Weekly Briefing

Setting the conspiracy kooks straight

Why common sense, common good solutions make us freer

It’s frequently amazing to see the kinds of nutty ideas that can fester and grow in the body politic. Combine a measure of legitimate grievance, a kernel of truth, big helpings of distorted history lessons and rigid, half-baked ideology along with healthy dashes of paranoia, racism and religious fundamentalism and then cook it for a few years over the heat and fear generated by globalization and a vexing recession and what do you get?

I mean, besides Rick Santorum.

In 21st Century America you get a kind of intellectual influenza that has infected millions. The symptoms can be moderate-to-severe and usually include the following: fear of change and the future, a compulsive obsession with wealth and status (even when it means identifying with the fabulously wealthy and maintaining contempt for relative peers who lack it), a distorted and rose-colored image of the past, a willingness to sacrifice disfavored members of the younger generation, a preference for sticks over carrots, and a persistent fascination with the sexual practices and private personal behaviors of others.

Oh yes, and one other thing: a bizarre fixation on a supposed grand conspiracy to enslave the human species in an Orwellian, “one-world” government.

Conspiracy madness

While each of these symptoms leads to a number of noxious and unhealthful side effects, this last symptom, in particular, seems to lie at the root of an increasing number of harmful policy views and proposals. Throughout the country at virtually every level of government, infected elected officials and advocates are working hard to advance policy positions that dismantle effective public programs and structures – programs and structures that enhance everyone’s freedom and quality of life – all in the name of this weird fixation.

Yesterday on the Progressive Pulse blog, we highlighted the most recent example here in Wake County in which county commissioner and congressional candidate Paul Coble argued against environmental protections and planning in the name of resisting world government. As Raleigh’s News & Observer editorialized this morning:

“Coble surely knows better than to think a 20-year-old, non-binding U.N. conference report called “Agenda 21″ has anything to do with Wake County, but there he was, playing to paranoia regardless. He asserted that the local task force was directly or indirectly influenced by “Agenda 21″ notions – a charge conveniently impossible to refute. Naturally, the local report doesn’t mention the United Nations – proving just how devious the task force is.

Coble also held forth on “property rights” versus “collectivism” and proposed setting up a property rights commission, perhaps to keep the blue helmets from invading local living rooms to confiscate the incandescent light bulbs. The county manager, by the way, says he’s keen on energy-efficient LED lighting because it saves money. Once, that sort of “sustainability” was a respectable conservative theme.”

But Coble’s disturbed and disturbing statements and actions are just one example among many. With the metastatic growth of a multi-billion dollar right-wing echo chamber full of Fox News talking heads, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Savage and scores of other Koch and Pope funded staffers who are paid to concoct and blather about such harebrained ideas, the conspiracy theorists have long since entered the mainstream of what passes for political debate in 2012.

Whether it’s the suicidal opposition to environmental protection and management policies, the unceasing efforts to destroy public education, the frightening obsession with weapons, the self-destructive opposition to health care reform, the efforts to transform Social Security into a system that mirrors our current chaotic, dog-eat-dog health care structure, the hatred of immigrants or dozens of other similar positions, millions of Americans are voicing demonstrably absurd and self-destructive arguments in service of a cockeyed “cause” that has almost zero basis in reality: the supposed threat that the United Nations or some similar entity will “take over” the United States.

These troubled souls work to undermine and oppose scores of common sense, common good public structures and systems that make people healthier, happier and freer in the name of a brand of “freedom” that bears no resemblance to the real thing. Think General Jack Ripper in “Dr. Strangelove” rambling insanely about fluoridation.

For the uninfected, it’s like watching a friend or family member who struggles with addiction and mental illness spiral into a pattern of paranoid, self-destructive behavior. The fact that no one can ever explain who is behind the alleged conspiracy or what they could possibly hope to gain, only serves to confirm its existence in the addled brains of the believers.

Rays of hope

Fortunately, things are far from hopeless – either for the conspiracy believers themselves or the broader citizenry. Despite the worst efforts of the extreme right, the simple and powerful truth embodied in intentional public solutions designed and executed by people who try to love their fellow humans as they love themselves continues to shine through in place after place.

Here’s a straightforward example: Public health. As was noted in the New York Times earlier this week, it’s increasingly clear that the efforts of First Lady Michelle Obama to promote healthier food and exercise and to combat obesity are starting to, no pun intended, bear fruit. Not only are public schools and other public institutions starting to turn their ships around, so too are a number of private corporations – even (gasp!) Wal-Mart. Slowly, gradually and because of intentional public action, citizens are getting better access to healthier foods that will, in the long run, make them happier, healthier and freer. Notwithstanding the ravings of people in some of the far right think tanks about “food Nazis,” this is government at its best.

But there are, of course, thousands of similar examples in the modern world and throughout history – situations in which humans acting collectively and intentionally have made themselves and their neighbors happier, healthier and freer. Even today, whether it’s universal public education, consumer and environmental protection, the safety net, public roads, functioning criminal and civil justice systems or innumerable other public systems and structures, these are the efforts that still bind us as a society and lift us above the Darwinian, dog-eat dog, every man for himself existence championed by the extreme right and the conspiracy kooks.

With these kinds of common sense, common good solutions, humans are demonstrably freer and better off. Without them, they are demonstrably less free and worse off.

This doesn’t mean that such systems aren’t often flawed or broken or ineffective. What it does mean is that the existence of such problems isn’t evidence of a diabolical conspiracy; it’s merely evidence that they were designed by humans and, like their designers, in need of constant, intentional efforts to make them better and more effective.

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