In Baldwin County, Alabama, an award-winning plan to provide guidance for private-sector developers was spiked—it was, constituents complained, part of a United Nations plot to end property rights, impose communism and force locals onto rail cars heading to secret camps. When the blueprint was voted down, residents cheered and sang “God Bless America.” Every member of the zoning commission resigned in disgust.
A federal proposal that would have paid physicians for time spent discussing elderly patients’ medical and personal priorities in their final days of life was shelved. Some conservatives, led by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, slammed the idea as creating “death panels” of bureaucrats to decide who would live and who would die. With the rejection of the plan, which had been supported by geriatricians, oncologists and advocates for senior citizens, the aged in the United States now only hear their options for resuscitation, pain control and religious support if their doctors provide the counseling for free.
In 2008, no one in America caught measles and 13,278 people contracted whooping cough. By 2013, measles infected at least 276 people in the U.S. and there were more than 24,000 cases of whooping cough. Medical experts attribute this trend to declining numbers of people being vaccinated, in large part fueled by a belief that doctors and pharmaceutical companies are hiding the dangers of immunizations to protect profits, even though earnings in this niche are so comparatively small that six out of seven companies have dropped out of the business in the past 35 years. Now, because of this false belief advanced by scientific frauds and celebrities, vaccine-preventable diseases that were once on the brink of extinction are roaring back.
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George W. Bush murdered thousands by orchestrating 9/11. Barack Obama is a Kenyan national and holds the presidency illegally. Education standards developed by state governors are part of an anti-Christian communist plot that will turn children gay. Unemployment rates and the reported numbers for Obamacare sign-ups are lies engineered by the White House. Water fluoridation doesn’t prevent cavities in children and has been adopted for a range of nefarious purposes. And on and on they go.
Conspiracy theories have been woven into the fabric of American society since before the signing of the Constitution. But what was once dismissed as the amusing ravings of the tin-foil-hat crowd has in recent years crossed a threshold, experts say, with delusions, fictions and lunacy now strangling government policies and creating national health risks. “These kinds of theories have the effect of completely distorting any rational discussion we can have in this country,’’ says Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center who recently wrote a report on the impact of what is known as the Agenda 21 conspiracy. “They are having a real impact now.”
Experts say the number and significance of conspiracy theories are reaching levels unheard-of in recent times, in part because of ubiquitous and faster communications offered by Internet chat rooms, Twitter and other social media. “Conspiracy narratives are more common in public discourse than they were previously,’’ says Eric Oliver, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago who has published research on the phenomenon. “We seem to have crossed a threshold.”
The fears about Agenda 21 are a prime example. The name refers to a nonbinding statement of intent signed in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush and 177 other world leaders. The idea was simple: Under the auspices of the U.N., those countries expressed their interest in managing urban development and land-use policies in ways that minimized the impact on the environment. At the time, mainstream conservative and liberal politicians considered the concept to be fairly inconsequential.
No more. Extremist organizations latched on to Agenda 21 as an attempt by the U.N. and the “New World Order” to seize private property to advance the causes of communism and to crush all dissent. Death maps will be created to determine where people will be allowed to live, some of the theories go. Trees will be given the same rights as humans. Electricity companies will conduct surveillance on customers.
By 2012, the Republican National Committee—overlooking that a Republican president had signed Agenda 21—adopted a resolution slamming the document as an “insidious scheme” designed to impose a “socialist/communist redistribution of wealth.” That language was toned down by the time of the Republican National Convention, but wild claims about Agenda 21 survived, saying the barely financed, unenforceable declaration was “insidious” and “erosive of American sovereignty.”