The Boom in Conspiracy Theories
Last May a number of "investigative journalists", hacks who make up stories on the basis of rumors leaked by un-named "reliable sources", had a field day with the claims about a secret Saudi plan to help President George W. Bush’s re-election.
The claim that made many headlines and became the subject of much television chatter passed as news, was simple: The Saudis would bring the price of oil down to $15 to make the average American, who drives a guzzler, happy, thus persuading him to vote for Bush.
The claim was picked up by Sen. Edward Kennedy, an old adept of conspiracy theories, and inspired several books and "documentaries" in which Bush was labeled "The Arabian Candidate."
Some weeks later, the theme was picked up by Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, at his party’s convention in Boston.
Well, here we are on the eve of the election with a barrel of oil priced at over $50, the highest ever. There is no sign of Saudis staying awake at night to pump oil into the market to give Bush a boost.
Nor have the oil barons, who were supposed to be Bush’s allies, gone out of their way to increase refining to bring prices down for the US consumer.
The myth about the Saudi secret plan was reinforced with the claim that Bush was the favorite of Arabs. Now, however, we know that more than 60 percent of Arab-Americans intend to vote for Kerry while Ralph Nader is set to collect a further 10 percent. That leaves Bush with around 30 percent of the Arab-American vote, hardly enough to qualify him as "The Arabian Candidate."
Anyone familiar with the current thinking of Arab regimes and their media would have little difficulty in finding out what they think about Bush. It is enough to read Al-Ahram, the Egyptian government’s newspaper, or to tune in to Al-Jazeera, the satellite television channel owned by the Emir of Qatar, to gauge the depth of hatred that the Arab elites feel for Bush.
The Islamists share that hatred.
"Anybody but Bush," Iran’s Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi told the Newsweek last week. Almost a dozen Islamic groups have echoed this by calling on American Muslims to vote for the Democrat Party nominee John Kerry.
While the two senators for Massachusetts were trying to stick the "Arabian" label on Bush, some Arabs were promoting a label of their own. To them, Bush, far from being sympathetic to the Arabs, was, in the words of Al-Ahram, "the most dangerously pro-Israeli president the US has ever had." Al-Jazeera commentators claimed that the Bush administration was "made of Jews, and for Jews." In other words Israel, under Ariel Sharon, had annexed the United States.
Now, however, polls show that some 70 percent of Jewish Americans plan to vote for Kerry. The Arab media that routinely describes Jewish-Americans as an Israeli "fifth column" in the United States, would have a hard time explaining why "the most pro-Israel president ever" is not getting the Jewish-American vote.
Apart from being labeled "Arabian" and "Israeli", Bush has also been branded the candidate of Big Money.
But is he? We now know that the Kerry campaign raised over $300 million, compared to Bush’s $240 million. We also know that the top 100 corporations contributed more to the Kerry campaign than to Bush’s. We also know that Kerry’s candidacy attracted massive donations from many wealthy individuals, notably a $15 million check from the speculator George Soros.
No one can be sure how the Americans will vote on Nov. 2. But one thing is already certain: Bush is not an "Arabian", "Oil Cartel", "Israeli", or "Big Money" candidate.
By last month, when it had become clear that none of those labels stuck to Bush, another conspiracy kite was flown.
This one came in the form of a claim that Bush was cooking a big surprise to be sprung in October.
Several self-styled pundits claimed that the "October Surprise" could be the sudden introduction of Osama Bin Laden, the fugitive terrorist, on television just days before the election. We were told that Bin Laden was arrested months ago in Pakistan but kept in a secret hideaway on Bush’s orders to be conjured, like a rabbit out of the magician’s hat, in October.
Well, there will be no "October Surprise", and Bin Laden, as far as I know, has been dead since December 2001.
It is important to remember all this because of the steady growth of the market for conspiracy theories in the United States.
Normally, conspiracy theories are popular in underdeveloped despotic societies in which the government lies to the people and is lied to in return. In such societies no one says or does anything without some concealed motive, and nothing happens without a secret plan concocted by a cabal of conspirators.
In the presidential election of 1980, President Jimmy Carter’s aides invented the first "October Surprise". This was a yarn about secret deals between emissaries of Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party’s presidential nominee, and Iranian mullas to delay the release of American hostages in Tehran until after the US election.
The yarn served several purposes.
First, it diverted attention from the fact that Carter had failed miserably to obtain the release of the hostages after 400 days, inspiring Ayatollah Khomeini to come up with his notorious dictum: America cannot do a damned thing!
Secondly, it shifted blame for failure to liberate the hostages from Carter to Reagan who had supposedly conspired with the mullas to keep American citizens captive.
Finally, the yarn hoped to generate sympathy for Carter, an honest man, who was being stabbed in the back not only by the heathen mullas but also by his own Republican compatriots. The fact that so many Americans are prepared to buy the so-called "alternative histories", as presented by the archliar Michael Moore’s "Farenheit 9/11", and more than 200 books built on conspiracy theories, must be seen as a sign that American democracy is unwell. It shows that the opposition is unable to take on the governing party and the president through normal political debate which is about options, choices, policies and performance.
Part of this is due to intellectual laziness.
For example, it is more difficult to criticize Bush’s doctrine of pre-emption as a means of altering the status quo in the Middle East on the basis of geostrategic considerations and with reference to America’s national interests. It is easier to say Bush invaded Afghanistan because Texas oil wanted to build a pipeline from Central Asia. It is easier to say Bush invaded Iraq because his oil buddies want to steal its oil or because Ariel Sharon would sleep better with Saddam Hussein in jail. This year’s presidential election is likely to enter history as the poorest in a long time, in terms of tackling real issues. The so-called presidential debates proved to be little more than slinging matches designed to trap the adversary.
To be sure, the blame is also shared by the Republicans who, in many cases such as the Swift Boats Veterans’ attacks on Kerry or claims that Iranian mullas are financing the Kerry campaign, gave as good as they got.
Sadly, the two new poles of American politics today consist of Michael Moore, and the equally obnoxious Bible-waving characters who portray Kerry as the anti-Christ.
AMIR TAHERI writes for Arab News, where this essay originally appeared.