A federal proposal that would have paid physicians for time spent discussing elderly patients’ medical and personal priorities in their final days of life was shelved. Some conservatives, led by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, slammed the idea as creating “death panels” of bureaucrats to decide who would live and who would die. With the rejection of the plan, which had been supported by geriatricians, oncologists and advocates for senior citizens, the aged in the United States now only hear their options for resuscitation, pain control and religious support if their doctors provide the counseling for free.
In 2008, no one in America caught measles and 13,278 people contracted whooping cough. By 2013, measles infected at least 276 people in the U.S. and there were more than 24,000 cases of whooping cough. Medical experts attribute this trend to declining numbers of people being vaccinated, in large part fueled by a belief that doctors and pharmaceutical companies are hiding the dangers of immunizations to protect profits, even though earnings in this niche are so comparatively small that six out of seven companies have dropped out of the business in the past 35 years. Now, because of this false belief advanced by scientific frauds and celebrities, vaccine-preventable diseases that were once on the brink of extinction are roaring back.
George W. Bush murdered thousands by orchestrating 9/11. Barack Obama is a Kenyan national and holds the presidency illegally. Education standards developed by state governors are part of an anti-Christian communist plot that will turn children gay. Unemployment rates and the reported numbers for Obamacare sign-ups are lies engineered by the White House. Water fluoridation doesn’t prevent cavities in children and has been adopted for a range of nefarious purposes. And on and on they go.
Conspiracy theories have been woven into the fabric of American society since before the signing of the Constitution. But what was once dismissed as the amusing ravings of the tin-foil-hat crowd has in recent years crossed a threshold, experts say, with delusions, fictions and lunacy now strangling government policies and creating national health risks. “These kinds of theories have the effect of completely distorting any rational discussion we can have in this country,’’ says Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center who recently wrote a report on the impact of what is known as the Agenda 21 conspiracy. “They are having a real impact now.”
Experts say the number and significance of conspiracy theories are reaching levels unheard-of in recent times, in part because of ubiquitous and faster communications offered by Internet chat rooms, Twitter and other social media. “Conspiracy narratives are more common in public discourse than they were previously,’’ says Eric Oliver, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago who has published research on the phenomenon. “We seem to have crossed a threshold.”
The fears about Agenda 21 are a prime example. The name refers to a nonbinding statement of intent signed in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush and 177 other world leaders. The idea was simple: Under the auspices of the U.N., those countries expressed their interest in managing urban development and land-use policies in ways that minimized the impact on the environment. At the time, mainstream conservative and liberal politicians considered the concept to be fairly inconsequential.
By 2012, the Republican National Committee—overlooking that a Republican president had signed Agenda 21—adopted a resolution slamming the document as an “insidious scheme” designed to impose a “socialist/communist redistribution of wealth.” That language was toned down by the time of the Republican National Convention, but wild claims about Agenda 21 survived, saying the barely financed, unenforceable declaration was “insidious” and “erosive of American sovereignty.”
Today, the Agenda 21 conspiracy is raised around the country when local zoning boards—many of whom have never even heard of the U.N. statement—attempt to adopt development plans that control willy-nilly construction while considering environmental impact. That Baldwin County proposal was felled by fears of Agenda 21. A highway construction project in Maine designed to ease traffic congestion was abandoned. Same with an oyster bed restoration plan in Virginia and a high-speed-rail proposal in Florida. The construction of bike paths—bike paths!—has been attacked by locals waving signs about sinister international conspiracies.
Even the recent controversy involving Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who refuses to pay fees required under law for his cattle to graze on federal land, has been linked to the U.N. “You need to investigate U.N. Agenda 21, as this is what the Obama administration is following in order to steal your land and rights via zoning changes,’’ an Idaho resident wrote to her local newspaper, the Coeur d’Alene Press, about the Bundy case. “The U.N. goal is to remove ALL private property rights, as they are considered ’unsustainable.’”
The letter wasn’t tossed into the trash with the other bizarre, conspiracy-laden missives that arrive at news organizations every day. Instead, it was printed in the paper under the headline “BUNDYS: All part of U.N. Agenda 21.” Never mind that grazing fees on public lands were established in 1934, almost six decades before Agenda 21, and that other ranchers hold 18,000 permits without any global intrigue involved.
Take the theories about the George W. Bush administration. There have been claims and suggestions that Bush used the 9/11 attacks—or even engineered them—as a pretext to engage in wars and increase the state security infrastructure; that his vice president, Dick Cheney, orchestrated the Iraq War to shovel millions of dollars in reconstruction contracts to his former employer, Halliburton; and that the administration rigged the 2004 election through fraud in Ohio. And while these ideas have been put forward by plenty of regular citizens, they have also been advanced by national political figures: respectively, Keith Ellison, a Democratic congressman; Senator Rand Paul, a Republican associated with the party’s libertarian wing; and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the son of Bobby Kennedy, who is now a liberal radio talk-show host.
Indeed, the prominence of some of the conspiracy theorists attacking the Bush administration is a reflection of a more disturbing trend: national political leaders who advance tales of secret schemes and treachery without a scintilla of evidence. Many politicians lent support to the idea that Obama was hiding his birth certificate, a central tenet of the claim that he was born in Kenya. Among those quoted in news articles making those statements are Senator Richard Shelby, then-congressman Roy Blunt, then-representative Nathan Deal and others. Former representative Cynthia McKinney was a proponent of 9/11 conspiracy theories. Senator Ted Cruz has said Agenda 21 involves attempts to abolish golf courses and paved roads.
Prominent business executives and pundits also push unsupported claims about conspiracies. Jack Welch, former chairman and CEO of General Electric, proclaimed that declining unemployment figures released by the government before the 2012 election were fraudulent. Dick Morris and other political commentators advanced the idea that polls showing Obama winning the 2012 election were the result of a conspiracy among polling firms. Jesse Watters, an interviewer and producer at Fox News, said that when numbers from the White House showed high sign-ups for health insurance under Obamacare, the administration was “straight-up lying.”
Experts who study conspiracy theories are uncertain as to why so many national figures are now openly advancing suspicions of sinister plots. “There are certainly people who will take things further than they honestly believe,’’ says Dr. Michael Wood, a lecturer at Britain’s University of Winchester who teaches the psychology of conspiracy theories. “But it is also quite possible that these ideas about conspiracy theories have taken hold in top levels of politics. It would be strange if politicians were completely immune to this.”
Often, when prominent individuals suggest that their political opponents are engaged in nefarious activities, they hedge by saying they are merely attempting to raise questions that should be considered—a way, experts say, of starting conspiracy theories. “One of the most common ways of introducing a conspiracy theory is to ‘just ask questions’ about an official account,’’ says Karen Douglas, co-editor of the British Journal of Social Psychology and a senior academic who has researched conspiracy theories at Britain’s University of Kent. “It’s quite a powerful rhetorical tool because it doesn’t require any content, just the introduction of doubt about the official story.”
But accusing political opponents of serious wrongdoing based on unsubstantiated nonsense plays havoc with social discourse. When each side attacks the other based on wild theories—calling them terrorists, anti-American, murderers, racists and the like—the tribal divisions cripple basic governance.
“The reason we should worry about conspiracy theories and misinformation is that they distort the debate that is crucial to democracy,’’ says Brendan Nyhan, an assistant professor in Dartmouth’s government department who has conducted research on conspiracy theories. “They divert attention from the real issue and issues of concern that public officials should be debating.”
That is what has happened with the issue known as Common Core standards in public education. They were developed by the National Governors Association, working with an organization of state school superintendents, with the intent of advancing educational standards and identifying the math and literacy skills that every student at each grade level should have. The standards are now being implemented in 44 states.
There are strong reasons to support or oppose Common Core, and whether it is the right way to improve the nation’s school system is open for debate by well-meaning participants. Legitimate questions exist about whether the standards have been appropriately tested or whether teachers should be judged based on the performance of their students on Common Core exams. Unfortunately, that discussion has been derailed by conspiracy theories about the standards, built on falsehoods, misunderstandings and beliefs in ominous, secret plots.
“It is communism,” Glenn Beck, a prominent conservative commentator, said on a television program last year when speaking about Common Core. “We are dealing with evil. And there comes a time where you have to just say what it is, and it’s evil.’’
Again, those types of accusations have found their way into the political process, along with false allegations that the standards were assembled by the Obama administration, a fiction that has led opponents to deem them “Obamacore.” According to a just-released report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, the conspiracy theories flowed in April at a hearing before Alabama’s Senate Education Committee about legislation to allow school districts to reject Common Core. “We don’t want our children to be taught to be anti-Christian, anti-Catholic and anti-American,” the report quotes Terry Bratton, a Tea Party activist, as saying. “We don’t want our children to lose their innocence, beginning in preschool or kindergarten, told that homosexuality is OK and should be experienced at an early age and that same-sex marriages are OK.”
Common Core teaches none of those things. In fact, it pretty much teaches nothing—there is no curriculum, no imposed method of learning, no books that must be studied. Indeed, the only materials every student is expected to read in Common Core are the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence and Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.
Common Core is about skills, not substance. For example, a reading standard for fourth grade says students should be able to “determine the main idea of a text and explain how it is supported by key details.” While the standards do include a list of books as examples of what students might read to help them sharpen these abilities, none of them are required. A teacher or local school district can choose all, some or none of those suggestions and still be part of Common Core.
So is Common Core a worthwhile nationwide undertaking? America might never know. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, about half of the more than 200 bills about Common Core filed by legislators around the country would slow or stop the adoption of its standards.
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