America is a great country. Our Constitution guarantees the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for both homo sapiens and Home Depot; we grant "personhood" status to zygotes and Zales alike; freedom of religion and expression are both protected and sacrosanct -- regardless of how irreligious the sect or ludicrous the thought. In this last regard, America is -- and from her earliest days has always been -- an equal opportunity asylum. Here in America, every nut has its tree, every conspiracy its true believers. Indeed, one could argue that America was founded on a conspiracy theory. Historian Peter Knight writes in his comprehensive Encyclopedia of American Conspiracy Theories "The conviction that the English colonial policies of the 1760s and 1770s constituted a conspiracy to enslave America played a major role in the outbreak of the American Revolution." Need proof? It's right there in the Declaration of Independence, where the Founders wrote that King George was executing a secret plot with the “direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”
But this was only the beginning. Throughout our history, as noted above, we've been plauged by enough conspiracy theories to fill Joe Robbie (or whatever they call it these days) Stadium. Consider:
Back in the late 1830s and early 1840s, an emergent political party -- the so-called "Know-Nothings" -- based its appeal on the unbelievable theory that the Pope was secretly building a trans-Atlantic tunnel through which his troops (including the reviled Irish) could traverse the sea, arrive in Philadelphia and take over America. These folks actually elected members of Congress and captured several governorships before falling under the weight of its own lunacy.
From almost the moment of his murder, conspiracy theories abounded as to who was really responsible for the death of Abraham Lincoln. President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln's successor, issued a proclamation offering a reward for the arrest of Jefferson Davis in connection with the Lincoln assassination. In the 1930s, Austrian-born chemist Otto Eisenschiml published a best-selling book (Why Was Lincoln Murdered?) in which he claimed that a senior member of Honest Abe's cabinet orchestrated the plot. Eisenschiml's claim is still believed by a lot of conspiracy buffs in 2013.
From the very moment of its creation in 1913, the Federal Reserve system has been the launching point for at least a dozen different conspiracy theories; think "New World Order," "Rothschilds," and "Bavarian Illuminati." Over the past 30 years, former Texas Representative Ron Paul has been banging the Federal Reserve Conspiracy drum louder than just about anyone. Now that he is retired, watch for him to pound this tom-tom even louder.
Add to these such perennial favorites as The Philadelphia Experiment, the poisoning of American minds through fluoridation of water, the UFO (Area 51 -- Men in Black) conspiracy, the Bilderberg Group and the "Manchurian Candidate" murders of both JFK and RFK as well as Martin Luther King and John Lennon -- and my personal favorite, the fake moon-landing -- and there is enough paranoiac fiction to last a lifetime.
It seems that the number of conspiracies from which one can choose has grown exponentially over the past several years. These include -- but are by no means limited to -- President Obama's foreign birth, government complicity in Waco, Oklahoma City, 9/11 and the so-called "gay agenda"; the introduction of Sharia Law, and ultimate disarming of American citizens; the federal government's outright purchase of billions upon billions of rounds of ammunition; FEMA-created concentration camps and the push to turn American into a radical Marxist state; and, most recently, the Obama Administration's active involvement in creating the massacres at both Sandy Hook and the Boston Marathon.
Notice a trend? Where throughout our history, most conspiracies centered on evil outsiders -- papal minions, Soviet Communists, the Elders of Zion -- aiming malevolent arrows at the heart of America, today's conspiracies have identified the federal government itself as the evil "outsider"; the conscious enemy seeking to overthrow the Constitution and its freedoms, the economy -- and indeed, the people itself.
Until recently, it was fairly rare for the average citizen to be aware of the conspiracy theories swirling about sociopolitical empyrean. Until the advent of the Internet, cable and satellite radio, conspiratorial lunacy was, for the most part, reserved for the fringes -- for what I choose to call the "pre-certified crazies" of both the Right and the Left. Without belonging to a group like the John Birch Society, subscribing to a paranoiac publication like The Watchtower, or tuning in to radio preacher Billy James Hargis' Christian Crusade program, one would never have known of all the "grave threats" and even "graver enemies" facing America. Up until recently -- and with the exception of Senator Joseph McCarthy's Communist conspiracy campaign -- few if any conspiracy theories ever broke through to the mainstream surface of American politics.
Yesterday's door-to-door conspiracy peddlers have become mega-entrepreneurs. These are people who, University of Utah historian Robert Goldberg says, ". . . live and die on the sale of tapes, on books and on speaking engagements." Like a detergent manufacturer always in need of a product that is "new and improved," these conspiracy entrepreneurs "have a constant need to invent new theories because eventually the public will tire of existing ones." These entrepreneurs -- people like Glenn Beck, Michael Savage and one most readers have never heard of -- Alex Jones -- have become fantastically wealthy peddling paranoid nightmares (as well as tapes, coffee mugs, sweatshirts and -- in the case of Beck -- his own brand of jeans) to the masses.
Suddenly, lunacy has gone legit.
Just this past week, four Republican members of Congress sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security demanding that the department respond to the charge (promulgated by both Glenn Beck and Alex Jones) that the real Boston Marathon bomber was being shielded by the White House . . . specifically Michelle Obama. Moreover, one of the four signing on to this letter was none other than Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee! (McCaul, by the way, who is married to the daughter of Clear Channel Communications Chair Lowry Mays, is reportedly worth more than $300 million.) And then, to make matters even more unbelievable, the House Committee on Government Oversight held a hearing on the Beck-Jones conspiracy which has the federal government stockpiling ammunition in order to . . . in order to what? According to those who believe this bit of lunacy, it is so that the government can kill any and everyone who disagrees with them. During the hearing, Michigan Representative Kerry Bentovolio actually asked Humberto Medina, a representative from the Department of Homeland Security whether the government had plans -- in case of civil arrest -- to make mass arrests of American citizens and put them in FEMA camps! The incredulous Mr. Medina answered in two words: "No plans." Apparently none too concerned with how ludicrous he looked and sounded, Rep. Bentovolio then asked, "Any other plans for things like that?" to which again, Mr. Medina answered "No plans." Bentovolio ended the colloquy by adding " . . . not yet, huh?" (Emphasis added).
Not to be outdone Oklahoma Senator James Imhofe, firmly believing that the feds are involved in a conspiracy to corner the market on ammunition (for purposes not quite known) introduced legislation to block federal agencies from buying ammunition. (Wonder if this includes the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force which are, after all, federal agencies?)
In other words, for the first time in history, lunacy has been given the seal of legitimacy. Goodness knows it's great for the sale of books, tapes, sweatshirts and coffee mugs. It's also great for ratings . . . which usually translates into more and more bucks.
What legitimizing lunacy is not good for is America. We're never going to stop the conspiracy entrepreneurs of the world from making their fortunes by scaring the bejeezus out of the pre-certified; it is part and parcel of free speech. But when their crazed caterwauling reaches the halls of Congress, one has to be concerned for our future.
©2013 Kurt F. Stone