Thursday, September 29, 2005

Take-Home Midterm Questions

History 2420
Conspiracy Theories & Conspiracies in U.S. History
Sept. 29, 2005

INSTRUCTIONS: Write an essay answering ONE of the following questions. Your answer should be typed, proofread, and clearly expressed, just as in a conventional paper. You should use the course materials as fully as you can, documenting your arguments with examples from the readings and lectures. You are not required to do any research beyond the assigned course readings and other materials accessed through the course website and blog. This test is “open book,” but you are forbidden to use any secondary sources beyond what has been assigned or recommended in the syllabus, website, or blog. You may also refer to the music and film clips seen or heard in class or through the website.

References and quotations should be cited properly using your word processor's endnote or footnote function. For citations to the textbooks listed on the syllabus, the author's last name, a shortened version of the title, and page numbers will suffice. Example: Barkun, Culture of Conspiracy, 56. For the books that are document collections or anthologies, you should also include the author and title of the specific document or chapter, if they are different from the book as a whole. You do not need to create a bibliography beyond what appears in your notes. Citations to web pages must include the URL of the specific page you are citing, not just the whole site’s address.

There is no prescribed length, though more than 10-12 double-spaced pages or so would probably be excessive for undergraduates. 6-8 tightly-written, highly substantive pages might well be enough. Provide what you consider a thorough, well-supported answer. The essays are due in class on Thursday, October 6.
Essays will be graded primarily on the degree to which they reflect an accurate understanding and careful consideration of the course materials and concepts, including textbooks, reserve readings, web readings, visual materials, and lectures. The best answers will not simply regurgitate what was said in class, but will instead show an ability to deploy information and ideas from many different parts of the course, especially the reading, in support of a coherent argument. Please be specific and accurate, with regard to events, dates, names, and so on, but do not simply recite facts. Also, please avoid lengthy quotations. Anybody can cut and paste from web pages.

Please ask any questions you may have about the test or these instructions as a comment on this post. That way, everyone will get to see the answer.

1. Richard Hofstadter titled his influential work on American conspiracy theory “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Do you feel that “paranoid style” is the best and most accurate term that could be used? Why or why not? Are modern conspiracy theories extreme responses to the real problems of our times or merely dangerous fantasies of disturbed minds?

2. Giving specific examples, describe the sort of ideological work or political functions that conspiracy theory has performed at various points and for various groups in American history and culture.

3. What kinds of events, belief systems, and social situations seem most prone to the development of conspiracy theories? (You can choose among the three types if you wish.) Why?

4. In your view, based on what we have covered or you have read about so far in the course, what are the two or three most persistent themes or motifs found in U.S. conspiracy theories. Why do they seem to recur?

5. One might imagine that the widespread fears of conspiracy in American culture would have helped reduce the number of actual conspiracies mounted in or by the United States by putting people on their guard. Is this true? Have conspiracy theories performed as effective watchdogs against conspiracy, corruption, subversion, secrecy, and the excessive use of power, or have they had a different or even opposite effect?

6. Once when I was checking out books on UFOs in Ellis Library, the guy at the circulation counter asked me the Big Question regarding the subject of this course: Why does America seem to be so prone to conspiracy theory and other forms of political fantasy and extreme distrust? Construct your own answer to this question with reference (positive, negative, or in between) to the theories of at least two of the following authors: Richard Hofstadter, Chip Berlet, Timothy Melley, Patricia Turner, Frederic Jameson, Jodi Dean, Paul Boyer, Calvin Trillin, Michael Barkun, Robert Goldberg, Peter Knight, Gordon S. Wood, David Brion Davis,Fran Mason, or Corey Robin? You may also bring in another author from the assigned reading that I may have omitted.