Conspiracy theories: be alert but not alarmed

Conspiracy theories such as the belief that Barack Obama was born outside the US are in the news. There’s a discussion at Larvatus Pradeo in which posters lash themselves into much anxiety about ‘birthers’ and other crazies. Is this attention deserved? There are some who probably lie awake at night worrying about popular belief in astrology, not I. It is a concern that so many Americans think Obama is a Muslim, although curiously oddly some of these voted for him anyway (remember that the US outperforms Australia on Muslim parliamentary representation). The John Birch society had a following in the 1950s and 1960s and is still around as shown by these striking images, with its belief that Eisenhower was a Communist. I would suggest that in part conspiracy theorists celebrate their own powerlessness. American conservatives overthrew the liberal consensus and advanced to the centre of national power. But they then found found that  government was more difficult than it looked. Sarah Palin’s resignation reveals political culture in some aspect happier with being in opposition. It is much easier to fulminate about creeping socialism and cultivate the joys of victim hood than actually hold power, curiously like Stalinist European Communism. One aspect of this is that media personalities become conservative folk heroes.  To argue that the Bush administration was not truly conservative and that voters should judge conservatism instead by the ideal standard of ‘true conservatism’ is almost a Sisyphean labour as Trotskyist evocations of a true Leninist Communism. In part the preoccupation of some on the left with birthers and their ilk is misplaced. It reflects at least in part the belief that cultural conservatism, of which the birthers are a truly deranged extreme, distracts the poor from their true economic interest. A commentator on Larvatus Pradeo complains that:

When you’re working two jobs to pay money to the health insurer so they won’t cut your medical supplies for your family, it’s a little hard to find the time to research globalisation, post-modernism, the causes of the GFC, Hurricane Katrina, and so on. These things all have multivariate causes that defy easy sound-bite length explanation. So, reach for something more concrete. “My life sux and the country is going to hell because the President wasn’t even born in the USA” is easier to grok than all those messy questions about who owns your local hospital, or why that medicine costs so much, or why you have to fill the gas tank 3 times a week just to get between work, home, the shops and the kids’ soccer.

Yet Obama’s liberal agenda isn’t being undone by birthers or even conservative Republicans but by the self-proclaimed centrists of the Senate and the Blue Dogs. People have wing-nut views because they politically extreme rather than vice versa. More perceptive liberal observers highlight the fact that ideological conflict in the US maps fairly clearly onto a uni-dimensional left-right spectrum (although it is true that Congressional leaders keep off the agenda issues that might challenge their coalitions). We could argue that the left preoccupation with birthers is a diversion for them from the hard tasks of government and the challenges that this presents to a simplistic liberalism. On the other hand crazy beliefs can inspire political action that has a real impact on human life and safety. Many 1950s rank and file French Communists may have been happy in their world of delusions but there was a real prospect that the party could secure power and establish a repressive dictatorship. It is not impossible that Pauline Hanson might have ended up having a major impact on Australian politics, as Andrew Markus speculated, and what influence she did have was malign. The NSW Liberal party, almost certain to form government after the next election, includes some very curious individuals such as John Boyle, David Clarke etc.  Deranged Islamic Jihadist ideas can inspire individuals to plot murder and mayhem. On conspiracy theories perhaps we should be alert but not alarmed.

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