The Hatewatch blog is managed by the staff of the Intelligence Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights organization.

Some Dare Call It Conspiracy: The John Birch Society and the SPLC

By Alexander Zaitchik on August 17, 2010 - 7:43 am, Posted in Conspiracies, Patriot Groups

Last Thursday morning, the contents of the Fall 2010 issue of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report were posted online at By four o’clock that afternoon, an online magazine called The New American had responded with a critical appraisal of the issue’s feature exploring 10 popular conspiracy theories animating the antigovernment “Patriot” movement. Clearly, The New American is a publication that takes conspiracy theories and their critics seriously.

That’s not terribly surprising if you’re familiar with the radical right in this country. The New American is the magazine of the John Birch Society (JBS), published by the organization’s media arm, American Opinion Publishing. The New American website is oddly discreet about this fact, and offers no visual clues that it is a Bircher operation. Only after clicking the easily missed “shop” button at the bottom of the page is its provenance illuminated, as if by a lightning bolt. The New American shop sells such distinctive DVD titles as “The Kinsey Syndrome,” detailing how the Rockefeller Foundation colluded with the “pedophile” Alfred Kinsey to destroy America’s postwar moral fabric; “9/11: Press for Truth,” which explores the government’s alleged role in the attacks by looking at known “discrepancies, lies, and cover ups”; and “The Robert Welch Presentations,” a six-DVD set featuring the wit and wisdom of the Massachusetts candy maker-turned-JBS founder, most famous in death as in life for his 1958 allegation that Dwight Eisenhower was an agent of the worldwide communist conspiracy.

Thus, it isn’t surprising that New American contributing writer Charles Scaliger should take issue with the tone and content of our conspiracy takedown, which he called an “an artful blend of legitimate debunking and smear by association.” Scaliger even hints that such articles might themselves be part of a larger conspiracy intended to discredit “patriots” like those in the John Birch Society. “Periodic charges of conspiracy-mongering,” Scaliger writes, “are a time-honored way of lumping real patriots with bona fide extremists of all stripes.”

With whom might the SPLC be conspiring in this intentional “lumping”? Scaliger does not say. Scaliger begins his commentary on our “carelessly-concocted catalogue” on a note of agreement—or so it seems. The JBS writer concedes that the “chemtrails” conspiracy is “one of the wackier beliefs in extremist circles … [without] a shred of evidence to suggest such a program is afoot.” This would seem to lay the matter to rest; surely, the JBS and the SPLC can agree that “wacky,” foundationless theories about nefarious government plots do much more harm than good. But Scaliger cannot go this far. He reminds readers that the U.S. government has in the past tested chemical and biological agents on human beings without their consent, proving that elements within the government are “capable of actions akin to what chemtrail true believers warn about.”

Scaliger employs similar logic to defend, to varying degrees, every other conspiracy on our list (with the exception of HAARP, which, to his credit, he had never heard of.) Because the government has in some cases been guilty of a limited version of the caricatured and imagined evils feared by Patriots—Scaliger points to wartime suspension of habeas corpus, gun-confiscation in post-Katrina New Orleans, and lack of transparency at the Fed—he concludes that therefore the Patriot conspiracies cannot be so easily dismissed. They should be taken seriously, he argues, regardless of how hysterical the ravings, how obviously unmoored from reality their evidence, or how dangerously close their conspiracies come to overlapping with or echoing timeless conspiracies about, say, hidden and omnipotent Jewish power.

“Zaitchik’s screed is a plea to abandon all suspicion, even healthy suspicion, of our leaders and their motives,” writes Scaliger. “Suffice it to say that, had the American Founders been as trusting as Zaitchik’s frame of reference requires, we would still be British citizens.”

This could not be more wrong. The SPLC has no interest in a passive, blindly trusting public, or in mindless subservience to government. As anyone who follows the organization knows, much of its work is devoted to educating the public (especially young people) about the histories and challenges of minority groups, most of which have experienced state oppression at various points in this nation’s history. The SPLC is also at the forefront of fighting denial of history’s most horrific modern example of the abuse of state power — the Holocaust.

There is a crucial difference, however, between the healthy, fact-based inquiry that is essential to a functioning democracy, and the wild-eyed conspiracy culture currently flourishing in Patriot circles and beyond. One can be fully aware of official U.S. treatment of American Indians and, later, Japanese Americans during World War II, and yet require real evidence before buying into claims that the Obama Administration is actively building the infrastructure needed to imprison 300 million Americans. Fast-food chains are profit-minded and have been known to cut corners, in some cases resulting in deaths from E. coli. But it is a giant and defining leap to begin theorizing that the late McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc hatched a diabolical plan to depopulate the planet. It is precisely this kind of deranged extrapolation that has always been practiced by the American far right. And it is precisely this kind of deranged extrapolation that the piece examined.

There is a good reason for monitoring the culture that gives rise to and incubates Patriot dreams. Recent history shows us that such fever swamps of imagination eventually give rise to political Swamp Things such as Timothy McVeigh. Self-proclaimed “constitutionalist” outfits like the JBS should be careful about providing cover to crackpots simply because they question authority or generally accepted accounts of events like 9/11. A public that loses the ability to separate reality from fantasy will eventually become, one loopy logic leap at a time, a threat to the Constitutional rights of all Americans.

  • Jessica

    I don’t need “proof”, extraordinary or otherwise, of “chemtrails.”

    I have seen them, DAILY, flying over my head, spraying in my backyard. A few years ago, I was a “normal” personal, a stay-at-home mom of three kids battling digestive disease so severe that they couldn’t even digest a raw apple.

    I studied, I poured, I scoured over information that could help them. One thing led to another, and I soon noticed the chem-planes spraying heavy metal (enzyme inhibitors and fungus) into my backyard.

    18 months into healing protocols, including dietary intervention and heavy metal chelation, and my kids are much improved…however, their digestion regresses severely on heavy spray days.

    I don’t need “evidence”. My life is living proof.


  • Calab

    A Wise Quotation By Dene McGriff
    Some would blame our current problems on an organized conspiracy. I wish it were so simple. Members of a conspiracy can be rooted out and brought to justice. This system, however, is fueled by something far more dangerous than conspiracy. It is driven not by a small band of men but by a concept that has become accepted as gospel: the idea that all economic growth benefits humankind and that the greater the growth, the more widespread the benefits. This belief also has a corollary: that those people who excel at stoking the fires of economic growth should be exalted and rewarded, while those born at the fringes are available for exploitation.
    The concept is, of course, erroneous. We know that in many countries economic growth benefits only a small portion of the population and may in fact result in increasingly desperate circumstances for the majority. This effect is reinforced by the corollary belief that the captains of industry who drive this system should enjoy a special status, a belief that is the root of many of our current problems and is perhaps also the reason why conspiracy theories abound. When men and women are rewarded for greed, greed becomes a corrupting motivator. When we equate the gluttonous consumption of the earth’s resources with a status approaching sainthood, when we teach our children to emulate people who live unbalanced lives, and when we define huge sections of the population as subservient to an elite minority, we ask for trouble. And we get it.
    Excerpt From The On-line Book
    “In Search of Mystery Babylon”
    By Dene McGriff

  • Julianne

    In your “10 Popular Conspiracy Theories” article, Mr. Zaitchik, you briefly allude to “directed energy,” but then blithely dismiss the phenomenon as being related only to the alleged conspiracies surrounding the HAARP program.

    Is there some reason why you failed to address electronic weapons and the many thousands of complaints on the Internet concerning the use of these weapons systems against randomly-selected citizens in what appears to be some sort of psychotic social-control experiment?

    Is there also some reason why you have ignored complaints concerning the organized-stalking campaigns which invariably precede and accompany these electronic harassment activities? Organized stalking is apparently designed to bully and terrorize the said randomly-selected citizens into total mental and emotional collapse, perhaps to facilitate their susceptibility to electronic harassment.

    Both types of operations are highly organized, to put it mildly, and have been around for decades. I personally have experienced the hellish worst of the worst for more than 40 years, as a target of both electronic harassment and organized stalking. And my situation is far from unique.

    Your silence on these topics is noteworthy. Does the frightening prospect of retaliation keep you silent?

    It is this silence which long ago persuaded me that organizations such as yours are merely comprised of “armchair progressives” who carefully constrain their activist pursuits so as to avoid the full impact of today’s forms of retaliation.

    You may have noticed in your cursory scans of the Internet that the victims of these types of operations refer to themselves collectively as “targeted individuals,” or “TIs.” You may have also noticed that these operations are global in their reach.

    Ironically, far too many TIs have latched onto the various types of conspiracy theories which you characterize as being “right-wing.”

    I say, “ironically,” because TIs are leftist to the core, simply trying to understand why their human and civil rights are being so horrendously abused—as facilitated by the silence of such armchair progressives as currently comprise the SPLC and other like organizations. Many TIs seem to think that militia-originated, “patriotic” conspiracy theories might furnish some type of explanation.

    We can only hope that somewhere in organizations such as yours SOMEONE will have the guts to at least try to track these operations to their source and to expose them. Do you have guts, Mr. Zaitchik?

  • beholder

    Yeah I mean look at the whole Republican line. Those guys will believe anything in defiance of the facts, and they are just run of the mill right wingers. Imagine the fringe element.

  • Snorlax

    The key word here is “belief”.

    If you’re a true believer in conspiracies, no amount of facts to the contrary are going to shake your belief.

    Belief operates at an emotional level that can be stronger than the person’s own intellectual state.

    Emotions just happen. Thoughts you have to think about.

    That’s why you cannot shake people’s beliefs. It is very difficult to overcome emotional beliefs with logic and facts.

  • Ruslan Amirkhanov

    Ernie, I believe you were the one who had that website with a detailed study of the JBS. I read through that some time ago and it was an excellent resource.

    Personally I have tried your “test” so to speak, and I know how pointless it can be. I have dealt with those who believe in the 9-11 conspiracy, Holocaust denial, the Pearl Harbor conspiracy, and the Jewish conspiracy. In all cases adherents often make references to other conspiracies as proof toward the one they are currently advancing. For example, “we know the government lied about Pearl Harbor so why wouldn’t they lie about 9-11? 9-11 WAS an inside job!!!!!1111″

    There is a much simpler test: Extraordinary claims(claims which go against established conventional knowledge) require extraordinary proof. How extraordinary it is depends on how extraordinary the claim is. If the evidence is sufficient, decades or centuries of conventional knowledge can become obsolete in an instant- we just need proof of some kind.

  • ernie1241

    When it is convenient for them to do so — the Birch Society ignores its own correct advice about conspiracy theories which they used to post on their website.

    The JBS declared:

    “What is fact? What is fiction? How can you know? Conspiracy theories abound on the Internet. While some may be fairly accurate, others are not. Much of what is out there goes beyond the facts into wild conjecturing, and even outright fabrication of information. This has had an effect something like Gresham’s Law (‘bad money drives out good money’), in which bad information drives out good information.”

    If one GENUINELY is interested in facts and truth — then one MUST be willing to specify the methodology which is applicable to ALL assertions made in anybody’s “theory”.

    Otherwise, as the JBS correctly points out, you will have no way to avoid descending into “wild conjecturing and even outright fabrication of information…in which bad information drives out good information.”

    As Karl Popper pointed out, in the universe of available data, one can always find “confirmations” for whatever ideas one prefers to believe.

    The most compelling factor, however, is whether or not a theory can be falsified.

    Conspiracy theorists declare that they are uniquely insightful and that they unearth data and connect dots which escape 99.9% of the rest of humanity.

    Significantly, however, most extreme right conspiracy believers are totally unwilling to discuss their methodology—i.e. what rules of evidence and logic they think should apply to all discussions. Conspiracy believers frequently construct self-sealing arguments designed to ignore, dismiss, de-value or trivialize contradictory evidence—even when it originates from sources which, previously, the conspiracy believer has recommended as reliable and authoritative. [For example: the JBS routinely de-values or dismisses statements and conclusions which appear in FBI investigative files during J. Edgar Hoover’s tenure — even while they simultaneously have claimed that the FBI was our nation’s most knowledgeable, authoritative, and reliable source of data regarding internal security matters!]

    So here is my simple test:

    Go to Wikipedia’s article which lists conspiracy theories here:

    1-Choose ANY theory listed which YOU believe is absurd and absolutely FALSE.

    2-Then contact the author(s) of and a sample of the devout believers in that theory and present your best evidence against their theory.

    3-Then — let us know the result.

    4-Repeat that process 10 times (i.e attempt to refute any 10 conspiracy theories which you think are absurd and absolutely false) — and let us know how many times you are successful at getting the author(s) and devout believers to acknowledge that you have successfully disproven their theory.

    If you cannot achieve even ONE instance of somebody agreeing that you have disproven their theory —- then WHAT CONCLUSION about conspiracy theories and conspiracy believers seems warranted based upon your first-hand experience?

  • Snorlax

    Ray Kroc is trying to poison us with Big Macs?

    That may be difficult, that old grouch has been dead for a couple decades.

    Kroc was a big pal of Nixon’s and was always trying to get rid of the minimum wage so he could pay his McPeons less.