Emory Report

 September 15, 1997

 Volume 50, No. 4

Rampant conspiracy mongering coarsens public discourse

Have you noticed how much of today's news consists of public officials wasting their time-and taxpayers' dollars-denying crackpot conspiracy theories?

Now comes the latest hokum from America's militia right. Timothy McVeigh, as it turns out, was a mere patsy in a vast conspiracy by the federal government to blow up its own buildings in Oklahoma City.

In another era, that suggestion-as bizarre as it is groundless-might have grabbed huge headlines.

But not in these curious times.

Oklahoma's taxpayers, in fact, are footing the bill for a state grand jury investigation of charges pushed by right-wing zealots that McVeigh was set up by a federal government eager to provoke an incident sufficiently violent to justify a crackdown on the militia.

Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson, after examining the evidence, considers the grand jury a waste of time and money. But it is going forward because the militia right found a gullible ally in state Rep. Charles R. Key, who pressed for the new investigation.

In today's conspiracy-soaked zeitgeist-heavy with live Elvises, dead Vincent Fosters, CIA-sponsored crack and The Centers for Disease Control-generated plagues-the McVeigh-as-patsy theory barely registers on the Richter scale of implausibility. What, after all, is a government hit on its own building when you've got black helicopters about to swarm over the western horizon?

Unsubstantiated charges of conspiracy are poisoning and trivializing our nation's public debates. From Dallas' grassy knoll to the sun-bleached desert of Nevada's Area 51, we inhabit what is increasingly becoming a geography of distrust and paranoia. Sadly, Rep. Key's irresponsible charge against the federal government typifies an increasing tendency of too many public figures in America to put ideology and shoot-from-the-hip guesswork ahead of factual integrity.

Conspiracies, of course, do take place, and no one questions the need to investigate legitimate evidence of them. Lately, however, we've moved beyond reasonable scrutiny into a promiscuity of the imagination in which vast conspiracies, directed by one's political adversaries, can be inferred from any set of random circumstances. From Whitewater to UFO inquiries, there are days when it feels like the nation's entire public life consists of one longtime, energy- and money-depleting Mobius strip of official investigation.

Key joins a growing list of public figures from both the left and right who in recent months have shilled away from equally groundless conspiracy theories. We've heard Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) insist that the CIA lurks behind America's crack epidemic.

President John F. Kennedy's former press secretary, Pierre Salinger, meanwhile, claims that a U.S. missile took out TWA Flight 800. And Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) charges that the Department of the Interior plans to hand over the nation's parks to the United Nations. At least give the conspiracy mongers credit for a certain symmetry: With the parks under U.N. control, all those black U.N. helicopters, imagined so vividly by Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho), will have a place to land.

To be fair, however, those five, by varying degrees, are ideologues. And let's be honest: a certain tolerance for conspiracy theories comes with that job description. Even more distressing is the reluctance of centrist leaders to publicly rebuke the conspiratorial fantasies of their more ideological brethren-and in this area, Republicans clearly outflank Democrats. At least since 1992, when President Bush, desperate to woo the far right to his re-election campaign, invited hearsay hawker Rush Limbaugh to the White House for an overnight visit, Republicans have exhibited a shameful tolerance for the most venal sort of conspiracy mongering.

How otherwise can we explain why Bob Dole, Trent Lott and other prominent Republicans have not spoken out-loudly-against right-wing theories that accuse the Clintons of murdering the late White House adviser Vince Foster? Today's conservative zealots spend half their lives bashing the inefficiency of the federal government, the other half proclaiming the efficiency with which it implements and keeps secret its sinister plots.

The shared genius of these conspiracy theories lies in their utter indestructibility. They cannot be refuted; by the Mad Hatter's logic of conspiracy theorists, no act stands alone and every denial, conviction or acquittal only extends the cover-up, thus thickening the conspiracy.

American history, of course, teems with far-fetched conspiracy theories. Earlier Americans spun fantasies about Jews, British cabals in the White House, Roman Catholics, national banks and the monetary gold standard, to mention a few.

What's different today is the degree to which nominally responsible public figures-often elected officials-are willing to tolerate, even embrace, the sort of far-fetched speculations once confined to the kook fringes of American political life.

I remember those "Impeach Earl Warren" billboards that the far-right John Birch Society used to erect along rural highways during the 1960s. Most people knew that the Birchers, who once accused President Dwight Eisenhower of being a Red, had a fear of Communists that approached clinical paranoia. And no reputable individual took them, or their campaign against the Supreme Court jurist, seriously.

Now, however, such groups and their theories too often occupy center stage in American life. They divide us, coarsen our public life and crowd out the sort of practical discussions of public policy that a democratic society needs in order to prosper. We live in an age in which public discourse about policy and governance has given way to endless speculation about conspiracy theories.

Perhaps somewhere, shadowed by the royal palms, on some secret U.N. air base in the Caribbean, black helicopters are cranking up. Their pilots, eager to get to Yellowstone, are stealing one last look at their now unsealed flight plans from the New World Order.

Do you deny that? Welcome to the cover-up.

Tom Chaffin is director of the Emory Oral History Project and an adjunct professor of history. This article was published in The Chicago Tribune and other major newspapers.

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