Conspiracy theories abound in American politics

Jun 7 2011 - 10:40am

Osama bin Laden is alive and well. President Barack Obama is a closet Kenyan. Arnold Schwarzenegger hid his out-of-wedlock child with the help of scheming reporters.

Most people dismiss such talk as obviously untrue, if not downright nutty.

But to the conspiracy-minded, those assertions are not just plausible but absolutely true, making them just the latest threads in a long American tradition of suspicion and skepticism that is woven deep within our political and cultural DNA.

Salem witches. Masons. Catholics. Bolsheviks. Jews. Muslims: All have been cast in shadow and blamed for a host of ills that befell their contemporaries.

Times and targets change, said Robert Goldberg, a University of Utah historian and expert on the conspiratorial mindset, but the scenario is essentially the same, if abetted by new technologies: "Secret groups, which are all-powerful and methodical, are seeking to bend history to their will and control events, like puppeteers, whether it's economic events, assassination or foreign affairs."

The last few weeks offer a case study. Within hours of bin Laden's death, the Internet was flooded with claims that the story was, in fact, an elaborate hoax aimed at boosting Obama's re-election hopes and lulling Americans into a false sense of security.

"I want my PROOF," read one Twitter posting among countless others. "I'm a damn AMERICAN! and WE deserve the TRUTH."

That same day, in a Pasadena, Calif., courtroom, the impresario of the "birther" movement appeared before a panel of federal judges to argue that Obama was born abroad -- not in Hawaii, as records have clearly and repeatedly shown -- and should therefore be removed from office.

Weeks later, when the story of former California Gov. Schwarzenegger's affair and child came to light, some immediately posited that the Los Angeles Times sat on the story for eight years, without explaining why, if that was true, the paper would suddenly publish the embarrassing revelations.

Americans are by nature suspicious, Goldberg said, and have been since the country was created. The founders were godly people who believed the country embodied all that was good and virtuous. The obverse of good is evil, and from the start there has been a belief -- expressed anew by President George W. Bush in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- that some would destroy America simply for its goodness.

At the same time, Americans possess a long-standing wariness of power and its potential as a corrupting influence, especially in the hands of large institutions. That instinct bred our government system of checks and balances and, more recently, led members of the "tea party" to embrace the nation's founders (repackaged as a band of small-government crusaders) as the guiding lights of their movement.

A dispiriting series of events have also served to convince many Americans that things their leaders say and do aren't always to be trusted. In the late 1950s, an overwhelming majority of those surveyed said they had faith in the government to do what was right all or most of the time.

Then came the Gulf of Tonkin incident -- used as false pretense for plunging the U.S. deeper into the Vietnam War -- Watergate, Iran-Contra, the Lewinsky affair and myriad other scandals, big and small. Today, less than one-quarter of those sampled profess solid faith in government.

There is, of course, a big difference between taking politicians and their promises with a proverbial grain of salt and, say, subscribing to the notion that Obama was born in Africa and faked his birth certificate with the help, nearly 50 years ago, of his prescient parents.

For most of our history, those sorts of far-fetched notions have been promulgated only so far as a whispering campaign could carry. The Internet has changed all that.

"Fringe ideas were there," said Michael Barkun, an emeritus political science professor at Syracuse University and the author of two books on conspiracy theory. "But they were essentially insulated from the mainstream by major newspapers, television networks and the newsweeklies, which served as gatekeepers and kept a lot of that stuff out."

Today, Barkun said, "anybody can be a producer of ideas with the possibility of getting those ideas very widely diffused very quickly."

And oftentimes seeing, or hearing, is believing.

The fragmentation of the media has created niches that make it possible for a person to skip from blog to cable TV to talk radio and back without ever encountering a thought to challenge their own. That closed feedback loop abets the instinct to seize on information that reinforces one's opinions -- however outlandish -- and ignores facts that don't.

"People are generally suspicious and believe the truth is being manipulated wherever they go," said Ken Eisold, a New York City psychoanalyst who has written a book on the unconscious and the way it shapes our actions. He cites "a huge mistrust in all authority" following scandals that have tarnished, among other institutions, Wall Street, the Catholic Church, amateur and professional sports leagues, and major media outlets.

In an environment where no one can be believed, Eisold said, "a rumor, or something someone says in a bar or something you read on the Internet is just as valid as anything else out there."

However, even if a healthy dose of skepticism is good for the self-governed, Goldberg and others worry that too many Americans have developed a corrosive cynicism, automatically assuming they are being lied to or manipulated.

"Our system is based on negotiation and compromise," Goldberg said. "If the people you're dealing with are not just wrong, they're evil, they're sinful, then we've crossed a line and have a problem."

That seems unlikely to change anytime soon.

Back in the 1960s, historian Richard Hofstadter examined what he called "the paranoid style in American politics" and its self-perpetuating cycle. "Since the enemy is thought of as being evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated," Hofstadter wrote in Harper's magazine. But when the "enemy" is a figment of imagination, failure is inevitable, Hofstadter said, leading to more anger and frustration and a new focus of attack.

Thus, within minutes of Obama releasing his full birth certificate, critics began saying he faked his academic credentials, a rumor that -- along with wild theories about bin Laden and Schwarzenegger -- continues to roll like so many loose marbles around the Internet.

(c) 2011, Los Angeles Times.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

 

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