The United States of Paranoia and the Masters

Jesse Walker, Editor of Reason Magazine, has written a new book that has gotten considerable positive attention from print and electronic media, and has some insightful comments about various types of conspiracy theories and the relationships between them. He defines five types: the Enemy Above, the Enemy Below, the Enemy Within, The Enemy Outside, and the Benevolent Conspiracy.

One of the occupational hazards of writing about groups that think in conspiratorial, paranoid terms about outsiders is that they will invent conspiracy theories defining you as their enemy. Although there have been random comments about dugpas and Jesuits, people angered by my Blavatsky research seem mainly to want to use words I find flattering in the extreme, like academic and materialistic skeptic, but which nonetheless are completely wrong. The same thing has happened to a much greater degree with Baha’is as a result of my writing about them– again I’m presumed to be in nefarious cahoots with an international network of academic scholars. It’s flattering yet appalling that believers can manufacture such imaginary K. Paul Johnsons, and that “scholarly bete noire of Theosophists and Baha’is” will be the first impression anyone gets about me via Google. On one hand, Theosophists are infinitely kinder and gentler in their Benevolent Conspiracy theory than Baha’is are in their various Enemy Within and Enemy Outside scenarios. Every Theosophist is free to evolve his or her own relationship with any particular Master or subset of Masters. On the other hand, the prevalence and legitimacy of pseudonymous literature in 19th century Theosophy has set a bad example for contemporary believers. Pseudonymous cyberstalking is considered heroic, rather than shameful, behavior for a fanatical devotee of the Mahatmas. There is continual attitudinal tension with other groups having conflicting claims about overlapping sets of authority figures. “Who was really in contact with the Masters?” is completely normative, legitimate conversation among Theosophists online. “Who were the Masters, historically?” is dismissed as completely fruitless, inappropriate, and strongly discouraged. Almost twenty years after finding this out by painful personal experience, I still have a hard time making sense of this distinction. They want to have their cake and eat it too, insist that the Masters are completely metahistorical, and yet also fully historical. Walker helps me understand what is at stake here for them, that HPB’s 1880s literary creations are real spiritual entities to them which are part of their lives now just as much as Moroni is for Mormons:

Theosophists described this great White Brotherhood as the Inner Government of the World. Its members were said to have amazing powers, including the ability to materialize and dematerialize wherever they pleased. Blavatsky claimed that they continued to communicate with her through supernatural means, including letters that appeared unexpectedly in a cabinet…Skeptical investigators would later show that it was extremely unlikely that Blavatsky ever had a seven-year stay in Tibet, let alone encountered any Secret Chiefs there. It is possible, as the historian K. Paul Johnson has suggested, that Blavatsky’s stories of the Ascended [sic] Masters were inspired by real people around the world whose identities she wanted to conceal—normal flesh-and-blood human beings, not astral immortals. (p. 138)

In my world showing the feet of clay of the heroine or heroes need not be taken as destructive and morally wrong; as a general rule it’s among the most valuable things a writer can do, if done responsibly and sympathetically. Unfortunately this kind of “downgrading” does not sit well in the paranoid mindset that requires an external authority that somehow transcends the normal limits of humanity. It is the inherent authoritarianism in the doctrine of the Masters that inevitably led it in more deranged, destructive directions in the twentieth century. Very soon after HPB’s death, Theosophy began to be incorporated into more sinister belief systems.

We’ve seen how easy it is for one myth to melt into another: the Enemy Below unmasked as a tool of the Enemy Outside, the Enemy Outside revealed as a front for the Enemy Above. The Benevolent Conspiracy can change forms too. It was an easy leap from imagining a friendly secret government to imagining an evil one…Blavatsky herself said that the Great White Brotherhood was locked in a long war with the evil Lords of the Dark Face. Many of her followers adopted anti-Jesuit or anti-Jewish conspiracy theories, and the Russian Theosophist Yuliana Glinka may have been responsible for bringing The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, a notorious anti-Semitic forgery, from France, where it was composed, to Russia, where it was published.(p. 141)

Among the factors which I think tends to spare the Church of Light from this kind of devolution is the ethnicity of its founding figures. The most significant American precursor of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, Paschal Beverly Randolph, was African-American. The most respected European in the group was Max Theon, a Jew. This may be a protection against incorporation by racist or anti-Semitic ideologies. C.C. Zain is consistently aligned with the most progressive political ideas of 1930s America, a breath of fresh air when compared to such figures as Guy and Edna Ballard of the I Am movement. The most disturbing example in US history of how the Benevolent Conspiracy of the Masters turned in that decade into something dark and sinister is the Silver Shirts:

The Silver Shirts, a paramilitary group organized in 1933, offered a particularly tangled mishmash of ideas taken from Christianity, Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, spiritualism, and Nazism. The group’s founder…declared that he was in regular contact with those ascended Masters. The masters were also, he added, in contact with Adolf Hitler, who would visit the Bavarian mountains `to get his orders from the Hierarchy of Presiding Dignitaries who meet and counsel with him.’ (From Pelley’s point of view, that was a good thing.) But the Silver Shirts didn’t just believe in a Benevolent Conspiracy that beamed ideas to Pelley and the Fuhrer. They imagined a malevolent conspiracy they needed to combat, one that included Communists, bankers, the Illuminati, and, of course, the Jews.

Jesse Walker provides us with a sweeping panorama of American history, showing a bizarre and alternately amusing and horrifying array of epidemics of mass paranoia: witch hunting in the 17th century, anti-Masonic mania in the 19th, to birtherism in the 21st. He leaves the overwhelming impression of the United States as being particularly prone to such outbreaks. Inevitably, the study is episodic and impressionistic rather than thorough and systematic, but it is nonetheless essential reading for anyone trying to understand why people believe the strange things they do.