Conspiriocracy: government by conspiracy theory
The United States is no longer a nation governed by laws. Nor is it governed by men, nor by faith, nor by reason. (If it ever was the latter…)
Today, we’re governed by conspiracy theories.
One of the threads of history that’s always fascinated me is how communities come to be dominated by fear – from the Salem witch trials, to the anti-labor/anti-immigrant hysteria of Haymarket Square, to the HUAC hearings and Cold War nuclear brinksmanship, to the Satanic ritual abuse panic of the 80s. Growing up at the tail end of the Cold War, it was hard to imagine a world in which such paranoid, existential fear could dominate the thoughts and decisions of leaders.
As I got older, I saw bits and pieces of that kind of hysteria around. There were the endless Clinton conspiracies, homegrown militias, and terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Murrah building in Oklahoma City. But even after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when people traded in the currency of fear and paranoia, there was pushback. There were (some) consequences to being too far down the path of conspiracy theories.
Yesterday, 38 US Senators – all Republicans – blocked the approval of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a treaty calling for fair(er) treatment of disabled people. Senior Republicans like former Majority Leader Bob Dole, outgoing Senator Richard Lugar, and John McCain pleaded with their colleagues to approve the treaty, which is modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act. But only 7* Republicans voted to ratify. (Despite the advocacy of Lugar, Indiana’s junior Senator, Dan Coats, voted against ratification.)
The CRPD was, and is, supported by groups such as the VFW, the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, and the Wounded Warrior Project. Groups that advocate for people with disabilities, like the American Association of People with Disabilities, the American Council of the Blind, and the National Council on Disability, all supported the treaty.
Opposing the treaty are noted bestiality theorist Rick Santorum, Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), and the Heritage Foundation. The Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank, in a column entitled “Santorum’s new cause: opposing the disabled,” put it this way:
Their concerns… came from the dark world of U.N. conspiracy theories. The opponents argue that the treaty, like most everything the United Nations does, undermines American sovereignty — in this case via a plot to keep Americans from home-schooling their children and making other decisions about their well-being.
Santorum has been desperate to find a new angle since he washed out of the GOP Primary reality show, and this is one of the straws he’s grasped. Santorum claims that the treaty would give “the Federal government, acting under U.N. directions” the power to decide what the best course of treatment would be, and that it would spell the end for homeschooling.
I know that Rick Santorum is not an authoritative source on US history, but when has the US government ever acted “under U.N. directions?” We don’t even pay our membership dues. So in terms of coercion, the UN isn’t even on par with my local YMCA.
Senator Lee is worried that if people with disabilities have to be treated equally under the law, that means they can get reproductive health care – even abortions. In other words, he’s worried that they’ll be treated equally under the law.
The Heritage Foundation has argued against the treaty, saying that it “yields authority to some unaccountable board of experts across the Atlantic.” That’s right. An international committee that is tasked to share ideas and write occasional reports – reports that include “suggestions,” even! – is apparently a threat to our fragile sovereignty.
Oh, and also, other countries sometimes violate the terms of other treaties that they sign. So we should never sign any treaties. (I’m not even being snarky about this one. This argument gets repeated over and over again on the Heritage websites.)
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2006, after being negotiated (in part) by the Bush administration. Since then, 155 countries have signed on (including the US), and 126 of those have ratified it. The CRPD has been delayed for almost 3 years while the Executive branch submitted the treaty to an intense inter-agency review. And despite all that time, these are the best arguments that conservatives have managed to make against it.
In related news, retiring Republican Congressman Dan Burton (IN-6) appeared on Fox News last weekend to promote his last round of hearings – a free-for-all of anti-science, anti-vaccine nonsense. “Burton is a firm believer in the myth that vaccines cause autism, and he arrogantly holds the position that he knows the truth better than the thousands of scientists who have spent much of the past decade doing real science that proves him wrong,” writes Steven Salzberg at Forbes.
As Phil Plait described it:
In the latest hearing, Burton sounds like a crackpot conspiracy theorist, to be honest, saying he knows—better than thousands of scientists who have spent their careers investigating these topics—that thimerosal causes neurological disorders (including autism). He goes on for some time about mercury (as does Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) starting at 21:44 in the video), making it clear he doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about. For example, very few vaccines still use mercury, and the ones that do use it in tiny amounts and in a form that does not accumulate in the body.
Burton has a long history of engaging in this particular conspiracy theory, and was one of the top promoters of the discredited and disgraced autism quack Andrew Wakefield. Burton also has a long and storied history in embracing just about every imaginable conspiracy theory, but this one is especially outrageous. It directly puts children’s lives at risk, unlike his obsession with the Clintons murdering Vince Foster.
I know that this kind of hysteria is nothing new, but what I find hard to accept is how broad-ranging and unfocused it is. There’s a new conspiracy every week. And as we bounce from hysteria to hysteria – from fluoridation to light bulbs, to Vince Foster and Fast and Furious, to Death Panels and FEMA camps, to the Muslim Brotherhood and race-selective abortions, from the Cordoba community center to Agenda 21 – we can’t seem to face up to the real, but very solvable problems confronting us.
We’re still facing stubbornly high unemployment and widespread underemployment in the wake of the Great Recession. We’re still facing a foreclosure crisis from the housing bubble that helped create that recession. We’re standing by while our infrastructure crumbles: bridges, roads, schools, sewers, and electric grids alike. The US is falling farther behind in broadband connections in terms of people reached, in terms of cost, and in terms of speed. And most crucially, we’re doing nothing to address global climate change.
I was hoping – and still am – that Hurricane Sandy might be a turning point for us. The storm emphasized that we’re still vulnerable to big problems, problems that we can’t fix as individuals or churches or Facebook pages or Super PACs. And while the response was far from perfect, it showed that we can still react and solve problems. We’ve seen it on a small scale, like here in the Midwest after this spring’s tornadoes. But seeing it on a massive scale, in our biggest cities and with our biggest political personalities working side-by-side on the problem, should really mean something.
But if we’d rather grandstand about conspiracy theories than roll up our sleeves and get to work, don’t worry – I know just who to blame.
Update: Steve Kornacki, writing for Slate, has a piece on the Senators who voted for the Americans with Disabilities Act, but who voted against the CRPD.
This week’s Senate roll call was a mirror image of the ADA, at least on the Republican side. This time, there were 38 GOP no votes and only seven for it. The no’s included six senators who actually voted for the ADA 22 years ago:
Charles Grassley (Iowa)
Dan Coats (Indiana)
Thad Cochran (Mississippi)
Orrin Hatch (Utah)
Mitch McConnell (Kentucky)
Richard Shelby (Alabama)
(Shelby, who switched parties in 1994, was a Democrat when he cast his yes vote on the ADA.)
Granted, the two votes aren’t entirely analogous. The arguments against the treaty mainly revolved the U.N.-phobia that’s common on the far right, with warnings about fading sovereignty and encroaching world government.
But if anything, this underscores how far out of the mainstream the GOP has moved over the last 20 years. While the ADA has proven to be a rousing success, it was at least possible for conservatives in 1990 to raise non-paranoid concerns about it, mainly relating to the burdens it would place on businesses and the potential for a lawsuit bonanza. In fact, these types of concerns were raised as the law was debated, and some changes were made in response to them – which explains why most of the conservative senators of 1990 were ultimately willing to go along with the law.
By contrast, the U.N. treaty raises none of the concerns about business and lawsuits that the ADA did; it simply seeks to hold up existing U.S. law as a model for the world.
*Correction: Only 7 Republicans voted for ratification. I initially wrote that 8 had supported the treaty.