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Your Opinion: Be wary of conspiracy theories

Your Opinion: Be wary of conspiracy theories

January 7th, 2012 by Tony Smith, Jefferson City in News

Dear Editor:

Many wild conspiracy theories fly around the Internet all the time, sometimes having profound effects.

For example, in the 2004 presidential election a family friend (highly intelligent and successful person) asked if I had heard that John Kerry deliberately allowed himself to be wounded by shrapnel while commanding Swift boats in Vietnam knowing it would help him run for the presidency 40 years later. I laughed at the implausibility, but the friend was deadly serious. He said it showed Kerry's low moral character. It was a story never verified.

This friend is now telling many people of a new scandal. A friend of his called a national talk radio show to reveal a secret government meeting (he allegedly attended) that discussed death panels. It can't be confirmed because it was secret and off the record. Of course, we should believe this because the caller said so. Round and round we go again, where it stops nobody knows.

Historian Richard Hofstadter called this "the paranoid style of politics" in a Harper's magazine essay in November 1964 a term he borrowed from psychiatry. He did not know what else to call it. "American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years, we have seen angry minds at work ...," he wrote. He saw a pattern in people who only saw life in tones of black or white. He noted some interesting historical cases. One was the alleged conspiracy of the Illuminata whose story began in the 18th century. Another conspiracy strain concerned the Masons beginning in the 17th century. These delicious conspiracies were in Dan Browns widely popular books including "The Da Vinci Code."

Hofstadter concluded his discussion with McCarthyism and the John Birch society. Today we see these as staples of Glenn Beck conspiracies and sprinkled throughout Fox and talk radio. Such conspiracies have seduced a segment of Conservatism that is driving the Republican Party and our country off a cliff.

I do not find Loony Tune conspiracy stories amusing or even entertaining except in novels. Call me a spoil sport but if you believe these things as fact that is scary. Too often seemingly intelligent people accept fiction as fact. Education is meant to teach us critical thinking. If something sounds too outrageous to be true, it probably is. Regardless of your politics, get some facts to support your beliefs. Learn what a credible source is.