There are two types of people who read books about conspiracies: those who believe, and those who are amused by those who believe. For the most part, I fall in the latter category. Therefore, I am more prone to buying books that give a whirlwind tour of the world of conspiracy theory than one that details any one particular menace.
And “Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies: The Straight Scoop on Freemasons, the Illuminati, Skull and Bones, Black Helicopters, the New World Order, and many, many more” by Arthur Goldwag is exactly that: a whirlwind tour of cults, conspiracies and secret societies.
Goldwag, author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Kabbalah” and “‘Isms and ‘Ologies”, starts off his tour by explaining why conspiracy theories arise. He uses September 11th as an example, but also notes that it does not need to be a world shaking event that births a new conspiracy theory. While a moment of world crisis is more likely to result in a new theory, even times that are “just stunning and out of the ordinary” can make people reach for an explanation to sense of what has happened.
Basically, we need to create order out of chaos, to believe that someone is in control, even if they are a villain. Forced to live in a universe where random events create history, human beings like to think that everything has a reason for happening and conspiracy theories are one way to impose order on the messiness that is history. Most of us in moments of great shock will temporary slip into magical thinking. But most of us come back out when the crisis has passed.
Those who are obsessed with conspiracy theories “choose to live in the compressed, deterministic universe of crisis all the time, the psychic environment where the theories, movements, and organizations…are engendered.” Goldwag is a visitor on a day pass to this strange world.
None of the entries in the book are very deep. And the list “is far from definitive, but it covers a lot of territory.” Goldwag notes that some of the organizations that he lists, such as the Woodmen of the World are included “simply because they tickled [him].”
The book is divided up in three sections: Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies. Organizations are not necessarily where one might think they should be placed. For instance, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (the historical original 1890’s esoteric Order) is included in the Cult section; I think that this has more to do with the fact that Aleister Crowley was a member than it does with charismatic leaders, thought programming, and exploitation of the rank and file members which is the basis of whether or not an organization is/was a cult.
Goldwag writes with humor and intelligence. “When seeking to understand the conspiratorial mind, the focus of its obsession is less important than the presence of the obsession itself.” And you got to love anyone who includes the Bourbaki (a textbook committee) in his list of secret societies.
Overall, if you are entertained by the weird things that come out of conspiratorial minds, this book is worth a four out of five stars.