On The New York Times' "Campaign Stops" page, James Kirchick, author of several conversation-changing pieces on the Ron Paul newsletters, shifts his attention from their racist and antigay content to the candidate himself and his career-long cultivation of support from conspiracy theorists. For example, Paul has long associated with the John Birch Society, regularly appears on a Texas radio show hosted by Alex Jones, and once responded to the question, "Why won't you come out about the truth about 9/11?" by replying, "Because I can't handle the controversy; I have the IMF, the Federal Reserve to deal with, the IRS to deal with--no, because I just have more, too many, things on my plate." As it happens, these and other conspiracy theories with which Paul is associated are virtually all of the variety for which I haven't even a tiny bit of patience.
For that reason, I have no intention of defending the House member from Texas for his pandering or his most embarrassing beliefs (it is difficult to tell in which categories some of his statements belong). There are positive and negative aspects to his candidacy. This part is a huge negative.
But Rep. Paul's critics are on questionable ground when they write as if he alone among Republican Party members fails to confront--or even leverages--conspiracies in which his supporters believe, or that he is unique in consorting with conspiracy theorists. Alex Jones broadcasts some indefensible nonsense, from what little I've heard of his show. I've insufficient basis to compare it to other broadcasters I've listened to much more frequently, but I can say this: if Glenn Beck's show on Fox News was less nutty than the Alex Jones Show, as it may well have been, it nevertheless was rife with nutty conspiracy theories--and lots of prominent conservatives were happy to appear on it. Sarah Palin, for one. Is that where she told us to fret about death panels? How many prominent conservatives slyly said that they hadn't personally examined President Obama's birth certificate, and couldn't know for sure if he was born in the United States? How many conservative talk-radio hosts sold commemorative coins at a substantial markup because they're supposedly the last gold the government would confiscate?
How many election cycles has the conservative movement used the canard that reinstating the Fairness Doctrine was agenda item one for Democrats if they regained control of the government? How many Sean Hannity radio listeners think that Obama is a secret Muslim? Haven't Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and Herman Cain all played on conspiratorial fears that we're on the verge of sharia being implemented right here in America?
National Review employs as a national-security journalist a man who alleges that Obama is allied with our Islamist enemies in a "Grand Jihad" against America, and Gingrich dissents from that theory only because he believes the Dinesh D'Souza thesis that it is actually Kenyan anticolonialism that guides Obama's behavior. In some parts of the GOP, the theory of evolution and all climate science are also regarded as elaborate conspiracies. And don't get me started on Clinton-era conspiracy theories. The notion that this pathology is somehow unique to Paul or the libertarian wing of the Republican Party is flat-out indefensible.
Conspiracy theories are not, in fact, created equal. The most pernicious are grounded in vilifying a vulnerable minority group. Victims of genocide like Tutsis and Jews. Ethnic minorities during wartime, like Japanese-Americans during World War II (that Muslim Americans have escaped a similar fate during the war on terrorism is no thanks to right-wing sharia-phobes). Here Paul has a mixed record. He associates with people--the authors of his newsletters, for example--who were happy to engage in ethnically tinged conspiracy theories. At the same time, he has been a voice of reason when it comes to speaking out for the rights of Muslim Americans.
Make of that mixed record what you will.
There are, too, evil conspiracy theorists, such as Timothy McVeigh, for whom no condemnation is too strong, but I'm inclined to think that such conspiracy theories are more the exception than the rule in the United States. Far more common is an American who believes that there's more to the assassination of JFK than we know. Or that the federal government is covertly listening in on our phone calls and reading our e-mail via a secret National Security Agency program known to the nation's biggest telecommunications companies and its newspaper of record but kept secret from the public.
See, that last example sounds like a conspiracy theory. But it happened. Although I share the frustration and disdain for the antigovernment conspiracy theories mentioned so far in this piece, I object as strenuously to the notion that conspiracy theories are objectionable because we ought to trust in the benevolence of our leaders and the basic goodness of our government.