How Right-Wing Conspiracy Theories May Pose a Genuine Threat to Humanity
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
The paranoia infecting a broad swath of the American right-wing can be comical at times -- think about Orly Taitz and her fellow Birthers. But we laugh at our own peril, because what Richard Hofstadter famously characterized as "the paranoid style in American politics" poses a serious threat to our future: the right's snowballing conspiracy theories could ultimately lead to disaster.
Consider what's happening in Virginia's Middle Peninsula on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, among the areas in the U.S. most vulnerable to climate change. Earlier this month, Darryl Fears, reporting for the Washington Post, offered a glimpse into the madness that city planners have faced in recent months as a local Tea Party group, convinced that a nefarious plot by scientists and city officials is afoot, have disrupted their work trying to mitigate the potential impacts of rising sea levels.
"The uprising," wrote Fears, "began at a February meeting about starting a business park for farming oysters in Mathews County." He continued:
The program to help restore the Chesapeake Bay oyster population was slated for land owned by the county, but it was shouted down as a useless federal program that would expand the national debt. The proposal was tabled.
As the opposition grew over the summer, confrontations became so heated that some planners posted uniformed police officers at meetings and others hired consultants to help calm audiences and manage the indoor environment, several planners said.
In James City County, speakers were shouted away from a podium. In Page County, angry farmers forced commissioners to stop a meeting. In Gloucester County, planners sat stone-faced as activists took turns reading portions of the 500-page Agenda 21 text, delaying a meeting for more than an hour.
"Agenda 21" is one of a number of silly but dangerous conspiracy theories sweeping through the fever swamps of the right. Although admittedly sinister-sounding, Agenda 21 is just a blueprint for sustainable development, especially in emerging economies. It outlines how wealthier countries can contribute to smarter growth through technology transfers and public education. It stresses the importance of fighting deforestation and conserving bio-diversity -- all things that normal people would consider wise.
The important thing to understand about Agenda 21 is that there is absolutely nothing binding or compelling member countries to implement any part of it. It's not a treaty -- it is entirely voluntary and certainly doesn't have any connection to local governments. Yet for the right, with its long John Birch Society undercurrent of paranoia about international institutions, Agenda 21 represents some kind of dark UN conspiracy to impose socialism on the "free world."
That craziness lies at the heart of Michele Bachmann's quixotic war on energy-efficient lightbulbs. Tim Murphy reported, "The Minnesota congresswoman is part of a movement that considers 'sustainability' an existential threat to the United States, one with far-reaching consequences for education, transportation, and family values."
Last year, during the Denver mayoral race, Tea Party candidate Dan Maes argued that a local bike-sharing program, a popular initiative among city residents, was a "very well-disguised" part of a plan by then-Denver mayor (and now Colorado governor) John Hickenlooper for "converting Denver into a United Nations community." Alex Jones constantly hawks the conspiracy. Glenn Beck warned it would lead to "centralized control over all of human life on planet Earth." And in September, Newt Gingrich, hoping to burnish his wingnutty creds, told a group of Orlando Tea Partiers that, if elected, his first order of business would be "to cease all federal funding of any kind of activity that relates to United Nations Agenda 21." (Currently, no federal funding of any kind is used for implementing Agenda 21.)