Setting the Record Straight

Debunking the conspiracy theorists

Why everyone ought to chill out about ACORN

It's probably human nature to concoct fanciful conspiracy theories. Whatever one's political persuasion, there's something almost irresistible about the idea that some powerful entity somewhere is engaged in a diabolical plot to undermine one's interests. Sometimes conspiracy theorists are motivated by sincere belief and/or delusion. Other times it's simply a matter of political opportunists building a mountain out of a molehill. Often both phenomena are involved.

Whichever the case, it's extremely rare that conspiracy theories contribute anything useful to the public discourse. Whether it's the crazy allegation that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney had something to do with the 9/11 attacks or the half-dozen nutty notions advanced of late by some health care reform opponents ("death panels," plots to impose "socialism" on the U.S., etc…), the main impact of most conspiracy theories is to misinform and poison the public discussion. When allowed to fester and carried to extremes – as with the anti-Semitism that afflicts so many cultures past and present – conspiracy theories can lead to disastrous results.

One obvious explanation for the appeal of conspiracy theories is that they're a lot more appealing than the most common alternative explanation for flawed human behavior – sloth and incompetence. This is especially true for groups and individuals who find themselves out of power. The idea that one's opponents on "the inside" are cooking up all sorts of brazen schemes can actually be a kind of comfort to the "out crowd" because it reinforces the illegitimacy of their exile. We've all experienced this brand of reasoning: "See, it's not our fault that we're not in power, it's the fact that those other guys are a bunch of dirty rotten scoundrels."

The latest ACORN controversy

As we've noted previously in this space, the community service and organizing group known as ACORN is a frequent and easy target for conspiracy theorists. The group has always attracted the wrath of conservatives because of its record of success at serving, energizing and empowering poor people and people of color.

The idea that someone might successfully engage masses of people who tend to be both not particularly happy with their lot in life and willing to speak loudly (many of them black and brown) is always guaranteed to send a shudder down the backs of the conservatives. Now add to the mix the fact that conservatives have somewhat less power than usual, that President Obama cut his professional teeth doing the some of the same kind of organizing work that ACORN specializes in and that ACORN has received federal dollars at times to provide community services and you've got a big fat political softball for the right to swing at. Now add a dash of genuine malfeasance by a few boneheaded ACORN employees (as happened recently when a couple of workers were apparently duped into giving unlawful advice by a pair of scammers with a camera) and, BOOM! The next thing you know you've got a feeding frenzy for right-wing pundits and out-of-power conservative politicians screaming about a vast and monstrous conspiracy.

Here's one of the far right's most prominent media screamers, Glenn Beck:

"Everybody has this story wrong. While it obviously involves ACORN, it's not about, ACORN…. We're not talking necessarily about Marxism, but we're now expected to believe and accept that the way to help people in the inner cities and to set them on a path of growth and education is to support with tax dollars an organization that has demonstrated its corruption over and over again.

Currently arrests have been made in 14 states – many of them led by state Democrats – for fraud, voter registration fraud, corruption, and the tapes that we've shown you that involve tax fraud, the selling of illegal immigrants into the sex trade, and just good old fashioned prostitution.

Now, the government will make speeches and throw you a bone about cutting off funding or access here and there, but until Republicans and Democrats rise together and demand a full, independent, rigorous investigation that doesn't concentrate just on the local level, but goes all the way to the top – to the power brokers at the highest levels of ACORN and in our own halls of Congress and administration – it will all be a sham."

And here's the somewhat less insane, but even more opportunistic House Minority Leader, John Boehner:

"It is evident that ACORN is incapable of using federal funds in a manner that is consistent with the law. Simply put, ACORN should not receive another penny of American taxpayers' money."

Setting the record straight

All of this conspiracy-mongering around ACORN is of course simply ludicrous. Has ACORN hired some bad apples over the years? Certainly. Have a few ACORN employees made stupid mistakes and violated the law at times? No doubt. It's difficult to imagine any organization that employs thousands of people doing hard work at the margins of society over a period of decades that wouldn't have.

But as North Carolina ACORN leaders Pat McCoy and Melvin Whitley noted in a letter to Raleigh's News & Observer recently, the mountain of conservative attacks is so out of proportion to the actual molehill of improper activity (activity that ACORN has not tried to hide from) as to be laughable:

"Though still waiting to view the complete tapes for the full story of what happened in those offices, we do not defend in any way what is shown, or shift blame elsewhere. ACORN condemns the actions of these employees, who now have been appropriately fired for their conduct.

Significantly, no tax, loan or other forms were completed on this couple's behalf. In addition, ACORN has taken immediate steps to review our service programs to ensure appropriate service in the future. These steps include suspending intake of all new clients pending review of our intake, training and supervision systems. We will also retain an independent auditor to lead this review and make recommendations for improvement.

There will likely be external inquiries into our work, as well. We support all steps that will restore full confidence in our ability to go forward with the effectiveness and integrity that has characterized 99.5 percent of ACORN's work for almost 40 years."

Salon.com contributor Joe Conason put it even more succinctly in an essay this week:

"To claim that the stupid behavior of a half-dozen employees should discredit a national group with offices in more than 75 cities staffed by many thousands of employees and volunteers is like saying that Mark Sanford or John Ensign have discredited every Republican governor or senator. Indeed, the indignation of the congressional Republicans screaming about ACORN and the phony streetwalker is diluted by the presence of at least two confirmed prostitution clients — Rep. Ken Calvert and Sen. David Vitter — in their midst. Neither of those right-wing johns has been even mildly chastised by their moralistic peers. Nobody is cutting off their federal funding."

Indeed, though Conason's idea of cutting off federal funding to prostitute patrons in Congress is made mostly in jest, it highlights another startling hypocrisy amongst ACORN conspiracy crazies that was noted this week by Chris Fitzsimon on The Progressive Pulse – namely that if we're really serious about cutting off federal funds to entities who've violated the law, there's a very long list of corporate and institutional bad actors (many with far more egregious violations) that ought to be well-ahead of ACORN in the line for such treatment.

But, of course, such an approach wouldn't fit into the midnight fantasies of the current crop of out-of-power pundits and politicians. For these folks, it's more comforting and useful to make hay out of the stupid mistakes of some small-time community organizers than to worry too much about Lockheed-Martin, Boeing or Humana Corporation.

It's so crazy and inconsistent that it's almost enough to make you think there's some kind of conspiracy afoot.