But to get back to history. Conspiracy theories initially focused on recognisable groups of misfits, like Jews and Jesuits (both of whom were accused of plotting and spreading the cholera epidemic of 1830-31). In literature, plotlines began to invoke the dark intuition that the course of history was being manipulated by small, select groups (like, ooh, the Freemasons) behind the scenes. Balzac’s Histoire des Treize (1833-39) is an early example. This strengthened in the twentieth century as, following Freud, a so-called “hermeneutics of suspicion” began to spread in Western culture. Appearances, it is now generally assumed, are Not To Be Trusted. They are merely there to mask something deeper, more hidden and therefore more True. That is the baseline assumption of any psychoanalytic therapy, any detective thriller, any modern interpretation of art and literature. Is the poet Burns really comparing his love to a red, red, rose? Or Is That Just What He Wants You To Think?!
Paranoia became an existential worldview in the postmodern novels of writers like Thomas Pynchon and Neal Stephenson. And of course, God help us, Dan Brown. And the many, many crap programmes on something that has the gall to call itself the “History Channel”,