LSU Journal for Social Justice & Policy
This essay analyzes how conspiracy theories were viewed in the 1990s, particularly in the context of the then-existing debate over racial differences in perception, and how they are dealt with today, where prevalent conspiracy theory adherents are White and conservative (QAnon, Pizzagate, and widespread voter fraud) in the 2020 election). In the 1990s, conflict over conspiracy theories was part of a larger culture war involving critical race theory, conspiracy thinking, truth, reason, and post-modern theory. These cultural flashpoints are obviously still with us today. But now, high-profile persons holding false, unreasonable beliefs often hail from the right and are assailed by those on the left. This pattern is visible in congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has supported tenets of the QAnon conspiracy theory1 as well as House Republicans who have expressed skepticism and hostility for Covid-19 vaccine efforts.2
This essay begins by looking at two prominent sources from the 1990s––Regina Austin’s Beyond Black Demons & White Devils: Anti-Black Conspiracy Theorizing and the Black Public Sphere3 and Jeffrey Rosen’s The Bloods and the Crits: O.J. Simpson, Critical Race Theory, the Law, and the Triumph of Color in America, which engages in part with Austin’s ideas about conspiracy theories.4 It then contextualizes these two pieces within the raging conflict over Critical Race Theory that was occurring in law schools at the time.
Next, the essay discusses trends that have emerged since the 1990s that shed light on the topic. How have things changed and how have they just remained the same? Critical Race Theory remains a tremendous flash point, but the dynamics are different now. There is a greater consensus (as first articulated by critical race theorists) that people do arrive at perceptions differently, based on differing social realities, especially race. On the other hand, there is still strong opposition to the view that race and racism continue to plague U.S. society, which has resulted in recent legislation that restricts the teaching of Critical Race Theory in public education settings.
The paper’s next sections discuss post-modernism, critical race theory, and the emergence of conservative post-modernism. How has post-modern and neoliberal culture, refracted into social media forms, revamped how we engaged with “the truth.” After our forty-fifth President won and held office, we live in a world where a post-modern aphorism “truth is not truth” emanates from public figures on the right.5
Because this study raises two important foundational items––conspiracy theories and post-modern modes of thought––this essay delineates an intellectual history that includes post-modernism, neoliberalism, the rise of “conservative post-modernism,” and relevant social-science literature on conspiracy theories. In conclusion, the essay identifies common threads and lessons from the intellectual history. Ultimately, there is some overlap in these folk thought forms, whether they come from the right or the left. If we look at the underlying subtext within conspiracy theories, there are bridges that can be built, particularly in rethinking how we level scapegoating and shame as a form of social control, how people might legitimately feel marginalized, and how unchecked elitism sows seeds of resentment and mistrust.
Jewel, Lucille A., Time is a Flat Circle: Lessons from Past and Present Conspiracy Theories (June 8, 2023). University of Tennessee Legal Studies Research Paper Forthcoming, LSU Journal for Social Justice & Policy, Volume 3 2023, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4473534