Conspiracy theories are weird and unbelievable – right? We know they’re either lies or the unfounded fantasies of a disturbed mind…right? Lying is what ‘normal people’ do, believing in fantastic worlds is what crazy people do, right? So, the people who believe that alien lizards have taken over the White House are crazy, but the people who say so but don’t believe it are lying, right?

How do we KNOW which is which? In the above example, ‘we’ think the idea that President Trump is a lizard must be a conspiracy theory because ‘we’ don’t believe it. So, a conspiracy theory is an idea which ‘we’ don’t believe, right. For believers, the idea is not a conspiracy theory but a fact.

The current situation is encouraging lies/fantasies. Since the Second World War, the industry selling ‘conspiracy theories’ – books, TV series, movies – has exploded. This, in turn, has spurred academics and produced theories about the theories, mainly about Trump’s motivations and the psychology of his supporters. Who is it that believes crazy stories? why do they believe? Are Trump’s supporter crazy or fantasists? There is now competition between conspiracy ‘schools’. Disputes between sociologists, historians, psychologists and political scientists doesn’t mean there is no common ground. Everyone knows a conspiracy theory when they see one, right? Byford’s ‘Critical Introduction’ (2011) illustrates the point. After comparing attempts in the recent literature to settle what is and is not a conspiracy theory he has concluded: ‘In providing a critical introduction to conspiracy theories, the present book (has) offered an argument in favour of preserving the narrower and more clear-cut definition…’ (p.151) ‘The question, therefore, is how to make conspiracist ideas less appealing as an interpretative framework…and how to prevent everyday reasoning from being contaminated…’ (p.155); ‘Conspiracism has been the staple ingredient of discriminatory, anti-democratic and populist politics and…(has been) a faithful companion to anti-semitism…The tried and tested alliance between conspiracy theory and totalitarian politics is unsurprising…‘(p.144); ‘Given the conspiracy tradition’s long legacy of harmful influence and its noted ‘affinity’ for bad causes it might be worthwhile concluding with a brief discussion about how one should go about undermining its presence in modern society.’ (p.152) In other words Byford has argued:

* Conspiracy theories are recognisable even if difficult to define – they are always negative, weird and peripheral, ie bad.

* Only people incapable of ‘everyday reasoning’ could believe them.

* ‘They’ are never found within a ‘democratic society’ but are always ‘outside’.

* ‘They’ therefore must be defeated before they infect us, the normal ones, who are never negative, weird or peripheral.

This is a circular and selective argument. Beliefs of the so-called normal mainstream are never considered since the opinion-influencing processes in ‘democratic societies’, by definition, never lead to weird, negative or peripheral opinions. Byford’s work, written before Trump was elected, is an example of academic ‘fake news’, aka ‘partisan scholarship’. There are many others. School children are invariably taught mythic history about their homeland, and it sticks with them longer if they have not been disadvantaged by the real-time history that the myths cover up. It was only in the 1950’s that Australian school children were provided with realistic information about anyone beyond the male, white explorers, governors and successful politicians. The situation hasn’t improved much. In 2015, a book called ‘Of No Personal Influence’ was published about Friendly Societies, a topic I’ve spent three decades exploring. Among numerous erroneous claims made by the author to fulfill his commissioning brief is: ‘Friendly societies in colonial Australia reflected a politically radical, democratically advanced, socially open, dynamic and porous society.’ (A McDermott, Of No Personal Influence, Australian Unity Limited, 2015, p.8.) I know how important to Australia’s recent evolution member-benefit societies have been but this is the worst kind of rhetorical generalisation. It serves only to diminish the vocation of historian. (Better guides than Byford to main-stream ‘fake news’ are books by Noam Chomsky or the very recent The Propaganda Model Today.)

Trump is not the first politician or the first US President to deride opinions he didn’t like. He has actually managed to focus attention on the many ways information has been manipulated for as far back in history as anyone wants to go. He has also focused attention on the media but he doesn’t read so he hasn’t mentioned the people who spread mis-information in schools, colleges and universities.  A recent commentator has reminded us yet again:

The claim to be an objective observer reliant on inductive reasoning is superficially plausible, but as historians and philosophers of science have long been aware, all data collection is selective because our assumptions determine the questions we ask, where we seek answers, whose knowledge we deem reliable and the frameworks we use to make sense of our findings. How else can we explain the failure of so many historical truth-seekers to notice, or care about, the entrenched whiteness of their discipline? (Sadiah Qureshi, ‘Short Cuts’, London Review of Books, Vol 40, No 22, 22 Nov, 2018)

Conspiracy theories are not all the same and it’s a mistake to treat them as though they are. Motivations and the possible consequences of a lie/fantasy are as important as the content. One way to sort them into types would be to ask whether they can be tested, and just what test would be credible? Another way would be to sort them by their consequences – just how dangerous are they? A third way would be by motivation. The claim that those in charge of the US Government are really lizards from outer space is just someone’s opinion. But who started the idea? For what reason? Is there any evidence? Who benefits from the idea? What are the idea’s consequences? That Johanna Citizen believes the CIA is messing with her brain is less important than her response, especially if she chooses violence. Trump is not claiming his detractors are crazy, he’s claiming that they’re dishonest. Is that a simple matter of different opinions? There is a lot riding on the answer because of the power in the hands of the people involved. Some past ‘theories’ have been disproved – that non-white people can’t govern themselves, that the earth is flat, that ex-President Obama was born in Africa. Obama’s birth place was a constitutionally significant matter, so there ought to have been a well-established mechanism already in place to assess Trump’s claims about that immediately he made the claim. Alleged evidence that has been produced, for example to justify claims of UFOs at Rothwell, that Pope John 23 was murdered, that there haven’t been any US landings on the moon, could also be examined if there was an appropriate mechanism, acceptable to all sides.

At the same time as a multiplication of fake news claims there has been a resurgence of the far-right. Some, like Byford, say this is not a coincidence. It is worth focusing on the longest-running conspiracy theories in history. However they began, they have been sustained by people with power and with access to extensive publicity networks. Their agendas were clear and pursued with determination, even ruthlessness. Three groups of people have been directly involved. One, ‘the Jews’, suffered calamitous persecution in the 20th century but their demonization began well before that. Some scholars argue that: ‘For more than twenty centuries, the Jewish people, more than any other segment of humanity, have been persecuted, uprooted and annihilated.’ [i] Lists of the 21st century’s most popular conspiracy theories often show ‘the Jews’ bracketed with ‘the Freemasons’ but that organisation didn’t get established until the 18th century so any connections between them will only show up in the last three hundred years. The third group is the Roman Catholic Church. Like ‘the Jews’ and ‘the Freemasons’, ‘Catholics’ have been accused of seeking world domination. All three groups have had global reach and influence but, at times, all have been feared and hunted. All have claimed to have a unique connection with God and to be intent on achieving human perfection. Each has claimed to know ‘the truth’ and each has argued that anything bad done in its name has been part of a plot, or a result of a bad apple who wasn’t really ‘one of us’ or just wasn’t its fault.[ii] Lastly, each has been riven by factions and breakaways all of whom have pursued organisational, ie political, often secret, means to achieve its aims. All told, it seems no sensible, modern history of any of the three groups can omit either of the other two.

Defining one’s terms would seem a necessary first step to counter ‘misleading’ information but in the present case it is an early warning signal about difficulties ahead. Defining ‘a Pope’ or a ‘Masonic Grand Master’ is very easy; defining ‘a Jesuit’ is easy – he is/was a member of the Society of Jesus. A definition of ‘a Catholic’ is less easy since a baptised person can lapse or convert, so a useful definition would be ‘a current member of the Church’. A definition of a ‘Freemason’ should be equally straight forward – a current member of ‘the Masonic Order’ – but for reasons I explore below it has long been considered unnecessary to even attempt a definition, and very bad form to ask a researcher who or what is meant when the term is used.

In the ‘Jewish’ case, numerous misunderstandings have been created by applications of the word to a culture, a genetic pool, a polity, and/or a certain reading of the Torah. The ‘Chosen People’ is a phrase often associated with people of the Jewish faith, but can ‘a people’ be part of a useful definition?

The alleged 18th century shift to a more rational view of the world – the Enlightenment – occurred just as the youngest of my three groups, ‘the Society of Free-Masons’, was getting started. Around that time, major conflicts over ‘divine revelation’ and ‘the correct path to salvation’ supposedly became more about human rights, freeing natives from primitivism, and the benefits of trade, ‘the rule of law’ and ‘modern’ education. ‘Freemasons’ have claimed to be both a major cause and a result of that shift. Initiated brethren have often posed the question, ‘what is a Freemason?’ but only so they can give the answer that every ‘brother’ has been ‘a truth seeker’ or was already a paragon of virtue.  They never mention that the second half of the 18th century was also ‘the golden age of the charlatans.’ [iii]

Most if not all struggles are about power, wealth and vanity. The publicly-given reasons alter according to need but interestingly many contain the same dominant idea which applied before ‘the shift’ – that humans can be measured by some external standard, and can be improved, and indeed, should be perfect. This is very clear in the case of my three groups. In 2009, the then Pro-Grand Master of English Freemasonry, Lord Northampton, wrote of his fellow Masons: ‘We are all Brothers on this same journey, a journey leading to self-knowledge, and ultimately perfection.’ [iv] And elsewhere in the literature:

(Perfection) is a term that every Freemason can relate to as part of their understanding. The zeal to achieve perfection is a core value of the masonic practice. Many instances of the word turn up in masonic language…[v]

Perhaps the best-known 20th century Jesuit, Teilhard de Chardin worked on what a contemporary philosopher called a ‘profoundly eclectic’ vision of perfectibility. In Passmore’s words: ‘To an extraordinary degree…Teilhard built into a single system almost all the main forms of perfectibilism…He was a mystic: perfection consists in union with God. He was a Christian: perfection depends on Christ’s working in man through evolution. He was a metaphysician: perfection consists in the development to its final form of that consciousness which is present, according to Teilhard, even in elementary electrons. He believed in perfection through science…through social change…’ [vi]

Among people of the Jewish faith, the idea of perfection is endlessly debated. Even at its most transcendental, it is bound to geography and to politics and has no clear potential for resolution. God, in Exodus, apparently described ‘the Jews’ as ‘stiff-necked’ and said ‘he’ was perplexed about what to do with them. Viorst, a self-described ‘Jewish scholar and journalist’, argued in 2002 [vii] that ‘stiff necked’ remained appropriate for citizens of Israel – stubborn, strongly self-opinionated, unwilling to compromise and convinced ‘they’ had a unique connection to the divine – all of which, he said, has led to reaction and internal division: ‘‘When [PM Yitzac] Rabin signed the Oslo Accords, religious Jews seemed to lose all interest in bridging their differences with Jewish secularism.’ (Viorst, pp.214-215). In retrospect, it is clear the anger that produced (his) assassination [in 1995] had been simmering not just since 1967 but since the schism between religious and secular Jews during the Enlightenment…’ Further:

In (the modern State of) Israel, the issue that basically divides Mizrachi [moderate religious Jews] from Haredin [the ultra-orthodox] is not outward appearance: it is still the age-old messianic question… (Theologically, the Haredi) believe they are still in exile…(their) rabbis who make policy still maintain that without the Messiah, Israel is a Jewish heresy. (p.183)

The idea of ‘our’ perfectibility began life as an assertion that humans were unique among animals in that they were made ‘in the likeness of God’ and were ‘in conversation’ with ‘Him’. A personal choice for doing good here on earth would be rewarded with an after-life in a heavenly paradise. Initially a uniqueness available only to humans ‘of royal blood’, civilisation’s alleged ‘progress’ led to a variety of interpretations of who was to be saved and by what means. James Billington, well-credentialled US historian, was thinking of individual ‘brothers’ when he put ‘the Masonic quest for perfection’ at the centre of his 1980 study of 19th and 20th century revolutionaries: ‘Throughout the inventive revolutionary era, new symbols and societies seemed to be searching for le point parfait: “the perfect point” within a circle of friends. These were the strangely appropriate names of two leading Masonic lodges that flourished in Paris during the Reign of Terror.’ Leading participants in the French Revolution narrowed the focus of popular sovereignty – ‘the perfect point’ – from a National Assembly to an executive of twelve, five, three and finally one man, Napoleon Bonaparte.[viii]

During Billington’s research, a similarly well-credentialled US scholar, Margaret Jacob, was concluding that, despite being constantly accused of being seditious, the importance of ‘Freemasonry’ was as the incubator of cosmopolitanism and of a new collective sensibility which was new only to Continental observers – some of whom were attracted while others felt threatened: ‘(An anonymous French writer in Brussells in 1744 asserted that it was seeking to establish) a universal and democratic republic which would also hold in common all that the earth and its inhabitants are capable of producing.’  She argued that critical observers saw as seditious what was only a shift in attitude: ‘(The) lodges on the Continent were replicas of British lodges (which) brought with them forms of governance and social behaviour developed within the distinctive political culture of that island Only in Britain (did men vote) within a constitutional structure and at a national legislative assembly, where voting was by individual and not by estate or locality. …Only in the lodges men also became legislators and constitution makers…’ [ix] A kind of pragmatic perfection, this view of ‘Freemasonry’ is one among many condensations out of the mythical Whig view of ‘modern’ European history which has bedevilled English-language scholarship for two centuries. Various formulations have contended that ‘English Freemasonry’ conveyed democracy into Europe and beyond, that English lodge culture embodied Enlightenment values and was popular in pre-revolutionary societies for that reason, and/or that ‘Freemasonry’ actually ‘advocated an ideology of equality and moral improvement regardless of social rank’. [‘Enlightenment’, in G Fremont-Barnes (Ed), ‘Encyclopedia of the Age of Political Revolutions and New Ideologies, 1760-1815’, Vol 1, Greenwood, 2007, p.223.]

In the last decade and a half enormous shifts towards more realistic Masonic history have exposed how little progress had been made previously. Robert Peter, a European scholar, in 2016 introduced five volumes covering the period 1717 to 1813. His diagnosis that ‘British Masonic research’ is yet ‘in its infancy’ acknowledged that the failings he goes on to point to relate to work done after his cut-off date. The previous three centuries and its hundreds of thousands of books, sermons, reviews and ‘re-interpretations’ had, in his view, produced:

* ‘Hermetically- sealed Masonic universes’, ‘one-dimensional hagiographies’ and the use by Masonic authors of other Masons as both ‘primary and secondary sources’ (p.xiv)

* ‘Many misconceptions about eighteenth-century adoption lodges’ [which allowed female participation] have been ‘frequently repeated in the scholarly literature’;

* a failure to integrate ‘the religious history of Freemasonry’ into eighteenth-century scholarship.’ (p.xviii)

He noted that

* ‘Many scholarly works still exaggerate the secular aspects of masonic ideology and practice at the expense of its mythic, ritualistic and religious dimensions’;

* ‘The lack of statistical data…has hardly changed in the last twenty years with regard… (to) Freemasonry in the British Isles’ (p.xix)

* English-language scholarship has been ‘largely Anglo-Centric’; (p.xx); with very little on Scottish, and nothing on Welsh Freemasonry (p.xxxi)

* ‘Historians of Freemasonry – many of whom are members of the Order – have paid less attention to the inconsistencies between masonic idealism and practice because their goal was to highlight how successful Freemasons were’. (p.xxiv-v)

* ‘The watchwords of masonic rhetoric and idealism…were frequently repeated in masonic sermons, lectures and official publications…’

He observed that ‘naturally, masonic practice is much more ambivalent and contradictory…’; (p.xxiv-v) and that in particular:

* ‘The fourth volume sheds new light on the intolerant attitudes of certain (Grand) lodges towards ‘the Other’, that is, discrimination against people of low social standing and differing political opinions.’ (p.xxv-vi), and

* ‘Freemasonry in the British Isles was fractured and polarised during the long eighteenth century’ (p.xxvii)

This is quite a list but is still incomplete. In real-time, ‘Masonry’ was never hermetically-sealed off from its context, and the motives for brethren writing as though it was are worth emphasising. ‘Freemasonry’s’ originating document, the ‘Constitution’ of 1723 set the trend. ‘The Society of Free-Masons’ which it announced was shaped by its context. The Constitution was written for its context. Both have claimed that it was not. Subsequent pronouncements issued in its name, and even many in opposition, have adopted that assertion. The context has changed enormously but the approach has persisted – that ‘Freemasonry’ was entitled to claim to be aloof from or immune to its real-time world. As Scottish scholar David Stevenson noted in 2000 the founders of the ‘Society of Free-Masons’ were players in local and in global politics. They were directly involved in life-and-death struggles, including with ‘the Jews’ and the Roman Catholic Church.

Neither the Society nor its founding publication have been assessed as needs-based productions for a specific context, with particular intent. Rarely has the document been assessed for its truthfulness, nor have its consequences been adequately examined.

[i] M Aarons & J Loftus, The Secret War Against the Jews, Reed, 1994, p.18.

[ii] L Zeldis, ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion – Anti-Masonry and Anti-Semitism’, on Pietre-Stones Review of Freemasonry, web-site, Sept 2017.

[iii] P Maciejko, The Mixed Multitude, U of Penn, 2011, p.219.

[iv] Pro-GM Lord Northampton, ‘Whither Directing Our Course?’, 2009, reprinted in Harashim, April, 2018, p.11.

[v] Website <Universal Freemasonry – To the Glory of God>, 11/2017.

[vi] J Passmore on Teilhard, quoted by J Brooke, ‘Visions of Perfectibility’, Jnl of Evolution and Technology, 14 (2) August, 2005, p.8.

[vii] M Viorst, What Shall I Do With This People? Free Press, 2002.

[viii] J Billington, The Fire in the Minds of Men, Basic Books, 1980, p.24.

[ix] M Jacob, Living the Enlightenment, OUP, 1991, p.21.