BOB GARFIELD From WNYC in New York this is On The Media. Brooke Gladstone is off this week, I'm Bob Garfield.
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BOB GARFIELD On Wednesday the nation's most restrictive abortion ban was signed into law in Alabama making it a crime punishable by up to 99 years in prison to perform an abortion there are. No exceptions for rape or for incest.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT The Alabama bill sponsor says it was designed to be contested and ultimately make its way to the now conservative leaning Supreme Court.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT We can't get a heartbeat bill until we get Roe v. Wade revisited and turned over. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Alabama's law was a defiant attempt to bait the Supreme Court into reconsidering what has for 46 years been considered settled law. But it is far, far, far from the only one passed this year–or even this week.
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MALE CORRESPONDENT The Missouri Senate passing one of the most restrictive abortion bills.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT The governor of Mississippi has signed into law, a bill that would prohibit abortions after six weeks.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT Bill was signed into law in Arkansas that bans most abortions.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT The Ohio governor is signing what critics condemn as the most restrictive abortion law in the country.
MALE CORRESPONDENT In Georgia today joined a growing number of states that have made it illegal to have an abortion once a heartbeat is detected in the womb. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD By ignoring settled law the so-called heartbeat bills are destined to be quickly challenged in the courts. This is not legislative carelessness. Supporters are betting that the new conservative high court majority, fashioned by Donald Trump for the express purpose of overturning Roe, will seize on the opportunity. It's a gamble that defies not only the law of the land but 46 years of anti abortion strategy, which typically created obstacles to cut off access to abortions. Instead, the so-called heartbeat bills are largely the brainchild of one woman, Janet Porter. A longtime culture warrior who has suddenly emerged from the fringes to dominate the political debate. Porter was recently profiled by The Guardian's health reporter Jessica Glenza who joins me now. Jessica welcome to OTM.
JESSICA GLENZA Thank you so much for having me, It's my pleasure to be here.
BOB GARFIELD Now if we were to judge people by the company they keep, Porter has been allied with Iowa Congressman Steve King, former Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann–both of these politicians notorious bigots. Disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker. What is her reputation in the Republican Party and among conservatives in general.
JESSICA GLENZA Well I would just point out that she was also, at one point, the spokeswoman for disgraced former U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore as well. Among Republicans she's seen as very extreme and fringe. She's very divisive within Ohio, which is where she was doing most of her advocacy for a long time, to the point that she caused sort of a rift between herself and other anti-abortion groups. And when the bill that she advocated for for a decade finally passed, she was not invited to the bill signing. So she moved from this establishment position when she first began advocacy to really far on the right to the point that it's sort of outside of the mainstream of most of the Republican Party but still an important part of the base that is voting for Republicans.
BOB GARFIELD Now I want to ask you more about Porter as a personality and political operative but I think this would probably be a good opportunity to recall what the legal standards are today through Roe v. Wade and the very question of when abortions can be banned.
JESSICA GLENZA Roe v. Wade right now provides women the constitutional right to obtain an abortion up to the point of what's called viability or the point when a fetus can survive outside the womb, which is generally understood to be about 24 weeks. A full term pregnancy is 40 weeks. And the hope from anti-abortion activists like Janet Porter is that the fetal heartbeat bill is a way for the U.S. Supreme Court to really change the standard by which women are given the right to have an abortion today.
BOB GARFIELD And just to be clear what they're saying is a heartbeat, you know, isn't the heartbeat that you and I have.
JESSICA GLENZA That's correct. Although it's called a fetal heartbeat bill, a pregnancy is not called a fetus until about 10 weeks so it's actually an embryo. And it's called fetal cardiac activity. It's sort of a mash up of medical terms. So you have an embryo whose heart is in the process of forming but the chambers of the heart are not fully formed yet and there's no circulatory system yet. So the heart is not functioning as an organ that pumps blood through the system. It's sort of a throbbing group of microscopic tissues in a very, very tiny group of cells that's just starting to look like a gummy bear with a tail.
BOB GARFIELD And there is no brain activity as we know it.
JESSICA GLENZA That's accurate. So a lot of the time you'll hear anti-abortion campaigners say things like a heartbeat means life. But it's not the only indication that doctors use so it's a bit of a mix up of medical standards, a lot like the term late term abortion. Well, a doctor would refer to something late term as post 40 weeks into a pregnancy. But late term abortion is a sort of adopting that medical term and redefining it to elicit emotions to try and pass this legislation through.
BOB GARFIELD All right. Back to Porter herself, there's also the question of her tactics. She likes her stunts, does she not?
JESSICA GLENZA She very much does like stunts and I would say the one that sticks with me is when they were able to arrange so-called testimony from a fetus in utero via a sonogram.
BOB GARFIELD This was arranged with the help of the aforementioned Steve King.
STEVE KING And the theme of this bill is If a heartbeat is detected, the baby has protected. [END CLIP]
JESSICA GLENZA So they had this ultrasound of a pregnant woman's womb.
STEVE KING And there that little guy is. [END CLIP]
JESSICA GLENZA Inside of a congressional hearing.
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BOB GARFIELD Now as we discussed earlier, Porter has been kind of hidden in plain view for quite a while. There's a 1998 piece in The New York Times about her with the headline The Architect of the Gay Conversion Campaign. And in that piece a source describes Porter as being an issue entrepreneur, someone who tries to pick the hot new issues. What apart from conversion therapy, which by the way is now outlawed in a number of states, what were her issues?
JESSICA GLENZA Some of her issues were developing support groups for so-called ex-gays, people who had left what Christian nationalists would describe as the homosexual lifestyle. At that time it was popular for people on the right and Christian nationalists to describe a homosexual agenda that was sweeping the country when people were fighting for marriage. So she was one of the architects of these kind of campaigns where people would call news media and they would sort of act as a witness to news media about well, homosexuality is a choice.
BOB GARFIELD She was also a birther, believing that Barack Obama was a muslim Kenyan. This is a woman who was fired by a Christian radio network and for what?
JESSICA GLENZA For becoming too dominionist and that's the idea that the laws of the United States should more closely mimic the laws of the Bible and that the Bible and God should be a central feature of the laws of the United States.
JANET PORTER I'm asking God swing the doors open for influence. I am praying for the Kingdom of God more influence than Oprah Winfrey than the network television anchors. [END CLIP]
JESSICA GLENZA And so that's where you see a lot of bills coming forward to put 'In God We Trust' plaques in courtrooms. And essentially, I think of it as a form of Christian supremacy in that it's really saying that other religions will be tolerated but this religion is, sort of, above the others and should be a part of the laws of the United States.
BOB GARFIELD I want to play a piece of tape for you. It is Porter speaking to televangelist Jim Bakker.
JANET PORTER Ohio Right to Life called for Governor Kasich it to veto the nation's most protective pro-life bill. And yes John Kasich heartlessly vetoed that bill.
JIM BAKKER What excuse did he give?
JANET PORTER Oh well, you know the court's not ready. We better not try because we might fail. That's the absolutely absurd I mean. Hello we won the election. People realize Donald Trump has promised and he is already appointing pro-life judges to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD She shocked shocked that Republicans would so sacrifice principle to judicial reality as to compromise their beliefs. But, Porter believes life begins at conception. Her legislation defines life as beginning with this so-called fetal heartbeat which is six weeks later into gestation. Now as we've said that standard has nothing to do with human physiology, but why would a true believer who thinks abortion is murder legislate a six week exemption. Based on her beliefs, wouldn't that be murder too? Why the compromise? What's her strategy?
JESSICA GLENZA Well at six weeks, most women don't know they're pregnant. And so she's, through this strategy, able to outlaw about 90 percent of abortions and she wouldn't tell me exactly what her next piece of legislation was going to be. I asked, but she later said to me well life begins at conception and we'll work on that later. I think her idea is that let's start by outlawing the vast, vast majority of abortions and then from there, once we have favorable court precedent, then we can move to life begins at conception. So yes, her statements about the reality of the courts and other Republicans not supporting this versus her own strategy do conflict.
BOB GARFIELD In any event, we now see all of these bills across the country. I mean it is a deluge. Obviously the composition of the court has changed. Is this flood of abortion legislation directly resulting from that or is it something larger?
JESSICA GLENZA I think of it as two things. First, the quantity of anti-abortion legislation has not necessarily changed very much. It's the type of anti-abortion legislation and has moved from the gradual and incremental approach of shutting down clinics and limiting women's access to abortion to these outright bans, which fly in the face of Roe and are sort of challenging the courts to overturn Roe v. Wade. And I think there is a lot of focus on the U.S. Supreme Court right now because of Brett Kavanaugh who is Catholic and who has some, but very few, legal decisions which indicate that he would most likely move to restrict Roe v. Wade. But I think the other thing that's really important about this is the number of federal court judges that the Trump administration has been able to successfully confirm–very socially conservative federal court judges. The reason that's important is because it could set up a situation where you have a district court or an appellate court who rules that these laws are legal. That is a situation where they're hoping maybe we can force the U.S. Supreme Court to take it up this way so it's not just Brett Kavanaugh. But I think when you look at the courts, and this is something that Christian nationalist and social conservatives have focused on for a long time, the successes are big. They have managed to really confirm a large number of very important positions.
BOB GARFIELD Courts and state legislatures. But there's no evidence that the American public has changed its views about abortion. Is there?
JESSICA GLENZA So although we're talking about this and these new abortion bans as if there's this tidal wave of support from voters that's not accurate. What has changed is the kind of debate that's been allowed into the mainstream, the kind of candidates that are being elected in state legislatures because of gerrymandering. And so you're seeing this, sort of, infrastructure on the right that was built in order to further this kind of legislation and it's successfully done that. You have legislatures, courts, political organization through things like churches and through grassroots efforts like Janet Porter's that have managed to bring this kind of legislation to fruition but it's not a change in public opinion.
BOB GARFIELD The court has flip flopped repeatedly over the years on some issues with nary consideration to precedent. It's not unthinkable that abortion would follow the same pattern is it?
JESSICA GLENZA You will hear people like Janet Porter and Roy Moore and other people really on the fringes of the anti-abortion debate reference the Dred Scott decision all the time which was the decision which, more or less, provided legal grounds for slavery. And so you know maybe Roe v. Wade, which they view as wrong as Dred Scott, will be overturned one day. And maybe abortion will be like slavery. This is a comparison that campaigners make on a somewhat regular basis. And in fact, one of the things that Christian nationalists said to me that made me jump out of my skin when I was interviewing them was, maybe in the future there will be a scenario in which the United States has some states which allow abortion and some states which don't--which campaigners refer to this as a culture of life or a culture of death, and maybe that will cause a civil war and who can say, that's up for your generation to decide.
BOB GARFIELD So in the course of all of this, Porter has gotten some attention and she's been entertained more than once by Mike Pence who is the vice president of the United States. Is she, in fact, the engine that is making all of this run. Are we giving her more credit than she deserves?
JESSICA GLENZA In some ways I think it's the reality that shifted around Janet Porter as opposed to Janet Porter finally gaining traction. It's like the entire infrastructure was set up in such a way that these extreme laws were more and more likely to come to fruition, and Janet Porter just happened to be there with the law ready to go.
BOB GARFIELD Jessica thank you very much.
JESSICA GLENZA Thank you so much for having me.
BOB GARFIELD Jessica Glenside covers health for The Guardian. Her profile of Janet Porter is called The Anti-gay Extremist Behind America's Fiercely Strict Abortion Bans.
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BOB GARFIELD Coming up, an immigrant hating, nationalist demagogue in the White House–but not the one you're thinking of. This is On The Media.
BOB GARFIELD This is On The Media, I'm Bob Garfield. On Monday at the White House, President Trump hosted Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
VIKTOR ORBAN And I would like to express that we are proud to stand together with United States on fighting against illegal migration, on terrorism and to protect the Christian communities all around the world.
PRES. DONALD J. TRUMP Viktor Orban has done a tremendous job in so many different ways. Highly respected. Respected all over Europe. Probably like me, a little bit controversial but that's OK. That's OK. You've done a good job and you've kept your country safe. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Respected all over Europe,I think maybe he meant reviled. For what Orban calls il-liberalism and others call anti-Semitism, nationalism, xenophobia, autocracy and repression. All this while employing a supposedly populist rhetorical style that is by now eerily familiar.
MALE CORRESPONDENT The forces of national sovereignty and globalization are pitted against one another as never before. On the one hand stand the Nationalists millions, on the other the global elite. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Paul Lendvai is author of Orban: Hungary’s Strongman from Oxford University Press. He says Orban's brand of ruthless populism has followed him from his early days attacking not foreigners but domestic communists.
PAUL LENDVAI In 1989, in one of the biggest rallies in Europe, Heroes' Square in Budapest before a 250,000 people, he appeared as a young man, 26 year old and he was presented the young generation and it was a very good, very tough, very short speech.
BOB GARFIELD So what happened in the intervening years to go from a prominent anti-communist to--on the path to being an authoritarian strongman?
PAUL LENDVAI He was one of the few politicians who learned from defeats. He lost elections in '94. He lost elections in 2002 and 2006, and he decided we have to win only once but then really big. And he managed to win a two thirds majority in 2010 by a very dark, very violent, I mean, in the words campaign. Exploiting the mistakes of the previous prime minister who admitted that he is spotty and he himself were lying to the public. That helped Orban to get the majority of the votes supporting a new beginning against a [inaudible] in a mischief and corruption.
BOB GARFIELD I want to ask you about George Soros. The flip flop has been extraordinary. He was once Orban's patron, now he's the devil.
PAUL LENDVAI George Soros was instrumental in helping the party of Orban to survive. When this party, by young people, in 1988 was founded, they got the copying machines paper, and later most of the leading personnel of this party got scholarships financed by the Open Society Foundation including Orban–who went to Pembroke College in Oxford. And then the right wing of the first post communist government attacked George Soros with anti-Semitic innuendos, this party, Fidesz, defend him. Everybody who is somebody in this party was helped by Soros. But apparently, the government and Orban personally decided that a campaign against foreign influence and primarily against the foundations and NGOs financed by George Soros could become an important tool to get public support. And by tremendous campaign costing millions and millions of dollars, they succeeded so that they're about 40 percent of the people in Hungary think that George Soros interferes in Hungary. So it is a unique case that someone who helped a group of people and the top man so much in the past became the embodiment of evil.
BOB GARFIELD Now Soros has become demonized throughout the world including the United States where just mentioning his name is a dog whistle to the far, anti-Semitic right. Did it begin with Orban? Did he create the notion of Soros as the Antichrist?
PAUL LENDVAI Certainly there were attacks against George Soros before which were connected with his activities as a hedge fund speculator. But the real onslaught started with the campaign in Hungary and by Orban. And it was taken over by all the right wing groups who were threatened by NGOs who were financing liberal outfeed, free press, free discussion and countries where he didn't play any role. People didn't even know his name. He was used from Slovenia and Romania to Slovakia whenever a right wing government or an authoritarian group was in danger they would say that the demonstrators were on the streets were financed by George Soros. So he became a scapegoat for people who had no idea who he is, what he does.
BOB GARFIELD So Viktor Orban, who was at the very center of this anti-Semitic rhetoric and who is something close to a dictator in Hungary, spent a day on Monday in the White House with President Trump.
PAUL LENDVAI Well, they are very similar. One difference is Trump made his fortune before he went into politics. Orban's family and his very close friends and stooges became the richest group in Hungarian history after he went into politics. And their rhetoric about foreigners, migrants, refugees, building up fences is very very similar for Trump. It's probably a minor event. But for Orban and for his party, it's in my view, a major political and communication victory–particularly because there will be elections all over Europe and also in Hungary between the 23rd and 26th of May. And this can help Orban to show that he's a man who is on good terms with Putin, with the Chinese, with Erdogan in Turkey. Now at last, as well deserved, overdue symbolic recognition by Donald Trump.
BOB GARFIELD You mentioned the European elections. Hungary may be the heart of Orban-ism but these forces are not unique to Hungary. There is Poland. There is Croatia. There is Slovakia. And even in Western Europe we are seeing steady growth of right wing parties in France, in Germany and even in Scandinavia. This is not an isolated phenomenon.
PAUL LENDVAI No, not at all. It is a counter-revolution, in some sense, against the opening, against this great success in European cooperation. It is a revival of nationalism, of ethnic nationalism combined with populism. And finally, the strongman of a small landlocked country with less than 10 million people and with a language which has no relatives in the world, somehow became a symbol of their revolt against European, internationalism, cosmopolitanism and a symbol of nationalism.
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BOB GARFIELD Paul, thank you so much.
PAUL LENDVAI Thank you. All the best.
BOB GARFIELD Paul Lendvai is author of Orban: Hungary’s Strongman. It's published by Oxford University Press.
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BOB GARFIELD Coming up, No, the world is not secretly ruled by lizard people. It just isn't. This is On The Media.
BOB GARFIELD This is On The Media, I'm Bob Garfield. Viktor Orban blames all of Hungary's woes on a conspiracy of malign outsiders. Yeah, we know some politicians like that too.
CHARLES COLSON We haven't even scratched the surface. He said, this fella is really tied in with some bad actors.
RICHARD NIXON Getting tied in with some communist groups. That would be a great thing.
CHARLES COLSON But Jerry thinks he is but of course.
RICHARD NIXON It's my guess that if he was in with some subversives, you know. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD That was of course Richard Nixon speculating with White House aide Charles Colson about Daniel Ellsberg's network of traders. And it hasn't gotten not worse. In the free market of ideas, these days are seeing a bull market for scapegoating, conspiracy peddling, in general paranoia from the top down. And vice versa as all manner of bizarre narratives percolate from the darkest recesses of troll-dom to the mainstream. In her new book Republic of Lies, journalist Anna Merlan introduces us to birthers, UFO fighters, 9/11 truther, Sandy Hook doubters and lots and lots of white nationalists who draw lines between random events to imagine constellations of secret evil conspiracy theorizing is as mainstream as never before she says. But also, as old as history.
ANNA MERLAN One of the earliest examples of that that we see and the one that you'll read about over and over is this suspicion among ordinary Romans that Emperor Nero set the fires that burned much of Rome on purpose. That he set those fires to rebuild the city to his liking and to pin the blame for the fires on his political enemies–In this case, the early Christians. And so the phrase Nero fiddling as Rome burns comes from that. There was this urban legend that spread that Nero, while the fires were raging through the city, Was at his vacation home plucking a liar or fiddling placidly watching the city burn.
BOB GARFIELD The proto false flag operation.
ANNA MERLAN Yes, the proto false flag.
BOB GARFIELD What are the elements of a timeless conspiracy theory.
ANNA MERLAN A timeless conspiracy theory has to generally explain a really consequential world event and it aligns with how people already view the world. We know that most conspiracy theories catch on among people for whom it confirms some political or social element of what they already believe. A timely of the conspiracy theory is not necessarily a simpler explanation, But it is an explanation that allows people to place blame on a specific person. The blame element is really important.
BOB GARFIELD It's not my imagination is it that, this right now, is a particularly fertile and federal period.
ALEX JONES Don't ever think the globalists that have hijacked this country wouldn't stage something like this. They kill little kids all day, every day. And it's not our government, it's the globalist.
MALE CORRESPONDENT And tonight the deep state is in even more deep trouble–no pun intended.
MALE CORRESPONDENT Should Obama just move back to his homeland Kenya? [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Hillary Clinton is a pedophile and a serial murderer.
ANNA MERLAN And a giant lizard.
BOB GARFIELD And lizard.
MALE CORRESPONDENT There is a predator race, which take a reptile--reptilian form. They're feeding off humanity. They've turn humanity into a slave race. They demand human sacrifice. That's where--[END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Please explain to me why now more than ever?
ANNA MERLAN It's not your imagination that we're seeing more conspiracy theories that we're talking about the more. One thing that we know, especially about American history, is that conspiracy theories wax and wane throughout our history but that they tend to recur in force during times of social change, social upheaval. When we're really talking a lot about what we believe as a nation and who we are and sort of having to reexamine ourselves in some way.
BOB GARFIELD One thing you did not mention about this moment and time is that for the first time in the thousands of years of conspiracy theorizing, this is the first time we've had social media. Now you refuse to scapegoat Twitter and Facebook and YouTube in the book, but that is where this stuff lives for the most part and reproduces and spreads. No?
ANNA MERLAN Yes, I would say that conspiracy theories, to the extent that they are a problem and not an extension of normal discourse, they are a social problem with technological elements. So they are not solely the purview of Twitter and Facebook and YouTube. But Twitter and Facebook and YouTube certainly serve to spread them, and spread them in ways that the early Internet never did. Both Pizzagate and QAnon are really, really good examples of conspiracy theories that began online, primarily live online but started to leak off line with, you know, real world consequences.
MALE CORRESPONDENT Police say a man fired a rifle in a D.C. pizza place as he claimed he was investigating a widespread conspiracy theory about human trafficking. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Related to pizzagate, and geographically adjacent, was the murder of a Seth Rich in what was apparently a street robbery. But oh no. No, it wasn't street robbery at all.
ANNA MERLAN So Seth Rich was a young DNC staffer who was, evidently from what we know, was murdered while walking home from a bar at 4:00 in the morning and what it seems to have been a failed robbery. But because his murder happened during the 2016 elections and because people immediately saw a political benefit to it, everyone from Julian Assange to Roger Stone immediately started promoting an alternate theory of Seth Rich's murder.
MALE CORRESPONDENT Now following which his death there was suspicion that he may have been the source of the DNC emails that were leaked to WikiLeaks. Now, not the Russians as the left claims. Now here's what we know.
MALE CORRESPONDENT What are you suggesting?
JULIAN ASSANGE I'm suggesting that our sources take risks and they are. They become concerned to see things occurring like that.
MALE CORRESPONDENT But was he one of your sources then? I mean--.
JULIAN ASSANGE We don't comment on her our sources are.
MALE CORRESPONDENT But why make the suggestion about a young guy being shot in the streets of Washington? [END CLIP]
ANNA MERLAN And one particularly sort of out there conspiracy site claimed that when he was murdered he was not on his way home. He was actually on his way to talk to the FBI and tell them everything he knew about Hillary Clinton and the DNC dirty deeds.
BOB GARFIELD At 4:00 o'clock in the morning.
ANNA MERLAN At 4:00 in the morning. Yes.
BOB GARFIELD While these things are often goofy, they are not benign. The family of Seth Rich was put through a horrendous ordeal on top of the tragedy of Seth's murder. In the case of Sandy Hook the Alex Jones floated false flag crisis actor nonsense created this hostile atmosphere among the true believers who harassed and confronted the families of some of the dead children and have made their lives a living hell.
ANNA MERLAN The fact is increasingly every mass casualty event in the United States that is heavily covered in the media is subject to these accusations and the people who are the victims of it, the people who lose their loved ones, then have to contend with this second wave of tragedy when they are deluged by trolls and bad actors. It's also worth noting that a lot of these mass casualty events, most of them are mass shootings and a lot of the conspiracy theories around them are centered on the idea that they were perpetrated by the government to encourage some kind of change to gun laws.
ALEX JONES Did you know assault rifles are used in two percent of crimes.
MALE CORRESPONDENT I know an assault rifle was used to murder my daughter in Aurora. I know that.
ALEX JONES Well, I'm sorry that--.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT No you're not. No you're not.
ALEX JONES I didn't killed your daughter.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT No you're not.
ALEX JONES That's the big issue--[END CLIP]
ANNA MERLAN Anybody who tells you that perhaps we should have fewer guns is in fact part of a government conspiracy to a bridge our Second Amendment rights. So in a very distinct sense some of these conspiracy theories encourage us to stay in a really unhealthy political status quo and they make excuses for social and political phenomena that we could find a solution to.
BOB GARFIELD You observed, several times, in the book that most of even the most outlandish conspiracy ravings do have some sort of parallel in actual historical conspiracy. The government did round up Americans, Japanese Americans, after Pearl Harbor. And maybe I think it's crazy to believe airplane contrails are actually psychoactive chemicals sprayed into the atmosphere to brainwash or sedate the population, but the government did once experiment with LSD on unwitting subjects. There is history to be reckoned with.
ANNA MERLAN There is all this historical evidence that, especially in the United States and especially at the federal level, that the government does engage in genuine conspiracies. And so this is often sort of forgotten or dismissed now, but the Church Committee Investigations in the 1970s revealed all of these seemingly wild and unbelievable government conspiracies that really did happen.
FRANK CHURCH Many Americans who were not even suspected of crime were not only spied upon but they were harassed. They were discredited. And at times endangered through the covert operations of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD That'S Senator Frank Church whose committee was looking into excesses and crime by the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community.
ANNA MERLAN Yeah and that was how we found out, among other things, that the FBI had been engaged in a serious prolonged effort to disrupt the civil rights movement and harass and terrorize civil rights leaders up to and including Martin Luther King Jr. The FBI sent Martin Luther King Jr. a letter encouraging him to commit suicide.
BOB GARFIELD Minority communities have borne the brunt of government mischief, to say the least, for, oh I don't know, 200 years. There has been redlining which was done with a wink and a nod between private powers and municipalities. There was the Tuskegee study which used black men as syphilis guinea pigs for decades. And I think of the OJ case. White America was like 'are you serious? A conspiracy to frame OJ Simpson.' And Black America was saying, 'do you have any idea what we faced with law enforcement have faced for two centuries.' There is some there there and it's always been there.
ANNA MERLAN You referenced the Tuskegee experiments. There was also the forced sterilization of Black women. There was also a bunch of human radiation experiments from the 40s to the 70s that primarily affected poor people, black Americans, children in state care. And so one thing that I write about in the book is that there are pretty unique conspiracy theories among black Americans but all of them are based in some level of history. A really good example is a belief that the levees during Hurricane Katrina were deliberately blown up dynamited to drown poor black communities. And the basis of that conspiracy theory is an actual decision during the 1927 Great Flood to purposely dynamite levees not in New Orleans, but just south of it. Using the rationale that it was better to drown that area than the city proper.
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ANNA MERLAN A blues singer from that time wrote a song called 'High Water Everywhere' where he talks about black families fleeing their homes and not being allowed to actually seek higher ground.
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BOB GARFIELD So it wasn't necessarily entirely delusional when a woman named Dyan French Cole testified in 2005 before Congress that she actually heard the explosions of levees being blown up in the midst of Katrina.
DYAN FRENCH COLE I was on my front porch. I have witnesses that they bombed the walls of the levee. And the debris that's in front my door would testify to that. So what do we mean breach. [END CLIP].
ANNA MERLAN That really it speaks to something that a very beloved and central local community activist made this claim. And this was something that she repeated until her death in 2017. We can also point out that a lot of what people feared would happen after Hurricane Katrina did happen. Poor black neighborhoods were rebuilt at a slower rate than wealthier parts of town. People really were permanently displaced as a result of Hurricane Katrina just as people claimed was the plan all along.
BOB GARFIELD We've demonstrated, I suppose now, to a fare thee well that sometimes there are conspiracies and the government is misbehaving in ways large and small. But let's now return to bonkers.
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BOB GARFIELD You've been at events where the speakers were talking about secret space armies and getting extravagant applause.
ANNA MERLAN In the UFO world there is an increasing number of people who refer to themselves as whistleblowers and claim to have been part of some really out there government operations. The specific person you're referring to is named Corey Goode, and he essentially claims that he spent many years fighting hostile aliens in a secret space force before the government performed an age regression on him and he woke up in his bed again and was 6 years old.
BOB GARFIELD Yeah you got to do the age regression otherwise--.
ANNA MERLAN You got to do the age regression.
BOB GARFIELD --people's memories of their exploits will get out to the public. So--
ANNA MERLAN Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD --duh.
ANNA MERLAN But I have seen Corey Goode speak several times and he has gotten a standing ovation every time I've heard him speak which is in a weird experience.
BOB GARFIELD A lot of the people who are online all the time sharing and propounding conspiracy theories see themselves as informants or as researchers or even as journalists.
ANNA MERLAN Yeah a lot of people that I talk to refer to themselves as being part of the research community or the truth community is another word for it and they do believe themselves to be engaged in deep research and independent journalism in the face of an establishment that doesn't want them to find the truth, and the mainstream media as part of that establishment.
BOB GARFIELD They may be pouring over a lot of stuff but with methods that have no resemblance whatsoever to academic or journalistic research.
ANNA MERLAN I mean one generalization we can make about a lot of these folks is that people in the really deep end of the pool of these so-called research or truth communities are only engaged in the kind of fact finding that will confirm what they believe they already know. Which is of course not how scientific research works, it's not how journalism works, it isn't receptive to new information that might change the thesis.
BOB GARFIELD You don't spend a whole lot of time in the book talking about the psychology of conspiracy theorizing but, you know, as we just discussed you were at event after event were, oh I don't know, I would say losers with idiotic ideas--.
ANNA MERLAN Mmm.
BOB GARFIELD --draw large enthusiastic crowds. How much of this--yeah I hear your um-ing. I mean how much of this is not only the chance to belong to a group but to be kind of a shnook who gets listened to, who gets respected?
ANNA MERLAN So I think the impulse to call people who believe in conspiracy theories losers or idiots is understandable but it doesn't pay a lot of attention to these sort of social and cultural reasons why people need or want conspiracy theories. The reality is that about one in three of us believe in conspiracy theories. So that is a lot of losers. One thing that you're talking about is the desire for people to listen to your ideas, yes, but it's also a desire to participate. So many people that I talk to feel locked out of systems of power–whether it's the political system, the health care system, the economic system–they feel like they have all these forces arrayed against them and they have finally found a way to respond to it. They've also found a community. So many people I speak to if they didn't have pizzagate or if they didn't have the anti-vaccine world they would not have a community. The deep end of conspiracy theories is a little bit of a trap because it draws you further and further into this community. It gives you a sense of belonging, it gives you a sense of purpose but it also really isolates you from your actual community a lot of times–your family, your friends. It creates this sort of enclosed ecosystem that's very hard to get out of and where you are going to feel very isolated should you leave.
BOB GARFIELD Yeah and I understand in communities of color that have suffered centuries of oppression, and sometimes repression, but as you look at today's horizon, it doesn't strike me that the people who are out front with the most outlandish narratives are necessarily economically or socially disadvantaged. They don't strike me as being victims. They sound like victims but I'm not sure why they view themselves that way.
ANNA MERLAN That's absolutely true. One thing we're seeing a lot of now is people who perceive themselves as being under threat even from positions of power. One example of that obviously is the president.
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PRES. DONALD J. TRUMP It was a group of opponents who got together, sick people, and they put that crap together.
PRES. DONALD J. TRUMP And I want you all to know that we are fighting the fake news. It's fake, phony. Fake. [END CLIP]
ANNA MERLAN Political leaders use conspiracy theories to consolidate power, to rally their base and to point out an outside enemy that needs protecting against. It is a really, really useful way to sort of organize people behind you and also prevent them from questioning whatever you need to do to respond to that perceived enemy.
BOB GARFIELD It will be lost on nobody that many of the examples that we've discussed here today have their origins on the far right. That isn't to say that the left doesn't have its own brand of conspiracy theorizing, but it is coming, these days, mainly from the right isn't it?
ANNA MERLAN Well I think the difference is that far right conspiracy theories have a much more efficient track to the mainstream. It used to be that far right conspiracy theories went from fringe sites, some some of them actual disinformation sites, to eventually places like Fox News and that's sort of where they stopped. And now they have another stop which is they go from Fox News to the president or from fringe sites like InfoWars straight to the president.
BOB GARFIELD But the left has its share too.
ANNA MERLAN Yeah, I mean there are a number of examples of left wing conspiracy theories. You know a big one is the idea that GMO those are actually bad for our health.
BOB GARFIELD Genetically Modified Organisms.
ANNA MERLAN Yeah. That GMO foods are actually harmful to our health in a way that's being covered up by World Health body's. Anti vaccination claims are just as evident on the left as on the right. And they're just as evident among wealthy extremely privileged communities as they are among poor communities–more so in fact. The other obvious example is the more, sort of, extreme end of what has become called The Resistance Sphere.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT It makes the worst case scenario really palpable. The worst case scenario that the president is a foreign agent suddenly feels very palpable. [END CLIP]
ANNA MERLAN The idea, not just that there was some degree of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 elections, but that Trump himself is an actual Manchurian candidate–that he is an actual paid Putin employee.
BOB GARFIELD Anna, what are we going to do about all this?
ANNA MERLAN Conspiracy theories are the symptom. They're not the disease. They're a symptom of distrust and social instability. And so if we want to get to a place where they don't have quite so much negative influence on the culture, we need a stronger culture to begin with.
BOB GARFIELD That gives me pause because what we've been describing is the nightmarish convergence of technology and greed and political opportunism and human nature and fairly widespread social injustice–none of which is going to disappear. And this problem continues to get worse and worse. What is the logical extension of all of this out of control tinfoil hattery?
ANNA MERLAN So one thesis is that, especially state backed disinformation sources like the ones we've seen in Russia like the Internet Research Agency, that one of their goals is to make the information ecosystems so chaotic and so unstable and so unreliable that people start believing that the actual objective truth is not knowable and that they should stop looking for it. And so it makes people sort of resigned and sort of paralyzed. And so we know from a lot of research that exposure to conspiracy theories can sometimes lead people to inaction. Exposure to conspiracy theories about climate change for instance makes people less motivated to recycle or reduce their carbon footprint. Exposure to conspiracy theories about the political system being rigged makes people less likely to want to vote. And so the result of all of this really is the danger that we will simply give up participating and just sort of accept the way that things are. So, you know, one thing that we can actually do is not just continue engaging in things like the political system and engaging in fights against misinformation but also identifying where that misinformation comes from and what the point of it is. What it's meant to do to us. So it's not just talking about conspiracy theories themselves, it's talking about where they come from and who they benefit politically.
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BOB GARFIELD Anna, thank you very much.
ANNA MERLAN Thank you so much for having me.
BOB GARFIELD Anna Merlan is a writer for the Geo Media Group and author of Republic of Lies.
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BOB GARFIELD That's it for this week's show. On The Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan and Asthaa Chaturvedi. We had more help from Xandra Ellin and our show was edited this week by our executive producer Katya Rogers. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Josh Han. On The Media is production of WNYC Studios. I'm Bob Garfield.