieval guild, but during the period in question they were
a semi-secret society of white men who constituted themselves on classical
Greek and Roman models as the intellectual elites of their respective
countries.  In this sense, Antimasonism was very much a revolt against
educated people.  That it was also a revolt against the same people who
founded the country was, so far as I can determine, little-noted at the

It is often observed that cultural patterns are able to go underground for
decades or centuries, only to spring fully-formed to the surface once again,
as if they were brand new, when the time is right.  And that, I would
suggest, is what's happening now.  If this were the late 18th century, white
men who rose through education from relatively poor backgrounds -- men such
as Bill Clinton -- would be spinning classical political philosophies and
writing the Constitution, and conservative evangelical ministers would be
spinning conspiracy theories and opposing the Constitution on the grounds
that (quite the opposite of what many such ministers say today) it does not
create a Christian nation.  The vigorous but ideologically vague patriotism
of the contemporary anti- government movement likewise corresponds to the
equally vague ideas of the 18th century conspiracy theorists.

In drawing out these parallels, I am particularly struck by the place of
technology in American political culture.  The early engineers -- the men
who founded the country's original technological institutions -- were
largely Masons, and popular reactionary movements in the United States have
increasingly incorporated technological themes into their theories.
Computers, for example, play an important role in conspiracy theories based
on the Book of Revelation.  Viewed superficially, these theories sometimes
seem to resemble the much more serious ideas of privacy and civil liberties
advocates.  My experience, however, is that the people who spin such
theories are indifferent to accurate information about the nature and use
of computers, no matter how unsettling; their concern with the technology
is much more symbolic.

In my view, a critical turning point in American cultural constructions of
information technology occurred in the 1970's, in the wake of the Vietnam
war.  This cultural shift has been brilliantly documented by James W.
Gibson's "Warrior Dreams: Paramilitary Culture in Post-Vietnam America"
(1994).  The Vietnam war, Gibson observes, was organized largely by men from
elite institutions who believed in formal rationality and made heavy use of
mathematical decision-making models.  They lost, and there arose in the
aftermath of that loss an important cultural narrative that was best
captured by Sylvester Stallone's "Rambo".  Rambo is a lone individual who
keeps fighting despite having been betrayed by decadent institutions.  Cold
War heroes, by contrast, may have been ambivalent about their institutions,
but they were insiders -- they were part of the institution.  Rambo is an
outsider.  He has two enemies, the "official" enemy and the institution
itself.  This figure of the betrayed and wounded hero fighting two enemies
has become deeply engraved in American culture.  Constrast, for example,
the original Cold War era (1966-1969) "Mission: Impossible" television
series and the 1996 movie version starring Tom Cruise.  In the television
version, the government is completely unquestioned, but for Tom Cruise, the
CIA is the enemy as well.

Rambo epitomized a new cultural construction of masculinity, set against
institutions rather than identifying with them.  And technology was
identified with the institutions.  This helps to explain why Hollywood has
apparently decided that computers and rationality are feminine domains.
(Think, for example, of "The X-Files".)  Cultures often define men as
"outside" of something and women as "inside"; what varies is the something.
In this case, the something is the institutional world, technology and all.
The Rambo phenomenon also helps to explain the otherwise mysterious shift
that took place during the 1980's in prevailing cultural constructions of
computer hackers: the original hackers were comfortably identified with
military-sponsored research institutions, but then the word "hacker"
suddenly shifted around to refer to men, whether bad criminals or virtuous
rebels, who were outside of and opposed to institutions.  This, in turn,
helps explain the peculiar divide on the political right between those
cultural conservatives -- the inheritors of the Antimasonites -- who persist
in identifying technology with oppressive institutions and a demographically
narrow but highly educated group of libertarians who have redefined
technology as an instrument for the destruction of institutions.

The point here is not that Rambo appeared from nowhere.  Quite the contrary,
"Rambo"'s construction of the Vietnam war drew upon and revalued elements
of American historical memory that have been handed down, for the most part
unconsciously, by all sorts of mechanisms throughout the country's history.
And once it did, neoconservative intellectuals such as Irving Kristol set
about reinterpreting those cultural forms in terms of their "New Class"
political strategy.  That phrase, "New Class", was originally applied by
Milovan Djilas in his analysis of the bureaucrats who consolidated their
power in the Soviet Union.  True to the ideologies of Lenin and Stalin,
these people were drawn primarily from the lower strata of Russian society,
semi-educated and selected through the Soviet examination system (itself
originally derived, via European variants, from the classical Chinese
system), and installed in positions of power that they proceeded to
consolidate over several decades.

The neoconservatives' strategy is to portray American liberals as an
analogue of the Soviet New Class and to use the money of the rich to
mobilize working people against professionals and the poor.  This helps to
explain why conservative rhetoric virtually never discloses the existence
of working-class liberals, and why the party that enjoys the overwhelming
support of wealthy Americans persists in appropriating generations of
left-wing rhetoric to portray liberals as a wealthy "elite".  (It's bad to
foment envy against the rich, apparently, but not against college
professors.)  This whole strategy succeeds in large part because of the
whole historical inheritance of Antimasonism and its successive generations
of descendents.  The liberals, in short, are the new Masons.

In his history of German intellectual life in the era that led up to the
Nazis, Georg Lukacs spoke of a "destruction of reason" -- a step- by-step
demolition of rational thought that became possible as Germans found
themselves willing to project more and more and more of their own negative
impulses into a vast enemy.  Tony Brown's "Empower the People", it seems to
me, is one very clear step in a destruction of reason that is currently far
along in the United States.  Antimasonism is the American equivalent of
fascism, and Antimasonism is coming back.  Will the relatively rational
antiliberalism of neoconservative intellectuals be drowned by the
unfortunate tradition of conspiratoralism upon which it draws its emotional
force?  That, it seems to me, is an urgent question for our country right

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