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Sunday, July 24, 2016

Is 2016 the year that conspiracy theorists became mainstream?

Over at the Independent, John Rentoul explains that he has had a bit of experience of conspiracy theorists and they are always “just asking questions” rather than esposuing a specific theory. So you may see what I have done with the title of this piece.

Rentoul says that something strange has happened to politics in America, and something alarmingly similar seems to be afflicting the UK as well. It is the adoption of conspiracy theories by mainstream politicians to make a point or to distract us from shortcomings in their case.

For example, he points out how Donald Trump responded to the humiliation of Ted Cruz’s failure to endorse him at the Republican National Convention:

Trump tried to draw the cameras from Cruz’s speech by making an unscheduled entrance to the convention hall in Cleveland. Then, after Cruz explained that he wasn’t going to be a “servile puppy” to someone who had been rude about his wife and father, Trump repeated the attack on his rival’s father.

“All I did was point out that on the cover of the National Enquirer there was a picture of him and crazy Lee Harvey Oswald having breakfast,” Trump said. The conspiracy theory is that an old photograph of Oswald, who killed John F Kennedy, shows him with Rafael Cruz handing out leaflets in New Orleans in 1963. Yesterday Trump went into classic conspiracy theorist mode: “Ted never denied that it was his father... I’m not saying anything… This had nothing to do with me. Except I might have pointed it out… Nobody ever denied – did anyone ever deny that it was his father? It’s a little hard to do, because it looks like him.”

This reflection on the use of conspiracy theories has been prompted by the assertion by Len McClusky that MI5 have been behind the problems of the Labour Party:

Three weeks ago he accused Portland, the PR company set up by Tim Allan, one of Tony Blair’s early advisers, of orchestrating the challenge to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. McCluskey said that left-wing MPs such as Angela Eagle had been “seduced by sinister forces” and urged the BBC to investigate Portland.

Yesterday, he proved this wasn’t a one-off malfunction. He said, echoing the Scottish nationalist JK Rowling conspiracy theory, that MI5 was behind online abuse of Corbyn’s opponents in an attempt to discredit the Labour leader. Only he didn’t assert it, of course, he was just asking a question. “Do people believe for one second that the security forces are not involved in dark practices?”

And he went on: “I tell you what, anybody who thinks that that isn’t happening doesn’t live in the same world that I live in.”

Rentoul explains that most recently conspiracy theories feel as if they are becoming more mainstream in British politics. He explains that Scottish National Party supporters in the 2014 referendum campaign accused MI5 of hiding the discovery of new North Sea oil fields, and of trolling JK Rowling on Twitter to try to discredit them.

He says that it was these SNP supporters who started the original campaign to persuade people to take pens to the polling stations, to prevent MI5 from rubbing out pencil votes, a campaign taken up by Leave campaigners in last month’s EU referendum.

In my experience the simplest explanation is normally the best one. The famous double-negative applies that just because you are paranoid it does not mean they are not out to get you. Equally though, why waste the effort when those you may wish to do down are already in self-destruct mode?
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