Since its founding, America has been fertile ground for conspiracy beliefs. While every generation produces rumor-mongers, today we anoint them with special powers through social media.
Anna Merlan, a journalist at Gizmodo Media Group, explores our contemporary fixation with conspiracy theories of all political stripes in Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power. Throughout the book, she reports from gatherings of people whose beliefs are both extreme and false.
Merlan explains that today's conspiracy thinking arises from (1) increasingly rigid class structure, leaving "many people locked into their circumstances ... desperate to find someone to blame," and (2) rising disenfranchisement, people feeling "shut out of systems of power." Conspiracy theories flourish in times of rapid social change, she says, "when we're reevaluating ourselves, and perhaps, facing uncomfortable questions in the process."
To demonstrate that conspiracy theories have been with us throughout history, Merlan goes back to Emperor Nero, famously said to have fiddled while Rome burned. This vision of a fiddling Nero, however, is apparently attributable to a sole source — Tacitus — who recorded the events years after Rome went to ashes.
Merlan walks readers through famous conspiracy theories in U.S. history, some true and many false. Women were convicted and executed under pernicious falsehoods in the Salem witch trials in 17th century Massachusetts, while it appears that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating John F. Kennedy. Allegations are true that the U.S. government engaged in years of horrific medical experiments without consent on thousands of prisoners, disabled children, and terminally ill patients; as well as the infamous "Tuskegee experiments," in which Black men went untreated for syphilis long after a known cure in the form of penicillin was available. Barack Obama was born in the United States, despite Donald Trump's deceitful campaign asserting otherwise. Truly grand and real conspiracies are hard to conceal, Merlan states, citing Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal under Reagan, and the fact that the National Security Agency has spied on Americans.
Merlan spends a chapter on "false flags," which bolster conspiracy theories by suggesting that victims stage events to bring attention to themselves or an issue. She describes both right- and left-wing conspiracies. She provides horrifying details about conspiracies that deny the Sandy Hook murders and the realities of other mass murders, including the Holocaust; conspiracies that allege proof that aliens are among us in various forms, sometimes as part of government plots; white nationalist theories that we are being overtaken by — you name it — Muslims, Jews, people of color. She has an entire chapter on the so-called "deep state" and "Russiagate." As a Jew herself, Merlan points up anti-Semitism as the root of all kinds of disparate, unrelated conspiracy allegations.
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For fear of generating undeserved press for racist, misogynistic, homophobic, anti-Semitic, bigoted, harmful, and dangerous theories, it seems prudent to refrain from providing them further press here. If you want more detail on a parade of horrifying twists of truth, read the book. Suffice to say, falsehoods fanned by conspiracists do real and lasting damage. One has only to look at the outbreak of measles to see both the tenaciousness of the false science cited by anti-vaxxers and its resultant harm.
Merlan's recitations are chilling, as are her warnings that fringe beliefs tend to go mainstream. While false theories wax and wane, Merlan sees the bigger problem as the increasingly efficient rise of these theories against the "very real" resurgence in nationalism and white supremacy today.
Republic of Lies would have been strengthened with deeper analysis of the extent to which these theories take hold and the weight our society accords them. Where do these theories fall in the metrics of our political discourse? Are we comparing apples and oranges when we talk about falsehoods versus reality, or are we comparing apples and dump trucks? How potent are the false equivalencies? Or, as Merlan herself puts it after attending an alarming white nationalist cookout in southeastern Kentucky, "What is it that I spent the day looking at?" Merlan's reporting has shown her a "disturbing thirst for vengeance, a willingness to punish enemies and vanquish evildoers that is then twisted by opportunists." She sees more conspiracists all the time; but she does not provide much of a roadmap for combatting false beliefs. In an epilogue, she states that there "are no brakes available;" no means to stop an armed Edgar Welch from storming a Washington, D.C. pizzeria in the false belief that a child-pornography ring was in operation. She urges reporters to do their jobs responsibly and engage with their critics.
Conspiracy theories are the symptom, not the disease, she says:
"[T]hey are a function of the society in which they breed. The worst conspiracy impulses, it seems, flourish in isolation. That, in a way, is the hardest condition to counter.... Conspiracy theories can lose their draw if we ... [create] a more just, equitable, economically secure, and politically representative society.... We will not be a less paranoid country until we are a fairer one."
Well, yes. Let's hope that prescription is unarguable.
Martha Anne Toll is the Executive Director of the Butler Family Fund; her writing is at www.marthaannetoll.com, and she tweets at @marthaannetoll. Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.