I recently added to my links a site called Counterknowledge. It has been set up by a Daily Telegraph journalist, Damian Thompson, who has recently written an excellent book of the same title. The book and the site deal with the alarming popularity of ideas that are (my word rather than his) pathological: historical theses ("the Chinese discovered America") that have no warrant in the evidence; quack medicine such as homeopathy; political claims such as the "9/11 truth" campaign. What these notions have in common is a conviction that there is a body of esoteric wisdom that is being systematically suppressed by secular powers. They are, in short, conspiracy theories. The belief that the works of Shakespeare were written by the Earl of Oxford is not, in the scale of disrepute, the same type of crank theory as Holocaust denial. But both these notions posit a cover-up of a hidden truth by official sources.
Damian, whom I know slightly, concentrates on the British scene. There is a good book also on conspiracy theories in the US, though a few years old and with a narrower focus of apocalypticism, by Michael Barkun called A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, 2003. Barkun is an acute observer of the wilder shores of right-wing politics. Conspiracists of this type identify a particular enemy in international organisations. Barkun notes (p. 60): "The Bilderberg group, an organization of European and North American businessmen, academics and lawyers, was founded in 1952 and - like its offshoot, the Trilateral Commission - has been a favorite of conspiracy theorists seeking to identify the secret holders of power."
Barkun goes on to a brief history of the Bilderbergers' meetings, whose "aim was to develop common transatlantic policies". Unsurprisingly, he remarks (p. 67): "The prospect of identifying a list of names of the true rulers of the world is heady stuff for conspiracists. John McManus, president of the John Birch Society, calls Council on Foreign Relations and Trilateral Commission members 'Architects of the New World Order' and devotes one-fifth of his book, The Insiders, to membership lists."
There is, in short, an intellectual subculture at work that merits some attention - not for any inherent merits of its ideas, for there are none, but because irrationalism has a historically powerful dynamic unless countered by better ideas. I was thus genuinely interested - more than I thought I would be - by an article on "Comment is Free" today by Neil Clark, entitled "Blair, EU president? Non, merci". Since I reinstated comments on this blog a couple of days ago, I have deleted two comments that were posted here - one was merely spam, and the other referred disparagingly to Mr Clark's probity. I took the second one down not because it was false (I was in fact the source of the entirely factual allegation) but because it was off-topic and Mr Clark deserves a break. But what is genuinely a matter of public interest is that Mr Clark, in the forums available to him, is a partisan of counterknowledge - a body of irrationalist principles that reinforce each other. In the political sphere these extend to denying the massacre of 8,000 Bosniaks at Srebrenica in 1995 and to maintaining that the late Slobodan Milosevic died of poison administered by something called "the New World Order". (I owe this information to my friend Stephen Pollard, who tracks Mr Clark's output across the Internet with a purely sociological interest.) Reading Mr Clark's imprecations today against Tony Blair, I was interested immediately by his opening sentence: "Ever since he attended his first Bilderberg conference in 1993, Tony Blair has never disappointed his powerful masters."
There immediately is the fascination with an international organisation that supposedly controls elected national governments. And if you follow the link that Mr Clark provided, you find some interesting material. The site is a rather lurid one maintaining that Prince Charles is the anti-Christ; that "Eugenicist Prince Philip ordered the assassination of Princess Diana"; that the 7/7 bombs were "planted by God-haters MI6 and the Israeli army"; and that "9/11 was an inside job". In addition the author speculates that the British Satanist Aleister Crowley was the father of Mrs Barbara Bush, and is thus the grandfather of the current President. I confess I didn't bother with the reasoning, but I do know something about Crowley's association with the US. A crank among cranks, Crowley lived in Greenwich Village from 1914 to 1919, and was a regular fixture in the sensationalist quarters of the popular press. His Satanic commune, the Abbey of Thelema in Sicily, was a source of much scandal, both sexual and occult. In reality, Crowley was a Gnostic rather than a Satanist, and he pedantically insisted that he could hardly celebrate a Black Mass as he was not an apostate Catholic priest. (There is more about Crowley in Philip Jenkins's book Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History, 2000, especially pp. 142-5.) But this is a distinction lost on the creator of the site Mr Clark has linked to, whose aim is clearly to indicate the Satanic character of the current US administration. For good measure, the page about the Bilderberg group to which Mr Clark links directly carries numerous links to material from the racist Right, including a long article by the first chairman of the National Front, A.K. Chesterton. (I should note, in fairness, that the website castigates Chesterton - the nephew of the great Catholic author G.K. Chesterton, whose work I much admire - but for "gratuitous 'anti-socialist' vitriol" rather than anything more sinister.)
I'm certain Mr Clark is quite clueless about what he's got into here. My purpose in noting it is to indicate two things. First, when you're prey to one form of irrationalism you're susceptible to others. Secondly, while "Comment is Free" - of which I have been a fan since its launch - admirably extends the range of public debate in the British media, its readers and editors might not have grasped quite the extent of the latitude that that debate now involves. That breadth is in my view a good thing: I'm all in favour of the expression of crank opinions in their proper place (i.e. no Creationism in science classes, and no Holocaust denial in history classes). But the corollary of a marketplace of ideas is that the purveyors of crank opinions should not be protected from accurate labelling by the rest of us.