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America's unfaltering obsession with secret societies and conspiracy theories

George Washington was America's first president and a member of the Freemasons. A statue of him is on display at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia.
George Washington was America's first president and a member of the Freemasons. A statue of him is on display at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia.

“The United States was born in paranoia.”

That’s the first line in Colin Dickey’s new book, “Under the Eye of Power: How Fear of Secret Societies Shapes American Democracy.”

From there, Dickey argues that politics in the U.S. have continually been shaped by secret societies and the conspiracies that surround them.

In the Antebellum South, conspiracies spread about slaves and those who helped them, especially on the underground railroad.

“Conspiracy theories were absolutely essential as one of many tools that enslavers and their allies used to avoid confronting the country’s original sin,” Dickey writes.

History moves forward with many more recent examples. Think QAnon and Pizzagate.

Dickey wrote more in The Atlantic:

Although it is tempting to see these moral panics as something new, they have been part of American culture for nearly two centuries, and they recur at key moments in history for specific, identifiable reasons. Combatting them requires first understanding that they are not only not novel, but in fact rote—almost to the point of banality.

Conspiracy theories tend to emerge in times of rapid cultural or demographic change; many of them reflect unease with that change, suggesting that it is not just the result of evolving values or newly emergent communities—the messy progression of democracy—but instead the work of a hidden network of nefarious actors whose ultimate goal is the destruction of America itself. And they often portray the American nuclear family, particularly its women and its children, as uniquely vulnerable and in need of protection.

We get more stories about conspiracy theories, secret societies, and why they captivate us from author Colin Dickey.

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Avery Jessa Chapnick