Friday, August 14, 2009

Of Black Helicopters and Grandmas

The current rhetoric about “death panels” that’s coming from not only loudmouths at town halls but from talking heads on television and established political figures reminds me a lot of the sort of “black helicopter” paranoia that is the stuff of conspiracy theories.

I did my doctoral research on conspiracy theories. Oddly enough, it was that experience that began my interest in looking at the rhetoric of conflict resolution and peace. Why? Because I learned that the usual way of looking at conspiracy theories, being for ‘em or again ‘em, wasn’t terribly useful. I came to the conclusion that a more nuanced view that looked at *why* they gained popularity in certain circles, what rhetorical purpose they served, and what light this shed on the democratic process.

The upshot was my view that conspiracy theories are often a vehicle through which subtle and complex grievances and anxieties are expressed, often by groups that perceive themselves to not have a voice in the public sphere. Stories of conspiracy simplified the issue, making it easier to communicate as well as more dramatic (hence, garnering more attention).

So, for example, I found it unhelpful to get into a debate about whether or not the CIA actually introduced crack cocaine into inner cities as a way of killing off African Americans, and more helpful to look at how and why this story developed. No, I don’t believe that government operatives parachuted into South Central L.A. with crack pipes and rocks of cocaine.

But what emerged was that there *were* real and valid concerns about the government and media’s neglect of the issue of drugs in the inner city and the way the justice system was perverted (through sentencing laws that made selling crack a far more serious crime than selling powder cocaine) to effectively inter black men in prison.

Was this an evil conspiracy hatched up in some secret room in the White House? No. But there was a reality to the grievances about the way the government was treating the issue. The result was a more dramatic narrative that reduced these often subtle and varied points through the crucible of narrative into a much more sensationalist and dramatic conspiracy theory (that did, in fact, force these concerns onto the national stage, if only briefly). Better to understand this than to simply write it all off as nonsense.

What I see going on today with the “Town Hells” going on around the country where people are shouting about “death camps” and “pulling the plug on grandma.”

Are these charges true? Of course not. Not even the most anti-Obama pundit, if she or he knows the proposed legislation at all, believes it. It’s paranoid and delusional and sensationalistic.

But does that make it all bad?

As I say above, these sorts of conspiracy theories often serve as vehicles for legitimate concern. Any major change in public policy—particularly when it involves something as intimate and visceral as one’s health—is going to be a cause of anxiety. There are reasonable concerns about how any change might affect our collective and individual well-being.

Now, putting my cards on the table, I think it’s fairly obvious that any variation of the plans now being considered would dramatically increase access to quality healthcare for just about everyone by expanding coverage and reducing costs. But one can believe that wholeheartedly and still acknowledge reasons for skepticism and even fear on the part of some who don’t see this. (For now, I’m tabling the issue of those who cynically oppose this legislation base on sheer economic self-interest and not out of sincere concern about personal health).

So, are these “Town Hells” activists who claim Obama is going to institute “Carousel” (a little Logan’s Run reference, for you sci fi fans) actually a legitimate way of giving public voice to rational-but-difficult-to-articulate concerns?

To answer that question, I return to what I found in my dissertation studies. Not all conspiracy theories are equal. Context counts. For example, the anti-government conspiracy theories of the militia movement (most infamously articulated in the racist, anti-semitic novel The Turner Diaries and acted upon by Timothy McVeigh) don’t fall into the same category as the stories about the CIA and crack cocaine.

Why not? Because these particular conspiracy narratives aimed at silencing others rather than simply voicing “outsider” points of view. They discouraged discussion because they not only made claims that marginal political beliefs should be heard, but said that other beliefs (in fact *all* other beliefs) were invalid and should be silenced (often through physical violence).

And that’s what I see increasingly in these town hall meetings. Even if we ignore the ample evidence that these protests are fomented by groups with financial, political, and ideological skin in the game who want to derail healthcare reform for reasons that have nothing to do with sincere concern about its affects on the average American, the actions and words of those at these town halls are disturbingly like the militia movement conspiracy narratives of the 1980s and 90s.

Shouting down people, hanging them in effigy, making comparisons to Nazis and Hitler—these have the effect of chilling debate. They don’t seek to simply articulate a point of view—they seek to silence others.

And let’s acknowledge that the point of view being articulated is hardly an “outsider” point of view. In fact, it’s a point of view well-established in the halls of power of political and corporate America masquerading as a grassroots uprising against the “establishment.”

That doesn’t mean I don’t have some sympathy for those who’ve been led to believe that they (or their grandma’s) health is going to be determined by a government panel. If I believed that, I would be shouting about it too. And I can get pissed off about how these folks are allowing themselves to be duped and are too lazy or ignorant to actually look at the facts, but simply writing these folks off as stupid people believing crazy shit doesn’t do much good.

But neither can I champion what’s going on with these conspiracy theories about death panels as some sort of creative way of broadening the public debate and giving voice to the disenfranchised. The “deathers” movement is far too close to the militia movement in its intolerance for other points of view, willingness to trade in fantasies of violence and murder, and barely-concealed racism to be an example of the ways conspiracy theories can productively undermine hegemonic narratives of power, even when they may be based on factually dubious claims.

On the contrary, it’s an example of how forces with power use fear to pit some people who feel marginalized and powerless (as I’m sure many “town hell-ers” feel) against other people who feel marginalized and powerless (those who are financially and physically vulnerable because of their lack of comprehensive healthcare).

My hope is that this paranoia will be revealed for what it is before we have a second coming of Timothy McVeigh who takes these fantasies of government conspiracy literally and acts on them.


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