Tag Archives: conspiracy theories


If it seems that conspiracy theories have grown–indeed, erupted–over the past several years, a recent book on the history of those theories disabuses us. Evidently, humans have always embraced these “explanations” of the world.

The Guardian has reviewed the book. 

US congressional hearings can be dry affairs but not of late. First there was Robert Kennedy Jr, purveyor of disinformation about vaccines and much else, testifying about big tech censorship. Then David Grusch, a former intelligence officer, claiming that the government knows more than it admits about UFOs: “Non-human biologics had been recovered at crash sites.”

The fact that both captured the public imagination is not so surprising. In a new book, Under the Eye of Power, cultural historian Colin Dickey argues that our hunger for conspiracy theories is less fringe and more mainstream than we like to admit. Fearmongering about secret groups pulling levers of power behind the scenes, “conspiring to pervert the will of the people and the rule of law”, is older than America itself.

The author harkens back to the 1692 Salem witch trials, to the many Americans who were convinced that the Revolution was a conspiracy organized by the French, and to many others–from the Illuminati to QAnon. He argues against the temptation to dismiss these eruptions as some sort of aberration that resonates “with a small and marginal segment of the population.” Instead, Dickey argues that they are  “hardwired into how many people process democracy.” As he delved into the research, he says

I began to see a pattern emerge whereby there’s almost a template for fears of secret societies, of this invisible, undetectable group that is nonetheless doing terrible things behind the scenes.

“It happens again and again; the names change. Sometimes it’s the Catholics, sometimes it’s the Jews, sometimes it’s the satanists, sometimes it’s the socialists or the anarchists. But it recurs with enough frequency that I began to see it as something that gets deployed almost on cue when certain moments arise in American history.”

Dickey points to the evolution of Freemasonry from its origin as a social philanthropic fraternal organization to one seen as a parallel shadow government that had infiltrated the country, and to attacks on Catholics that were driven by a conviction among Protestants that they were being controlled by a foreign pope. As the author notes, other anti-Catholic accusations were

very structurally similar to the contemporary conspiracy theory around Pizzagate or the movie that just came out, Sound of Freedom [popular with QAnon followers]. This idea of the cabal of sexual abusers, which was being used against Catholics in the 1830s, with just a few of the key details changed but more or less the same narrative.

One thing that has changed is the suspected nationality of the nefarious actors. Until the 20th Century, the “bad guys” were almost always foreign. Today, they’re domestic.

After world war two and the sixties, that gradually but irrevocably changes to the point where now most Americans take it on an article of faith that the government is out to do them harm on some level or another.

The Internet is obviously implicated, but Dickey says it just exacerbates some of our latent tendencies.

What does seem new is that QAnon is this weird hybrid of a very dangerous, quite racist and homo- and transphobic conspiracy theory mixed with an online multilevel marketing scheme and also a community forum for puzzle solvers.

Dickey notes that conspiracy theories like QAnon and the Great Replacement theory tend to flare up when “there is significant demographic change or previously marginalized groups push for visibility and equality.” Rather than recognize that America is always changing, they insist that demographic and social changes are being caused by “secret elites who are working behind the scenes to undermine what ‘America’ actually is.”

The review is lengthy and well worth reading in its entirety. The book tries to explain the trajectory that often begins with reasonable questions (are there side-effects to this vaccine?) and ends up with crazed, evidence-free answers (the vaccines are inserting chips in us; the vaccines are killing people…)

The basic problem seems to be the very human need to reject chaos and randomness–to believe that something is in control. Perhaps the messy  and threatening reality you don’t understand is part of God’s plan, or maybe it is the result of dark forces–the illuminati, the Jews, the government….

Unfortunately, as Dickey concludes, rebuttals with facts and evidence will simply be attributed to the conspiracy. Because belief in that conspiracy addresses an existential or emotional need, to be effective, any response must also address that need.

Unfortunately, Dickey doesn’t tell us how to do that…..

The Eternal Target

Robert Hubbell is the author of one of the newsletters that appear in my inbox each weekday; some months ago, my sister recommended that I add him to my daily read and I can echo her endorsement.

Hubbell recently considered the anti-Semitism displayed by one of RFK, Jr.’s many conspiracy theories–this one, that the Chinese had “bio-engineered”  COVID  to disproportionately target Caucasians and Black people., while immunizing Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese people.

As Hubbell wrote

Over the weekend, we learned that Kennedy’s conspiratorial thinking regarding the origins of Covid and the (alleged) evils of vaccines led him to the place where many conspiracy theories seem to inevitably land—blaming “the Jews” for the world’s problems. Most conspiracy theories begin by blaming the ubiquitous and anonymous “they”, which inexorably morphs over time to “liberal elites,” then “Bill Gates and George Soros,” and then “the Jews.”

 I sure wish we Jews were as powerful as these conspiracy-addled  lunatics clearly think we are. (Really, if I had a space laser, don’t you think I’d have used it against some of these nutcases by now??)

In Hubbell’s subsequent discussion of Junior’s “bioweapon” theories, he meticulously examined the ignorance it required.

He claims that the Chinese and American governments are developing “ethnic bioweapons.” The notion that governments are building bioweapons that will selectively attack people based on their “ethnicity” is a delusion based on monumental ignorance about DNA, biology, race, ethnicity, science, politics, and reality. It is the stuff of 1950s comic books, adolescent imagination, and Nazi eugenics—which is how sheer stupidity morphs into absolute evil in the reality free cauldron of conspiracy theories.

Hubbell examined RFK,Jr.’s “copious documentation” (so that we don’t have to), and found that–to the extent any legitimate documentation exists regarding “ethnic bioweapons”– “it relates to the fear that some government might exploit the gene editing technology CRSPR/Cas9 to develop ethnic bioweapons in the future.”

Rather obviously, a concern about what might occur  sometime in the future is not “evidence” that U.S. and China are developing bioweapons targeted at various genetic groups.

What struck me about this particular eruption of anti-Semitism–and Hubbell’s ability to demonstrate the ignorance that prompted it–was an insight it prompted about the nature of conspiracy theories in general: people who don’t understand the world they inhabit, and who are unable to tolerate the ambiguities resulting from that lack of understanding, are desperate for answers and explanations they can comprehend.

Conspiracy theories provide those answers. (So do some religions.)

Are LGBTQ people more visible than they used to be? There must be more of them, and that means that some groups–librarians and Drag Queens among them– are “grooming” children and turning them gay.

Are the FBI and Department of Justice closing in on Donald Trump’s myriad crimes? That’s convincing evidence that those federal agencies have been “weaponized” against Republicans.

Did your 87-year-old grandfather die a month after getting a COVID vaccine? Was your sister-in-law’s next-door neighbor’s brother’s child diagnosed as autistic after getting her measles vaccine? Aha! Evidence that vaccines are dangerous.

Are you a man who’s unable to get a date? (Okay, unable to get laid?) It isn’t because you’re unattractive or unpleasant (or nuts). As your fellow Incels will tell you, it’s evidence that “women’s lib” groups have poisoned relations between the sexes.

Is your life not unfolding in ways you had hoped? Are your children behaving in ways that you disapprove? It’s evidence that some shadowy group–probably the Jews–is running the world in ways that disadvantage good White Christians like you…

I’m sure readers of this blog can add to the list….

There is a reason for the growing political and social gap between educated and uneducated Americans. And by “educated” I don’t mean people with degrees; I mean people who read books and newspapers, open themselves to the lessons of history, and respect science and technical expertise. Educated people are humans who recognize–and have learned to live with– the inevitable ambiguities of modern life. They are people who understand that the world is a complicated place, that we humans are still learning about causes and effects, and there are many questions we can’t answer.

They are people who can tell the difference between evidence and fantasy, and are comfortable saying “I don’t know.”

Other people–those who are frantic for simple answers and desperate for someone or some group  to blame for their distress– cope by adopting fantasies that justify their fear and hatred of the “other.”

Today’s America evidently has a lot of them. Until their fevers subside, they can and do make life for the rest of us very uncomfortable–and for some of us “others,” very unsafe.




Shaming The Name

I guess it’s time to talk about RFK, Jr.

I met Junior once, many years ago. He’d come to Indianapolis to speak at a dinner for an environmental group. At the time, he was known for his work to clean up the Hudson River. He sat at our table and played footsie with an attractive woman at the table.  Given what we now know about JFK, I  just assumed lechery ran in the family.

These days, his behaviors are far more bizarre, and his quixotic entry into the Presidential sweepstakes has elicited commentary from reporters who would otherwise ignore a crank candidate.

Allow me to share some of that recent coverage.

The New Republic reports that Junior is sharing the podium with Trump, DeSantis and Nikki Haley at an event sponsored by Moms for Liberty, a group known for book-banning, and attacks on teachers and  LGBTQ citizens, among other things.

Maybe he’s running on the wrong ticket….

There have been multiple reports that his candidacy is being promoted by rich, white, conspiracy-pushing figures who have a media presence.  Elon Musk, for example, is evidently using Twitter’s algorithms to advance Junior’s anti-vaccine agenda.

Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo has pointed out that RFK Jr.’s “top backers are Steve Bannon, Mike Flynn, Roger Stone. He’s a creation of the world of MAGA.”

I knew he was a big anti-vax guy. But seeing some of his recent stuff, I didn’t grasp how far off the trail he’s gone. He’s basically on board with all the conspiracy theories that animate MAGA. Vaccine denial is only one of them. For the moment he’s putting up decent primary support numbers, overwhelmingly because of the name.

The website Popular Information criticized the “pernicious elite preoccupation” with Junior, pointing to the number of lives likely to be lost by his spread of discredited, manipulated and cherry-picked vaccine disinformation.

In the Washington Post, Eugene Robinson weighed in:

If Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s name were Robert F. Smith Jr., he would be written off as an anti-vaccine nutjob. His pedigree is enough to make some Democrats give his presidential campaign a look — and they will find that he is indeed an anti-vaccine nutjob and that he often sounds a lot like a MAGA Republican.
This will come as a disappointment to the right-wing media outlets, unhinged conspiracy theorists and faux-libertarian billionaires who are doing their best to pretend Kennedy’s delusionary candidacy is a viable challenge to President Biden.

Robinson focuses largely on the lethal consequences of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. He quotes Junior’s siblings, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Joseph P. Kennedy II, who wrote in a 2019 Politico article that Junior’s anti-vaccine ravings are “dangerous misinformation” that endanger public health and put children at risk.

Robinson also notes that the crazy doesn’t stop there.

For a while, he crusaded against 5G internet technology, claiming it damages human DNA and is a secret tool of mass surveillance. He has accused Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates of working to develop an “injectable chip” that would allow, once again, mass surveillance. These are sentiments more commonly expressed on a street corner, at loud volume, while wearing a tinfoil hat.

Kennedy has said he believes that the CIA was behind the 1963 assassination of his uncle President John F. Kennedy and that there is “very convincing” evidence the CIA was also responsible for the assassination of his father, Robert F. Kennedy, in 1968. (Back here in the real world, JFK was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald and RFK was killed by Sirhan Sirhan.) Asked by Rogan whether he, too, could be a target of CIA assassins, Kennedy said, “I gotta be careful. I’m aware of that, you know, I’m aware of that danger.” He added, “I take precautions.”

He also claims that “chemicals in the waters”  cause transgenderism…

In the same vein, in a NYT column, Bret Stephens wrote

Kennedy is a crank…. He has said the C.I.A. killed his uncle and possibly his father, that George W. Bush stole the 2004 election, and that Covid vaccines are a Bill Gates and Anthony Fauci self-enrichment scheme. He repeats Kremlin propaganda points, like the notion that the war in Ukraine is actually “a U.S. war against Russia.” He has nice things to say about Tucker Carlson.

There is much, much more, but probably the most pertinent point is the one made by Eugene Robinson: if this guy’s name was Robert F. Smith, Jr., he would be ignored as just another lunatic. It is only because he comes from a famous family, only because he has a pedigree, that he is currently a “useful idiot” for the MAGA supporters desperate to peel away the votes of naive Americans who might vote for the Kennedy name.

Which he shames.

Religious Liberty?

Remember when Hillary Clinton outraged the Chattering Classes with statements like  “basket of deplorables,” and accusations of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”

According to Wikipedia, the phrase “vast right-wing conspiracy” preceded Clinton’s 1998 use. It was listed as a conspiracy theory in a 1995 memo by political opposition researchers. Wild conspiracy theories are everywhere you look these days–mostly but not exclusively  on the political Right (are Jewish Space lasers the grandchildren of the Elders of Zion?). When Clinton leveled the accusation, the blowback was both overwhelming and understandable.

But a recent data breach at the shadowy Liberty Counsel suggests she may have been on to something.

LIBERTY COUNSEL, an evangelical Christian nonprofit that provided a brief cited by the Supreme Court in its decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, has been hacked, revealing a 25-gigabyte internal database that contains nearly seven years’ worth of donor records. The hacker, who identifies with the Anonymous movement, released the data on the hacktivist site Enlace Hacktivista, and the transparency collective Distributed Denial of Secrets is providing it to journalists who request access.

“Noticing a worrying trend of far-right and anti-abortion activists aligning themselves with the evangelical Christian movement, hiding their funding sources behind laws that allow church ministries to keep their donations secret,” the hacker wrote in a press release, “we decided to bring about some much-needed radical transparency.”

In addition to fighting abortion, Liberty Counsel — a Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group — has focused its legal efforts on challenging LGBTQ+ rights and vaccine mandates in the name of religious freedom. Because it is registered with the IRS as an “association of churches,” Liberty Counsel is not required to file a public tax return, meaning that its finances are largely shielded from the scrutiny applied to other tax-exempt organizations.

The disclosures showed that “nonprofit organizations” controlled by Liberty Counsel not only encouraged supporters to vote for Trump –in violation of IRS rules that prohibit such endorsements– they also documented the ways in which Liberty Counsel has deployed  disinformation about election integrity and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Are you wondering why I titled this blog post  “Religious Liberty”? As the linked Intercept article goes on to explain, the legal privileging of (some) religion has not only facilitated the lack of transparency illustrated by the breach, but has served to conceal a theocratic political movement within a cloak of faux piety.

Liberty Counsel’s virulently anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and efforts to legalize discrimination in the name of religious freedom led the Southern Poverty Law Center to designate it as a hate group. “The organizations on our hate group list vilify others because of their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity — this includes Liberty Counsel and their vilification of LGBTQ+ people,” said Rachel Carroll Rivas, interim deputy director of research for the SPLC’s Intelligence Project.

Some examples: Liberty Counsel represented Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue a marriage license to a gay couple. The day after the January 6th insurrection, its president sent an email to supporters stating that “our research and legal staff have been deeply engaged in stopping the steal of our 2020 elections.” (The email and a later blog post insisted that Trump could remain in power if God intervened: “We know God can intervene and turn what looks like a hopeless cause into a miraculous victory!” (Evidently, God was uninterested…)

During the pandemic, Liberty Counsel successfully sued  LSU’s School of Dentistry and Loyola University, requiring them to abandon their vaccine mandates on religious freedom grounds. The organization is currently suing the U.S. government over the military’s vaccine mandate. (God evidently wants people infected..)

If these activities were limited to a single organization, it would be troubling enough, but the breach disclosed a network of similarly fanatic entities, and campaigns that stretched the definition of “religion” to the breaking point.

While Liberty Counsel is best known for legal battles over abortion and LGBTQ+ rights, the hacked data shows more than $1.6 million in donations resulting from petition and fax campaigns built around dubious claims about the pandemic and election integrity…

The largest petition included in the data set, launched on the eve of Biden’s inauguration, makes no mention of religion: It warns of “giant pharmaceutical companies in partnership with government officials sweeping harmful and even deadly COVID-19 vaccine reactions under the rug” and demands that politicians oppose unspecified efforts “to make COVID shots mandatory, to require a Vaccine Passport or to electronically track and trace my movements.”

I don’t know how “vast” Liberty Council’s conspiratorial network is, but I do know the  Religion Clauses of the First Amendment weren’t intended to shield partisan political activity from legal scrutiny.

We can protect genuine religious liberty without enabling political fundraising  by hate groups.



There are a number of recent news items and  comments to this site  that don’t merit a full blog post, so today is a “potpourri” of several unrelated observations.

First of all, kudos to the College Board, which is evidently preparing to remove the AP label from classes in states that prohibit the accurate teaching of history or otherwise restrict what can be taught in the classroom. In a letter to participants in the AP Program, the Board reiterated its commitment to the intellectual integrity of AP classes and the principles upon which the AP Program is built. As the Indianapolis Star article reported, those principles include

 “an unflinching encounter with evidence,” opposition to censorship and indoctrination and “an open-minded approach to the histories and cultures of different peoples.”

Should schools, presumably on their own at the behest of state or local government, violate these principles, the letter says they could lose their AP Program designation. It gives as an example the concepts of evolution.

In 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, nearly 13,000 Hoosier students took and passed at least one AP exam.

Next, a recent report may explain why so many of our fellow Americans are receptive to propaganda, conspiracy theories–including Trump’s “Big Lie”– and various other simple-minded explanations of complicated realities. Okay, this is snark–but the Guardian recently focused on a study showing that over 170 million Americans who were adults in 2015 had been exposed to harmful levels of lead as children. That might explain it…

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, they estimated that half the US adult population in 2015 had been exposed to lead levels surpassing five micrograms per deciliter – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention threshold for harmful lead exposure at the time.

The scientists from Florida State University and Duke University also found that 90% of children born in the US between 1950 and 1981 had blood-lead levels higher than the CDC threshold. And the researchers found significant impact on cognitive development: on average, early childhood exposure to lead resulted in a 2.6-point drop in IQ.

And that leads me to Item #3, my response to a question posed recently by several people who are regular readers and commenters to this blog: why have I not blocked  a couple of recent trolls, or Todd’s increasingly unhinged posts?

Let me explain.

WhenI first began this blog, I established a very simple rule for commenters: civility. No ad hominem attacks. So long as regular commenters and the various trolls who visit here from time to time refrain from personal nastiness (or repeated efforts to dominate the discussion), I don’t block them, no matter how looney-tunes I may personally regard their various theories and accusations.

One of the significant downsides of the Internet is its enabling of “bubbles.” Blogs with a definite point of view–a category into which this one certainly falls–are especially likely to “preach to the choir.” That preaching has some value–it may illuminate issues in new ways, enable thoughtful discussions, and/or reassure people that others see the world the way they do.

But bubbles can also be blinders.

Most of us agree in the abstract that we should listen more carefully to those with whom we disagree. That’s in the abstract, however. I’m just as guilty of this as anyone–I tend to pay much more attention to people who express opinions and take positions with which I broadly agree–or at least regard as reasonably evidence-based– and dismiss the opinions of those I’ve categorized as ideologically rigid and/or irrational. It’s called confirmation bias, and most of us are guilty of engaging in it.

That said, it really is important that we recognize the extent to which many people on both the Right and Left desperately need to see the world in black and white, need to identify  the “bad guys” who are responsible for their troubles and disappointments,  and need to impose conceptual order of some sort on a complicated, shades-of-gray world. For many of those people on the Right, the “bad guys” are all people of color and/or non-Christians; for those on the Left, the “bad guys” are all rich people and corporate actors, a/k/a nefarious Oligarchs.

Reasonable people can have productive debates with folks who occupy a different place on the political spectrum, but who live in the real, shades of gray world. We need to recognize the difference between those people–with whom we can have principled and even heated disagreements– and those whose anger, fears  and inability to tolerate ambiguity have permanently warped their world-views.

We can’t make those distinctions if we wall ourselves off and refuse to acknowledge their existence, or the distinct nature of the challenges they represent.