‘Waves of Anger and Fear’ fuel con­spir­acy the­o­ries

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Gene Lyons

This just in: There’s no wiz­ard be­hind the cur­tain, and no­body’s ac­tu­ally in charge. There’s no shad­owy ca­bal of bil­lion­aires schem­ing to bring about one-world gov­ern­ment. To be­gin with, no­body clever enough to ac­cu­mu­late that much money be­lieves that such a thing is A) re­motely pos­si­ble, or B) even de­sir­able.

If the world seems scary and con­fus­ing, that’s be­cause it’s scarier and more con­fus­ing than usual of late, although nowhere near as fright­en­ing as it was to Grandpa. Here’s the open­ing stanza of W.H. Au­den’s great poem, “Septem­ber 1, 1939”: I sit in one of the dives On Fifty-sec­ond Street Un­cer­tain and afraid

As the clever hopes ex­pire Of a low dis­hon­est decade: Waves of anger and fear Cir­cu­late over the bright And dark­ened lands of the earth,

Ob­sess­ing lives;

The un­men­tion­able odour of death

Of­fends night.

Au­den wrote to com­mem­o­rate that ter­ri­ble day Hitler and Stalin in­vaded Poland, trig­ger­ing World War II, the most cat­a­clysmic strug­gle in hu­man his­tory. Some 70 to 85 mil­lion peo­ple, mil­i­tary and civil­ian, died be­fore it was over.

(The Soviet Union lost an es­ti­mated 24 mil­lion cit­i­zens. So if Rus­sian lead­er­ship our the pri­vate

Septem­ber seems un­duly para­noid and de­fen­sive, it’s worth re­mem­ber­ing that they do have their rea­sons.)

That said, the COVID pan­demic’s “un­men­tion­able odour of death” ap­pears to have driven many Amer­i­cans to em­brace pre­pos­ter­ous con­spir­acy the­o­ries that pro­vide sim­ple sto­ry­book ex­pla­na­tions for oth­er­wise in­com­pre­hen­si­ble events.

Amid the dev­as­tat­ing wild­fires in Ore­gon last week, for ex­am­ple, the FBI needed to de­bunk ru­mors that the dis­as­ter was caused by left­wing ar­son­ists. The agency’s Port­land of­fice posted a state­ment on Twit­ter stat­ing that “the FBI has in­ves­ti­gated sev­eral such re­ports and found them to be un­true.”

Find­ing their own op­er­a­tions ham­pered by armed crack­pots ea­ger to hunt down imag­i­nary ter­ror­ists, one ru­ral Ore­gon sher­iff’s depart­ment posted a Face­book no­tice: “Ru­mors spread just like wild­fire and now our 9-1-1 dis­patch­ers and pro­fes­sional staff are be­ing over­run with re­quests for in­for­ma­tion and in­quiries on an UN­TRUE ru­mor that 6 An­tifa mem­bers have been ar­rested for set­ting fires in DOU­GLAS COUNTY, ORE­GON.

THIS IS NOT TRUE! Un­for­tu­nately, peo­ple are spread­ing this ru­mor and it is caus­ing prob­lems.”

Would-be vig­i­lantes also got ex­cited about ra­dio trans­mis­sions about the BLM set­ting back­fires, un­aware that the ini­tials sig­ni­fied the Bureau of Land Man­age­ment, not Black Lives Mat­ter.

New York Times colum­nist Ni­cholas Kristof, back home in Yamhill, Ore­gon, see­ing af­ter his mother, ex­pressed his frus­tra­tion with Boss Trump, who “rushed to send in un­wanted fed­eral agents to deal with protests and trash fires in down­town Port­land, but ... seems in­dif­fer­ent when mil­lions of acres and thou­sands of homes burn across the West.”

Ore­go­ni­ans are not alone. Else­where, re­porters have doc­u­mented a wave of barely sub­dued hys­te­ria sweep­ing the na­tion re­gard­ing bus­loads of an­tifa op­er­a­tives ru­mored to be tar­get­ing towns from Idaho to New Jersey — in­va­sions that have proven to­tally imag­i­nary.

Trump and At­tor­ney Gen­eral Wil­liam Barr have even spo­ken of des­ig­nat­ing an­tifa a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion. Alas, writes Rut­gers Uni­ver­sity his­to­rian Mark Bray in The Wash­ing­ton Post: “Trump can­not des­ig­nate ‘AN­TIFA’ as a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion be­cause an­tifa is not an or­ga­ni­za­tion. Rather, it is a pol­i­tics of rev­o­lu­tion­ary op­po­si­tion to the far right ... You can­not sub­poena an idea or a move­ment.”

Mostly an aca­demic move­ment at that: grad­u­ate stu­dents and other uni­ver­sityaf­fil­i­ated types blow­ing off steam. If an­tifa’s a real threat, who are its lead­ers? Where’s its head­quar­ters? Who’s pay­ing those phan­tom ar­son­ists?

The ques­tions an­swer them­selves: no­body and nowhere.

Then there’s QAnon, the metas­ta­siz­ing con­spir­acy the­ory that’s grown into a full-blown cult. Ini­ti­ates be­lieve that be­neath his blus­ter­ing ex­te­rior, Trump’s ac­tu­ally a sort of ele­phan­tine Bat­man, se­cretly bat­tling a “deep state” ca­bal of Satan­wor­ship­ping pe­dophiles led by Hil­lary Clin­ton and the ac­tor Tom Hanks, along with Oprah Win­frey, Bill Gates and a num­ber of other Hol­ly­wood fig­ures. Believ­ers have pre­dicted Clin­ton’s im­pend­ing ar­rest more of­ten than my brother Tommy has fore­casted the Mets win­ning the World Se­ries.

Which did hap­pen once 34 years ago.

Hil­lary’s ar­rest? Oh, grow up.

Arkansas Times colum­nist Gene Lyons is a Na­tional Mag­a­zine Award win­ner and co-author of “The Hunt­ing of the Pres­i­dent” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at eu­gene­lyons2@ya­hoo.com.

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