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

Last Thursday morning, the contents of the Fall 2010 issue of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report were posted online at splcenter.org. 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.