‘Waves of Anger and Fear’ fuel conspiracy theories
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,
The unmentionable odour of death
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 email@example.com.