Over fifty years ago, a group of pranksters founded a satiric religion devoted to creating conspiracy theories so insane that nobody would ever believe uncritically in conspiracies again. They called themselves the Discordians. And their weird ideas are still influencing us today.
Painting of Eris by Emily Balivet
History does not record Robert Welch’s reaction when he received a letter on Bavarian Illuminati stationery in 1970. Welch was the founder of the John Birch Society, a conservative group with a paranoid bent, mostly focused on communist conspiracies but also willing to expand its gallery of villains to include other secret cabals. The Illuminati are an 18th-century secret society whose alleged efforts to control the world were regularly decried by groups like, well, the John Birch Society.
Welch may have been a nut but he wasn’t a fool, and he was probably pretty sure someone was pulling his leg by the time he saw that the note had been written by “Ho Chi Zen, Cong King of Gorilla Warfare.” But I like to imagine that curiosity compelled him to read on.
“We have been meaning to write you for some time,” the message began. They claimed they had held off until Harper’s magazine—which, the letter assured him, the Illuminati controlled—had interviewed Welch in its August issue. It continued: