A quick follow-on to my last post — it’s worth mentioning that “conspiracy theorist” is also a much older term than many realize. A few years ago, in fact, a story was going around the forums that the term was either invented by the CIA or at least made an undesirable moniker by them.
Again, in reality, the term is much older and appears to have long been a term of derision even back then. Consider this use from 1934:
The differences of opinion now to be observed in the Congressional committees laboring with the Stock Exchange bill are explained by some thick-and-thin opponents of all changes in the bill by the existence of a conspiracy to defeat it. If there is a conspiracy, it is one of the most vocal in conspiratorial history. The investment bankers, their employees and some of their customers have been making the welkin ring with their complaints. If there has been any secret, backstairs work, the conspiracy theorists will surely find receptive audience for its exposure.
It is to be suspected, however, that the reorganized hesitation within the committees about the Fletcher-Rayburn bill “as is” rests upon more solid ground. The probability is that Senators and Representatives, like people, have come to see that there are risks in an indiscriminate attack upon “Wall Street” which cannot be brushed aside by references to the supposedly dubious of those who resist the attacks.
There’s lots for cultural historians to dig into here — this is, after all, a charge of conspiracy theory against supporters of an anti-Wall Street bill, which shows the ways the term is used to police narratives, for better and worse. But again, we see what we saw with conspiracy theory in the last post. From the beginning these terms have been negative, even if sometimes groups may have used that negative connotation to their own political ends.
It’s worth noting, of course, that conspiracy theory is used against hysteria as well, as in this letter in 1961 to a New Jersey paper (also not usually cited, the first cites for the OED are in 1964):
The conspiracy theory of history takes an admitted Communist plot against all free men and makes it virtually the sole factor responsible .for all phenomena that are not to the liking of the conspiracy theorists. Thus the fiasco of the Cuban revolt is seen not as the tragic miscalculation of wishful-thinking incompetents, which it apparently was . . . but as the usual sinister work of pro-Commie elements in our Government.
That there is a call, and a pretty unsubtle one at that, that the Bay of Pigs fiasco not be used as an excuse to slide back to McCarthyism. The letter is actually headed “Conspiracy Theory”. (The author, William Monaghan, actually wrote on this issue at least one more time — decrying rising Holocaust denialism of the time in 1963.)
The author continues after some details:
This sort of puerility also never recognizes that the admitted world conspiracy does have at times a large mass base of people who consider themselves in no way conspirators, but rather downtrodden ones who have found a cause and a regime that will bring better days to them. This was the case with the Chinese peasantry in the period of the rise to power of the Chinese Reds. . . . And it was the case recently when the Cuban masses refused to rise against a regime they still for the most part consider their benefactor, not their oppressor. No internal C. I. A. conspiracy but the facts of life in Cuba today foredoomed the invasion and , revolt attempt, much as we might wish it to have been otherwise. …
The conspiracy theorist will never abandon his pet intellectual hobby, because it gives him far too much of a sense of his own importance and his group’s significance in history. It is therefore not at all surprising that he should from time to time proclaim that his small group will turn out to have been the savior of this nation and of the liberals themselves.”
WILLIAM E. MONAGHAN 548 Studio Road , Ridgefield, May 12, 1961.
The academic calls to think more critically about how we deploy the charge of conspiracy theory are welcome and overdue. Still, on the merits, I’m with William most days of the week, and hope that more people will cite his treatment of conspiracy theorists in their own histories.