The United States of Paranoia, an examination of the impact of conspiracy theories on America history by Reason editor Jesse Walker, hit bookstores on Tuesday—you should read it. I reviewed it in brief for our print magazine—you should subscribe to it. In any case, there's much more to Walker's book than simply weird conspiracies, but it cannot be overstated: The book is chock full of 'em, and most of the theories struck a chord with a not insignificant portion of the population. Here are six of the most absurd, as relayed by Walker.
1. Death by Sugar cube
Theory: "On February 23, 1857, according to [writer John Smith] Dye, southern agents poisoned all the bowls containing lump sugar at the National Hotel in Washington, DC. Southerners, he explained, drink coffee; coffee drinkers use pulverized sugar; so the southern diners would be spared and the tea-drinking northern diners, including [James] Buchanan, would be wiped out. The future president barely survived the illness that followed. 'Intimidated by the attempted assassination,' Dye wrote, Buchanan 'became even more ever the tool of the slave power.'"
Spoiler: Buchanan wasn't actually in Washington on February 23.
2. Homo hydra
Theory: "In 1952, the conservative weekly Human Events ran an article by Rose Waldeck headlined 'Homosexual International.' Gay people, Waldeck argued, belong 'by the very nature of their vice' to 'a world-wide conspiracy against society.' This hydra 'has spread all over the globe; penetrated all classes; operated in armies and in prisons; has infiltrated into the press, the movies, and the cabinets; and it all but dominates the arts, literature, theater, music, and TV.'"
3. Death by Democrats
Theory: "After commenting that Zachary Taylor 'fell under the malarious vapors of Washington and died' because he was prone to acting honestly and straightforward,' the Tribune writer claimed that Washington in subsequent years 'was free of malaria—that is, for Democrats; but when the new Republican Party began to gain strength, and it was possible that they might become the ruling power in Congress, the water of Washington suddenly grew dangerous, the hotels (particularly the National) became pest-houses, and dozens of heretics from the Democratic faith grew sick almost unto death.'"
Spoiler: Malaria is caused by mosquitoes.
4. Witch dogs
Theory: "In January 1692, a pastor's daughter, age nine, and her cousin, age eleven or twelve, suddenly began to suffer wild and inexplicable fits. They were 'bitten and pinched by invisible agents,' wrote Reverend John Hale, who witnessed the girls' spasms; 'their arms, necks, and backs turned this way and that way, and returned back again, so as it was impossible for them to do of themselves, and beyond the power of Epileptick Fits, or natural Disease to effect…As weeks went by and the children's condition grew worse, the locals suspected witchcraft."
Spoiler: The confessions that triggered the trial and execution of 14 women, six men, and two dogs came from a slave who had been beaten.
5. Death by Dungeons & Dragons.
Theory: "In her 1987 book Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society, [Tipper Gore] pitched herself as a moderate liberal who was adept with sociological evidence and concerned about feminist issues. Yet she included an entire chapter on the dangers of the occult, and one of the alleged occult dangers she discussed was D&D. 'According to Mrs. Pat Pulling, founder of the organization Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons,' Gore wrote, 'the game has been linked to nearly 50 teenage suicides and homicides."
Spoiler: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined the same data and found no link between D&D and suicide. In fact, gamers were statistically less likely to commit suicide than other teen populations.
6. Papal bull
Theory: A "rumor started to circulate that 'the great men of Maryland hath hired the Seneca Indians to kill the protestants.' Ten thousand Seneca Indians were said to be gathering at the head of the Patuxent River; when that army turned out to be a fiction, a new report claimed that 9,000 were gathered at the mouth of the river and another 900 had already invaded a settlement."
Spoiler: There was no Catholic–Indian alliance, but the conspiracy theory did lead to an armed takeover of the statehouse and a subsequent colony-wide ban on Catholicism.
After months of in-fighting, the beleaguered Oregon Republican Party elected a new chairman last weekend. His name is Art Robinson, and he wants to sprinkle radioactive waste from airplanes to build up our resistance to degenerative illnesses. Robinson, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress against progressive Rep. Peter DeFazio in 2010 and 2012, took over after the previous chair resigned in advance of a recall campaign over her alleged financial mismanagement.
Robinson, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry, has marketed himself for the last three decades as an expert on everything from nuclear fallout to AIDS to climate science in the pages of a monthly newsletter, Access to Energy, which he published from his compound in the small town of Cave Junction. A quick glance at his writings, which were publicized during his ill-fated challenges to DeFazio, suggest that whatever the failings of the previous party leadership—Democrats now hold all statewide elected offices and control both houses of the state Legislature—Robinson brings with him a new set of challenges entirely.
On nuclear waste: "All we need do with nuclear waste is dilute it to a low radiation level and sprinkle it over the ocean—or even over America after hormesis is better understood and verified with respect to more diseases." And: "If we could use it to enhance our own drinking water here in Oregon, where background radiation is low, it would hormetically enhance our resistance to degenerative diseases. Alas, this would be against the law."
On public schools: "Public education (tax-financed socialism) has become the most widespread and devastating form of child abuse and racism in the United States. Moreover, people who have been cut off at the knees by public education are so mentally handicapped that they cannot be responsible custodians of the energy technology base or other advanced accomplishments of our civilization." (Robinson, a home-schooling activist, sells a DIY curriculum for $195.)
On AIDS: "There is a possibility that the entire 'war' on HIV and AIDS is in error. U.S. government AIDS programs are now receiving $6 billion per year and are based entirely upon the hypothesis that HIV virus causes AIDS. Yet, the articles referenced above and numerous additional publications by scientists who have become involved in this controversy state that: attempts to cause AIDS experimentally with HIV have completely failed; thousands of AIDS victims are HIV-free; and HIV shows none of the classical characteristics of a disease-producing organism. Moreover, AIDS is not a unique disease—it is an increased susceptibility to many ordinary diseases presumably as a result of depressed immune response. This depressed immunity can result from many other factors including those especially prevalent in the AIDS afflicted population—drug abuse and unhygienic exposure to very large numbers of different disease vectors. Moreover, large numbers of HIV carriers who are symptom-free are being treated by powerful life-threatening drugs that kill people in ways very similar to AIDS."
(His conclusion on the AIDS epidemic: Homosexuality might be a natural consequence of the gay lifestyle, and the federal government had cooked the books "as an excuse for all sorts of social engineering, especially in the public schools.")
On climate change: "[T]here is substantial scientific evidence that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide produce many beneficial effects upon the natural plant and animal environments of the Earth."
On diversity: The white-male imbalance at his alma mater, Cal Tech, Robinson argued, was due to the fact that "its applicants are weighted toward those who seek severe, difficult, total-immersion training in science—an experience few women and blacks desire."
During his campaigns, Robinson distanced himself from his past writings—without overtly rejecting them. He conceded that the nuclear waste proposal was "politically impossible" and a "complicated scientific subject," and on the subject of public education, admitted that "had I known I would ever run for office, I'd have said it differently." In an interview with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, he justified his AIDS theory by noting that "15 years ago, the scientific debate was different than it is today," before attempting to change the subject to taxes.
Still, Robinson's questionable scientific theories could make him some bipartisan allies; the deep-blue voters of Portland recently voted to ban fluoride from the city's drinking water.
White Clay, Neb. sells more beer per capita than any town in America.
Update, August 14, 2013: Although an initial vote-count gave repeal supporters a slim 151-vote victory, the referendum is still officially too close to call because 438 votes have been challenged.
Whiteclay, Nebraska, sells more beer per capita than any town in America. In 2009, the most recent year for which we have statistics, the four liquor stores in the town of about a dozen full-time residents sold 4.6 million cans of beer. Or roughly 383,333 cans per person. Or 1,009 cans of beer per resident, per day. But the beer isn't being consumed by the residents of Whiteclay. The town's economy is built on the flow of booze two miles across the South Dakota border into the Oglala Sioux Pine Ridge reservation, where the sale and possession of alcohol has been illegal for more than a century. On Tuesday, the residents of Pine Ridge will hold a referendum on whether to put Whiteclay out of business.
Activists in Pine Ridge and their allies have tried for years to shut down Whiteclay. For the most part, those efforts have focused on the creation of a dry buffer zone that would extend across into Nebraska (the reservation ends at the state line). Congress had mandated the 50-mile buffer upon creation of the reservation in 1889, but in 1904, the liquor lobby successfully persuaded President Theodore Roosevelt to eliminate that buffer by executive order (which may have not been legal). Lawmakers could have extended the buffer on their own but chose not to, and despite repeated requests, no administration in Washington has been willing to consider reversing Roosevelt's order.
Tuesday's vote would lift the prohibition on beer sales in Pine Ridge entirely (hard liquor would still be prohibited), and put the tribe in charge of sales, the profits from which it could invest in things like alcoholism treatment centers. The theory is pretty straightforward, and consistent with the idea behind repealing prohibition everywhere else: The current legal structure has only served to enrich distributors in Whiteclay while doing nothing to curb addiction. With 8 out of 10 households on the reservation (which has a population of somewhere between 18,000 and 40,000) impacted by alcoholism, it's hard to imagine legalization making things much worse.
Or maybe it's not. The success of the measure is no sure thing, with a number of powerful opponents, such as tribe president Bryan Brewer, opposing legalization on the grounds that it would bring the worst of Whiteclay to the community's doorstep. If the referendum passes, one opponent told the Rapid City Journal, "we would have a Whiteclay in every district in this reservation."
Comprehensive immigration reform has no greater enemy in Congress than Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). In July, he warned the conservative site Newsmax that most undocumented immigrants "weigh 130 pounds and they've got calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert." In June, when a coalition of undocumented immigrants stopped by his Capitol Hill office, he tweeted that he had been "invaded." He once constructed a replica border fence from scratch on the floor of the House, just to show his colleagues how it's done.
King is Washington's most anti-immigrant congressman, but the patch of northwest Iowa he represents is surprisingly devoid of his brand of nativism. Statistically, he's an outlier. Voters in King's district support a path to citizenship for undocumented residents by a 2 to 1 margin, according to a survey last month by the Tarrance Group, a Republican polling firm. In recent months he has run into opposition at home from a bipartisan coalition of immigrants, faith leaders, business interests, and even law enforcement officers, who view comprehensive immigration reform as imperative to the health of the increasingly diverse region. On Thursday, King finally met with supporters of immigration reform at his Sioux City office—on the condition that he be allowed to videotape it.
Their message for King is a simple one: They'd like him to tone it down.
In March, Associated Press reporters sent the Montana Department of Justice a public records request for a copy of the state's database of concealed firearm permit holders. That's not especially unusual; the AP has requested such information from the state regularly over the years. But there was a hitch: In 2013, Montana's legislature passed a new law officially classifying concealed carry data as confidential. Tim Fox, the Republican attorney general, rejected the AP's request in mid-July—and then proceeded to notify every sheriff and county attorney in the state of what he had done. The AP never wrote about the rejected request, but the word somehow got out anyway:
News of the AP request and Fox’s denial first broke July 24 on the website for Aaron Flint, a conservative Billings commentator and broadcaster with Northern Broadcasting System, who has a daily statewide radio show. Flint said he had received a copy of Fox’s memo from a source outside of the Attorney General's Office and posted it on his website. A day later, Media Trackers, a conservative Montana website that covers Montana politics and the media, picked up the story.
The reporters who had requested the data found their personal information (including photos of their homes) posted on the Internet, along with thinly-veiled threats, prompting the wire service to file a complaint with the Helena Police Department. The fact that the AP never has and never planned to indiscriminately publish personal information about concealed carry holders in the first place was lost in the angry backlash.
So what is Fox's response to the threats? Blame the media—for following up on the story.
"All of the media attention on this issue has come from the media," he told Montana Public Radio's Dan Boyce on Tuesday. " I think that's important to know. Because some reporters have blogged that I have initiated these things and my office has initiated it. But its been the media that's run with this. That's what the media does. The media asks for information. They did so on who it was that requested the concealed weapons permit information and then they wrote their stories."
Although Fox was quick to call the online intimidation "darn-right wrong," he ultimately warned journalists that reporters should keep such threats in mind when they request public information in the first place: "Whether or not there is a chilling effect I guess the media, the journalistic profession needs to contemplate when they ask for information whether or not they are creating a chilling effect in their own profession."
Montana isn't alone in relocating its concealed carry data to an undisclosed location; seven states passed laws to reclassify concealed carry databases as confidential information in the first half of 2013. And Montana's isn't even the most strict. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) signed into a law bill last spring that would criminalize the publication of private gun records by journalists.