Newt Gingrich sees child labor laws as yet another sin of “big government,” ripe to be overturned, when he isn’t worrying about the imposition of sharia law. Rick Perry flirts with the idea of Texas seceding from the union. Rick Santorum thinks contraception is evil, that gays have no place in the military and women should not be on the front lines. Santorum even hinted that Obama is a Muslim (or a Wiccan or a humanist?) when he said that the president subscribes to “some phony theology” not tied to the Christian Bible. Ron Paul and his senator son Rand question whether the federal government should have had the right to desegregate Southern lunch counters (that’s private property, after all).
A pro-life “satire” of Scarlett Johansson’s PSA for Planned Parenthood (are you laughing yet?)
Those positions may seem wacky enough, but today’s GOP presidential candidates often go further in dogwhistling their support for even crazier ideas. Media elites hosting the debates often look perplexed when candidates refer to some of the more outrageous “issues” that right-wing talk radio and Tea Party bloggers treat as literal Holy Writ. By now, most of us know about right-wing fears that the government is readying a plan to confiscate our guns. Sites such as Freedom Files and even Jesse Ventura’s benighted conspiracy show on Tru-TV tell us the “truth” that FEMA camps are U.S. concentration camps in the making, and that those black helicopters are the advances forces ready to round us up.
If you live in Manhattan, you may not always know what these folks are talking about. But those of us in the Midwest live among plenty of folks who treat these ideas as gospel. Birtherism, the belief that Obama is not our “real” president because he was born in Kenya, is now a majority view among GOP voters. As Slate’s Dave Wiegel reports, 51% of Republican voters think Obama does not meet the Constitutional requirement of being born here.
Yet you may have missed a few of the more bizarre ideas that today’s GOP candidates must acknowledge. So here’s a brief field guide to some fulminating fantasies that do not always reach the mainstream radar:
- United Nations Agenda 21 – The United Nations itself is inherently suspect in right-wing circles because it espouses the belief that the “New World Order” will be imposed on the United States by the nefarious promoters of One World Government. Groups such as the Trilateral Commission (official TC website), the Bilderberg Society (official Bilderberg website), the Council on Foreign Relations (official CFR website) and the secret gathering at Bohemian Grove (no official website) are colluding to enslave us all in service to the rich elites. (Hmmm – they might be onto something there.) UN paranoia has reached a new level of hysteria surrounding Agenda 21, a 1992 publication from the UN’s Division for Sustainable Development that lays out a “comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally, nationally and locally by organizations of the United Nations System, Governments, and Major Groups in every area in which human impacts (sic) on the environment.” The Atlantic recently ran an article entitled “Is the UN using bike paths to achieve world domination?” that recounts seemingly silly right-wing efforts to stop urban planning. Silly, that is, until you see that their efforts have stopped initiatives ranging from high-speed rail to the aforementioned bike paths. The Washington Post recently reported that Agenda 21 adherents are thwarting efforts to prepare Virginia to deal with rising sea levels that will inevitably come from climate change. Coach Is Right is representative of the blogs that argue “according to the language of the U. N. General Assembly, our years of environmental debauchery mean Americans ESPECIALLY must now begin to live neither so well, nor so long.” The “so long” in that quote alludes to Obamacare, which “promises to shorten the lives of those in America’s aging population without the political connections or financial wherewithal necessary to procure proper care when administrators of the federal scheme decide that one’s newly diagnosed disease is not worth the curing.” To one contributor at Godlike Productions (my favorite conspiracy site), the biodiversity protection map below is the Agenda 21 “Death Map.” In his eyes, those red zones are places where humans have little or no use, and the yellow areas signify places where humans will fall further under government control.
- Saul Alinsky and Cloward & Piven as Left-Wing Leaders – Listen to Glenn Beck and other right-wing talk show hosts long enough, and you will be persuaded that progressives are taking their marching orders from this cabal of relatively obscure liberal/radical writers from the Sixties. Alinsky, an author and community activist who has been dead for four decades, wrote a book published in 1971 called “Rules for Radicals,” which offered advice on “community organizing” (a term one small step removed from communism in the right-wing catechism). Though The Christian Science Monitor reports that Freedom Works’ leader Dick Armey gave copies of the book to Tea Party organizers when they were building their grassroots movement, Alinsky’s name is now anathema to the right, which is why Newt Gingrich weaves in a reference whenever he can. Chances are, Barack Obama knows Alinsky’s work well from his days working in Chicago neighborhoods, but then again, so apparently does the top leadership of the Tea Party. Allusions to the dangers of academics Cloward & Piven are even more bizarre. The late Richard Cloward and his wife Frances Fox Piven wrote an article for The Nation magazine in 1966 about ending poverty. In it, they posited a future where anti-poverty programs would collapse of their own weight, leading to a guaranteed annual income, recast now as the subversive and threatening Cloward-Piven strategy. The right conveniently ignores that President Richard Nixon proposed the Family Assistance Plan, a guaranteed income program supported by his Democratic advisor Daniel Patrick Moynihan. (Yes, Virginia, there really was a time when Republicans wanted government to do things). Glenn Beck has hammered away at the surviving Dr. Piven so long and so hard that this learned and reportedly sweet woman receives routinely death threats.
- Obama wants to turn us into Europe – Remember when we couldn’t call them French fries? Mitt Romney is trying to send a signal to the right that he’s one of them by using Europe as a rallying cry. Anything European is used as shorthand for the idea that building a government safety net is “Cultural Marxism” as dictated by the “Frankfurt School” and that this will be our undoing. The writings of German philosophers such as Theodor Adorno are held up as proof that the left seeks to undermine American exceptionalism through critical studies, which they perceive as employing relentless criticism of capitalism and the Judeo-Christian ethic as a way to weaken our society’s religious and moral underpinnings. Right-wing writers of the paranoid stripe often argue that this is part of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy, which ignores that Antonio Gramsci, one of the movement’s leading thinkers, was an Italian Catholic. (Never let facts get in the way of an opportunity to engage in anti-Semitism.) The term “political correctness,” as defined by William S. Lind, is often used as proof that the left is trying to turn the United States into an effete and libertine socialist paradise deprived of individual liberty:
“America today is in the throes of the greatest and direst transformation in its history. We are becoming an ideological state, a country with an official state ideology enforced by the power of the state. In “hate crimes” we now have people serving jail sentences for political thoughts. And the Congress is now moving to expand that category ever further. Affirmative action is part of it. The terror against anyone who dissents from Political Correctness on campus is part of it. It’s exactly what we have seen happen in Russia, in Germany, in Italy, in China, and now it’s coming here. And we don’t recognize it because we call it Political Correctness and laugh it off. My message today is that it’s not funny, it’s here, it’s growing and it will eventually destroy, as it seeks to destroy, everything that we have ever defined as our freedom and our culture.” – William S. Lind at an Accuracy in Academia conference in 2000
- Hits from the Fifties Revived: Chemtrails and Fluoride – Two not-so-golden oldies with a renewed paranoid twist involve the idea that the government is poisoning us for its own nefarious purposes. The white plumes called contrails that jet planes leave in the sky worried my Dad back in the Fifties. He was sure they were part of some sinister government plot he couldn’t quite put his finger on. But that was before the Internet made it easy for paranoid folks to offer their version of the truth. The progressive website AlterNet.org identified a number of paranoid theories about chemtrails promulgated since the late Nineties, including the possibility oil companies were spraying chemicals to reduce global warming to the New World Order/Illuminati testing pathogens to NATO aircraft altering the weather, perhaps to create hurricanes that empower FEMA’s control over our lives. Fluoridation was once considered a Communist plot to weaken us from within, but it is now perceived as a plan by the federal government to bolster the military/industrial complex. (Come again?) Golden oldies such as these get reworked as part of the overarching theme that the federal government is the enemy of the people rather than their expression.
These stories would be funny if you ignore the fact that many voters actually believe them (thereby canceling your vote and mine). Some of the more unstable members of the paranoid right also feel the people targeted for right-wing outrage constitute a hit list. Remember Byron Williams who listened to Glenn Beck rail against the Tides Foundation and then headed to San Francisco with a carful of guns to kill the folks who work there?
Refusing to believe Obama is a Christian and that he did not really kill bin Laden is nuts, but not lethal. Believing that Planned Parenthood is waging a holocaust against black babies crosses the line into casting the argument in ways that could justify armed resistance.
One golden oldie that has withstood the test of time is Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics, written back in 1964. “We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.”
The bad news about the Internet is that it places the responsibility on us to discern fact from fiction. But the best thing about this new online world is that it offers us opportunities to produce good speech that can help to overwhelm the bad. I hope this offering helps.