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[RRE]The Return of Antimasonism in American Political Life

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Date: Fri, 30 Oct 1998 17:59:29 -0800 (PST)
From: Phil Agre <[email protected]>
To: "Red Rock Eater News Service" <[email protected]>
Subject: [RRE]The Return of Antimasonism in American Political Life
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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 time.

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 now.


--- end forwarded text

Robert A. Hettinga <mailto: [email protected]>
Philodox Financial Technology Evangelism <http://www.philodox.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'