Schooling Ross Douthat in Conspiracy Theory
What the New York Times columnist misses about fringe thinkers.
By Jack Shafer
Posted Monday, March 22, 2010, at 7:03 PM ET
Ross DouthatSteering his workmanlike review of David Aaronovitch's Voodoo Histories: The Role of Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History toward a satisfying conclusion in the March 21 Times Book Review, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat drops this bomb of a final paragraph:
Yesterday's conspiracy theorists governed countries, commanded armies and dealt out death and destruction on a vast scale. Today's conspiracy theorists have detailed Web sites, slick videos and best-selling books, but precious little direct power. The paranoid mood helps polarize our politics, no doubt, and can inspire spasms of nihilistic violence. But for now, at least, it's more of a sideshow than a clear and present danger. [Emphasis added.]
CLOSESeeing that Aaronovitch's book deals primarily with Anglo-American-European conspiracy theories, Douthat isn't completely out of bounds insisting that today's conspiracy theorists hold "precious little direct power." But remove the Western blinders to gaze upon South America, the Middle East, and Africa, and a conspiracy renaissance comes into view! A short list of contemporary leaders with unorthodox views of causation would include:
Uncle Fidel, the genuine target of U.S. assassination conspiracies, has long made military and diplomatic mischief around the world. In the 1970s, his Cuba might have been the most powerful tiny country in the world. He's never been shy to express his dubious views. For instance, he claimed in 2007 that a rocket, not an airliner, struck the Pentagon on 9/11. In truther fashion, he also said the real story behind the attacks would probably remain a mystery. ... According to a 2007 article in the Atlantic, Castro said the U.S. government's early-1960s venture "Project Stormfury" was an attempt to weaponize hurricanes.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it's safe to say, is currently incubating several nuclear weapons. Whether they'll hatch or not is the subject of debate. In 2008, Ahmadinejad said U.S. forces in Iraq intended to kidnap and kill him during a visit there. ... Later that year, Iran's ambassador to Italy asserted that Western agents had tried to kill Ahmadinejad with radiation during a visit to Rome. ... In 2009, he called the Holocaust "a lie based on an unprovable and mythical claim." ... Just this month, Ahmadinejad described the belief that Osama bin Laden was behind the 9/11 attacks as a "big lie" designed to marshal support for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
Former South African President Thabo Mbeki, who rejected the idea that HIV caused AIDS, claimed that the CIA and U.S. pharmaceutical companies marketing HIV drugs were conspiring against him because he blocked their paths to world domination and corporate profits. Reported the Guardian, "Mbeki said that his advisers were seeking to discover who was spreading the idea that he was 'deranged,' itself a part of the conspiracy against him."
Related in Slate
In 2007, Anne Applebaum explained why actors and models love to hang out with Hugo Chavez. In 2008, Andres Martinez visited the Chavez revolution in progress.Hugo Chavez
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who fancies himself a postmodern Castro, has an oil bomb at his disposal and has exerted political influence on the heads of state in neighboring Bolivia and Ecuador. He is good buddies with Ahmadinejad and his government has been implicated in the training of Basque separatists, which he denies. In January, state-owned television in Venezuela claimed that the Haitian earthquake was caused by a U.S. Navy secret weapon. (See also this report in the Spanish newspaper ABC.) ... In 2006, Chavez added this comment (ragged translation by CNN) after a Venezuelan TV program explored the theory that the United States was behind the 9/11 attacks: "The hypothesis that is gaining strength, which was said on television last night and which could soon blown up, it that it was the same U.S. imperial power that planned and carried out this terrible terrorist attack or act against its own people and against citizens from all over the world." ... In 2000, Chavez accused the Omaha, Neb., vendor Election Systems & Software as being part of a scheme to "destabilize" the election in Venezuela. ... According to Commentary, Chavez uses anti-Semitism as a "political tool," and since he took office in 1999, "there has been an unprecedented surge in anti-Semitism throughout Venezuela. Government-owned media outlets have published anti-Semitic tracts with increasing frequency. Pro-Chávez groups have publicly disseminated copies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the early-20th-century czarist forgery outlining an alleged worldwide Jewish conspiracy to seize control of the world."
Eric M. Gairy
Gairy welded no real power when he served as Grenada's prime minister in the 1970s, but he's worth mentioning in this short list for two reasons. In 1977, he addressed (paid) the United Nations General Assembly about the existence of UFOs, which he claimed to have seen. Gairy wanted the U.N. to establish an international agency for the study of UFOs and extraterrestrials. (Gairy shared his UFO interest with President Jimmy Carter just prior to his U.N. address.) In a previous visit to the U.N., he told members about the powers of the "Bermuda triangle." A not-so-subtle conspiracy of silence prevented Gairy's supernatural ideas from advancing at the U.N. In 1979, a coup commanded by a Castro supporter toppled him from power; in 1983, the U.S. invaded Grenada and threw the leftists out. A 1997 New York Times obituary captured Gairy in all of his nutty glory. His political party portrayed him as a messiah sent by God to rule Grenada, and he once said, "He who opposes me opposes God.'' That's a conspiracy we can all be proud to be a part of.
Addendum, March 23, 2010: Reader Nicolas Businger points my attention to the heavy-duty theories advanced by Libya's El Supremo, Muammar Qaddafi, last fall in a 90-minute speech before the United Nations. Qaddafi speculated that the swine flu virus may have been manufactured by the military and then escaped from the lab, asserted that John F. Kennedy was assassinated because he "wanted to investigate the nuclear reactor of the Israeli demon," and proposed that Barack Obama serve as president "forever."
Addendum, March 24, 2010: Reader Robert Andrews demands equal scrutiny for Mahathir Mohamad, the former prime minister of Malaysia. At a January conference, Mohamad asserted that the 9/11 attacks were staged. "If they can make Avatar, they can make anything," he said. ... He blamed Malaysia's 1997 financial crackup on a Jewish conspiracy. ... In 2003, he stated that "the Jews rule the world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them."
I shave all conspiracy theories with my self-lubricating, five-bladed, tilting-and-vibrating Occam's razor: The simpler the theories are, the more I like them. What powerful conspiracy theorists have I overlooked? Send candidates to firstname.lastname@example.org and join my Twitter conspiracy. (E-mail may be quoted by name in Slate's readers' forums; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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