Sunday, November 25, 2007

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Paranoia about paranoia?

In the Boston Globe today, Drake Bennett takes a closer look at the fears of a conspiracy to create a North American Union -- and what it means about the United States:

The NAU may be the quintessential conspiracy theory for our time, according to scholars studying what the historian Richard Hofstadter famously called the "paranoid style" in American politics. The theory elegantly weaves old fears and new realities into one coherent and all-encompassing plan, and gives a glimpse of where, politically, many Americans are right now: alarmed over immigration, worried about globalization, and - on both sides of the partisan divide - suspicious of the Bush administration's expansive understanding of executive power.

The belief in an imminent North American Union, says Mark Fenster, a law professor at the University of Florida and author of a 2001 book on conspiracy theories, "reflects the particular ways in which Americans feel besieged economically, powerless politically, and alienated socially."

Bennett is not the first writer to make this point with regard to the fictional NAU. And certainly, the hard-working staff here at is not above poking holes in conspiracy theories or relying on Hofstadter's "paranoid style" to explain a particularly absurd line of argumentation.

Before concluding that America is awash in conspiracy theories, however, there are some paragraphs in Bennett's essay that makes me wonder whether the paranoia problem is less acute now than before:

As a social anxiety, the NAU's roots run deep. Global government and elites who secretly sell out their own citizenry have long been staples of conspiracy theories, thanks in part to the Book of Revelation's warning that world government will be an early indicator of the Apocalypse. Over the centuries, the world's puppeteers have been thought to be, in turn, the Bavarian Illuminati, the Freemasons, the pope, the Jews, international bankers, the League of Nations, the United Nations, the Rockefellers, and the Communist International.

For most of the 20th century, American conspiracy theories tended to focus on communist infiltration of the upper echelons of the US government. The founder of the John Birch Society, a leading source of such imagined schemes, accused President Dwight Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, among many others, of being communist agents.

Conspiracy theories have wreaked far more damage on past policies than present ones. One could plausibly argue that in the past, the paranoid style helped torpedo America's entry into the League of Nations and exacerbated the worst excesses of McCarthyism. The paranoias that exist today -- the NAU, the 9/11 conspiracies, Bush stole the 2004 election -- are certainly irksome to policymakers and candidates alike. That said, as political roadblocks I'm not sure they rise to the same level as previous waves of paranoia.

[But the Internets, the Internets!! Surely this shows that conspiracies are omnipresent in a way that never existed before!!--ed. No, they just make them more visible than ever before. The Internet also makes it easier to puncture conspiracy theories earlier than ever before as well.]

I'm not sure I'm right about this, so I'll put the question to readers -- are today's conspiracy theories more harmful than the conspiracy theories of the past? How could we test this assertion?

UPDATE: Hmmm... this Scripps-Howard report suggests the prevalence -- but also the limits -- of the paranoid style (hat tip: Tom Maguire):

A national survey of 811 adult residents of the United States conducted by Scripps and Ohio University found that more than a third believe in a broad smorgasbord of conspiracy theories including the attacks, international plots to rig oil prices, the plot to assassinate President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the government's knowledge of intelligent life from other worlds.

The high percentage is a manifestation, some say, of an American public that increasingly distrusts the federal government.

"You wouldn't have gotten these numbers a year or two after the attacks themselves," said University of Florida law professor Mark Fenster. "You've got an increasingly disaffected public that is unhappy with the administration."....

All the talk about oil and terror has distracted some of the believers in government cover-ups of UFOs. Thirty-seven percent of the respondents said they think it is "very likely" or "somewhat likely" flying saucers are real and the government is hiding the truth about them. In a 1995 Scripps survey, 50 percent of Americans responded the same way to the same question.

"The kind of anxieties or mistrust of the government that might have been expressed as a belief in UFOs has shifted," said political science professor Jodi Dean. "Now people are worried about things that are much realer to them."

The decline in the UFO response suggests two things: a) The X-Files has been off the air for some time now; and b) there is a residual belief in some conspiracy at any point in time -- but when the global political economy seem threatening, conspiracy theorists migrate towards those issues.

posted by Dan on 11.25.07 at 09:45 AM


I think you would be remiss in discussing the NAU without a hat tip to Colbert ...

posted by: Robert Bell on 11.25.07 at 09:45 AM [permalink]

are today's conspiracy theories more harmful than the conspiracy theories of the past?

Yes, more dangerous because they're more mainstream. Or, because of technology, able to be "mainstreamed" (ugh) and given greater dissemination.

The Birchers were on the fringes on the Right and, although it took guts for Buckley to take them on, the backlash against him was much smaller. Smaller, less amorphous target.

As Sunstein has argued (I think correctly), technology has democratized information but also made it (nearly) impossible to create a "public philosophy" where citizens have a common source of information and a common list of "myths", stories, events that unite them. People go to those sources of information (rumor, allegations) that reinforce their prevailing worldview.

Conspiracy mongering is more protean and thus, more difficult to defeat or correct.

posted by: SteveMG on 11.25.07 at 09:45 AM [permalink]

They are harmful to the extent that they could pull mainstream candidates toward extremism. If Ron Paul's non-interventionist agenda is validated in New Hampshire, with a strong Paul showing, will this affect the direction of the GOP primary race? Likely not, but the Democrats are loving the Paul antiwar phenom, and it's still looking to be a Democratic year in 2008, at this point.

Just as progress is picking up in Iraq, the internet Ronulans are having their greatest impact.

posted by: Americaneocon on 11.25.07 at 09:45 AM [permalink]

Well there was this crazy theory that Saddam Hussein was in league with Al Qaeda. But that might have been too mainstream to call a "conspiracy" theory. Its widespread belief did have some effect on American policies, though.

And there's a pretty crazy idea going around today that:
"It's this century's nightmare. Jihadism. Violent radical Islamic fundamentalism. Their goal is to unite the world under a single jihadist caliphate. To do that, they must collapse freedom-loving nations, like us."
Again, too mainstream to count? That's just a quote from a Romney campaign ad.

posted by: Alex F on 11.25.07 at 09:45 AM [permalink]

Other than immigration and Iraq, I have a most excellent example of how damaging conspiracy theories are to public policy: The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Thanks to a very small, but extremely vocal band of near-lunatics (Frank Gaffney, Edwin Meese) the UNCLOS has gone unratified for 13 years. Now, despite the fact that the US stands to lose an expanse of its Outer COntinental Shelf the size of two Californias, the UNCLOS is almost sure to go another Congress without ratifying a treaty. Objections to the treaty now no longer only come from retrograde Republicans like David vitter and Jeff Sessions, but from the party's leadership Trent Lott and Mitch McConnell. The Republican leadership is circulating a Dear COlleague letter within the Senate which asserts that the UNCLOS will "undermine US soveriegnty by subjugating the rights and interests of the United States to a UN-like International Tribunal"

Every Secretary of Defense over the past 13 years has endorsed the UNCLOS, as have such left-wing one worlders as Henry Kissinger, John Negroponte, the oil and gas industry and virtually every other major industrial user of the oceans. The tretay is opposed by the anti-UN black helicopter crowd who seem to genuiinely believe that the US is under siege from a armed UN.

These people are bona fide conspiracists and their power has only increased. In general this is worse in regard to US foreign policy, since there is seldom any countervailing rabid constituency opposing them. But the end result remains a progressively more paranoid crouch for the US in the international realm.

posted by: Tom M on 11.25.07 at 09:45 AM [permalink]

From my observations NA is rapidly becoming a single labor market, with people moving across borders legally and illegally in large numbers. Sometimes it takes a while for reality to catch up.

posted by: Eli Rabett on 11.25.07 at 09:45 AM [permalink]

One problem with discussing the impact of today's conspiracy theories is that a believer in a conspiracy theory does not consider the theory to be a conspiracy theory. This means that if I mention a widely believed conspiracy theory, this discussion is likely to get side tracked into an argument over whether the cited example actually is a conspiracy theory.

With that in mind, let us consider Bush's justification for invading Iraq: "The danger is clear: using chemical, biological or, one day, nuclear weapons, obtained with the help of Iraq, the terrorists could fulfill their stated ambitions and kill thousands or hundreds of thousands of innocent people in our country, or any other." Some people would consider this to be a clearheaded, accurate assessment of the threat we faced at the time. Others, including myself, would say that the only reason Bush's statement passes the giggle test is that it's hard to laugh on the eve of war. Without deciding this controversy, we can say that if Bush's stated reason for invading Iraq was a conspiracy theory, that would mean that a conspiracy theory played an important role in one of the most important policy decisions made by the Bush Administration.

Dan question concerns harm done by conspiracy theories. Even if the decision to invade Iraq was driven more by a conspiracy theory than by a serious consideration of whether invading Iraq was in the national interest, that wouldn't mean that invading Iraq was necessarily the wrong thing to do because it is possible to do the right thing for the wrong reason. I believe that there are still defenders of the Iraq war out there. Other people, including myself, believe that the invasion of Iraq has been a disaster. I won't attempt to resolve this issue here.

Another possible example of a conspiracy theory would be the notion that "liberals" are undermining America. Ann Coulter's star seems to be diminishing of late, but some people would argue that she has produced an accurate, carefully researched portrait of liberalism in America today. Others would claim that her writings are utter fiction. (I fall into the latter camp. Although I've never purchased one of her books, an excerpt from one of her books about liberals was posted to USENET and I went though it line by line pointing out all the falsehoods. As I recall, there was only one sentence that didn't contain a falsehood, and that was only because it was a transition statement that didn't say much of anything.) Regardless of what one believes about liberals, one can hardly help noting that hatred of liberals is one of the motives for political involvement on the political right. Given the closeness of the 2000 race, it seems plausible to me that in the absense of this motivation the outcome of the election would have been different.

Of course, views differ on whether George Bush has been a good president or not, so even people who agree with the premise that Bush was elected in part due to a conspiracy theory wouldn't necessarily agree that this is an example of a conspiracy theory leading to bad results.

The point of these examples is that a conspiracy theory can be seriously damaging only if a lot of people find the theory plausible. The examples of recent conspiracy theories that Dan gives are not particularly troubling precisely because the are obviously conspiracy theories.

posted by: Kenneth Almquist on 11.25.07 at 09:45 AM [permalink]

Many of my friends and neighbors are accounting and systems people for a major US oil company.

They tell me ethanol will never fly because before it gets any significant market share retail gasoline prices will drop until the momentum shifts away from it. They use the word manipulation quite freely. Cafeteria BS? Don't think so.

And looking at the way Bush has toadied to the Mexicans is enough to drive conspiracy theorists into a frenzy (I personally don't think Bush is bright enough to conspire, unless Cheney told him to).

There is plenty of fodder for the tin foil helmet crowd, and some day they may be right.

posted by: save_the_rustbelt on 11.25.07 at 09:45 AM [permalink]

Interesting how so many of the commentors to this post managed to make it a BUSH LIED TO GET US INTO IRAQ!!! post. Typical. Same ol' same ol' is making me sleepy. *yawn* Bored.

posted by: Useless Sam Grant on 11.25.07 at 09:45 AM [permalink]

Been almost 40 years since I read Hofstadter. My memory is that he focused a bit much on the conservative side, but maybe not. You can take conspiracy theories back to the Puritans, who saw people in league with Satan. I'm not at all sure there weren't whiffs of conspiracy floating around in 1776, though we won't admit those.

The conspiracy theories featuring the arms merchants of WWI contributed to our delayed entrance into WWII. And they delayed the use of fluoride in many cities. As against this record, I don't think UNCLOS stacks up. So I come down on the side of declining influence.

I don't think there's a way to test your hypothesis--conspiracy is too much in the eye of the beholder: sometimes mere rhetoric, sometimes really believed. And how do you define real conspiracies--was Cheney's meeting on energy policy a real conspiracy?

posted by: Bill Harshaw on 11.25.07 at 09:45 AM [permalink]

No doubt forty years ago some nutter in Germany warned the the 'European Coal and Steel Community' was the camel's nose under the tent -- the first step in the eventual abolition of the Deutsch Mark. He probably ranted against the possible establishment of an unaccountable and undemocratic bureaucracy in a most characterless European city. He was obscessed with the fear that tiny details of European lives while dissent was supressed in the name of 'rights'(i.e hate speech laws). He probably believed that this supergovernment would force mass immigration 'i.e. free movement of labor' on wealthy countries -- not only from poorer European countries but from the entire world. Silly, silly man. None of that could possibly have happened.

posted by: Mitchell Young on 11.25.07 at 09:45 AM [permalink]

I tend to believe Harshaw.3. Conspiracy is just another word for business or politics. There's a massive conspiracy right now trying to get Hilary Clinton into the White House, and another one trying to drive Intel out of business. These are called the Clinton campaign and AMD, respectively. These are conspiracies that are particularly well supported by public evidence, but others might be just as existent. AMD and Intel might be in secret merger talks, for instance. So "conspiracy", as a pejorative, really just means "a belief unsupported by evidence", or "dumb idea". I suspect the prevalence of dumb ideas is constant over time.

posted by: foolishmortal on 11.25.07 at 09:45 AM [permalink]

Interesting how so many of the commentors [sic] to this post managed to make it a BUSH LIED TO GET US INTO IRAQ!!! post

So many of the commenters... One of them (Kenneth)? Whether or not BUSH LIED TO GET US INTO IRAQ, in my reference to Iraq and Al Qaeda, I wasn't talking about what any politicians had said. I was just talking about obviously mistaken beliefs held by a large number of American people regarding a preposterous alliance -- a conspiracy, if you will -- between Saddam and Osama.

For instance: Harris Poll, June 2004, N=991. "Do you believe that Saddam Hussein was supporting the terrorist organization Al Qaeda, which attacked the United States on September 11, 2001?" Yes: 69%. No: 22%. Unsure: 9%.

posted by: Alex F on 11.25.07 at 09:45 AM [permalink]

"Interesting how so many of the commentors [sic] to this post managed to make it a BUSH LIED TO GET US INTO IRAQ!!! post"

Since it's possible that this was indended to be directed at me, I'll point out that I didn't write in ALL CAPS and I didn't say that Bush lied.

posted by: Kenneth Almquist on 11.25.07 at 09:45 AM [permalink]


posted by: Useless Sam Grant on 11.25.07 at 09:45 AM [permalink]

The most powerful conspiracy theories are those that can never be disproved. Human intuition (flawed or otherwise) provides the justification; human emotion (flawed or otherwise) provides the passion. The thing that makes conspiracy theories dangerous is hate. The existence of God is a conspiracy theory. Human intuition provides justification for the existence of a creator; human emotion provides the passionsóranging from love to hate.

Intuition is benign. Conspiracy theories on alien abductions, crooked sports referees, evil government agencies and the Kennedy assassinations, without hate, provide light entertainment and bad movies. Hate combined with conspiracy theories have built mountains of skulls (Heretics, Native Americans, Armenians, Jews, Kulaks, Others, intellectuals, laborers, Christians, Moslems, Catholics, etc.).

Measure the hate.

posted by: Tim H on 11.25.07 at 09:45 AM [permalink]

I can't let the NAU discussion pass without a hat tip to the hilarious, over-the-top science fiction Rosinante trilogy by Alexis Gilliland. One of its background elements is that the USA has been superseded by a North American Union dominated by corrupt Spanish-surnamed politicians. (When President Panoblanco orders the Alamo torn down, Texan terrorists send a cruise missile through his window.) Even the words "United States of America" are rarely spoken; the standard euphemism is "the Old Regime," as the true name has a potent, though sub rosa emotional pull on former Americans.

posted by: srp on 11.25.07 at 09:45 AM [permalink]

broad smorgasbord of conspiracy theories ... international plots to rig oil prices

OPEC is a tool of the Liberal Media! And don't you forget it!


(the 70's oil crises were, of course, the CIA putting LSD in the water)

(you didn't hear this from me)

posted by: Mark Felt on 11.25.07 at 09:45 AM [permalink]

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