Like recurring nightmares, conspiracy theories aren't necessarily gone for good just because they disappear for a while. They often come back, sometimes in slightly different forms. Their last golden age came during the middle of the Bush administration, which saw rumors from the political left about connections between the Bushes and the bin Ladens, insinuations about the military-industrial complex and the Patriot Act—actually, pretty much every plotline in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. Nothing breeds paranoid theories like political exile, which means that with Democrats back in the White House, it's the right's turn to take up the standard, a task it isn't shirking. And of course, several leftist theories remain in circulation. If you're having a hard time keeping all these paranoid points of view straight, here's a handy primer.
1. Barack Obama was not born in the United States.
It's not clear where he must have been born instead: some say Indonesia; some say Kenya (initial suggestions that Hawaiian natives weren't citizens when he was born in Honolulu in 1961 were quickly dismissed). The point, so-called birthers say, is that he wasn't born in the good old US of A, hence isn't a natural-born citizen and therefore cannot legally be president.
Proponents: Chief birther and Beverly Hills dentist and attorney Orly Taitz, WorldNetDaily editor Joseph Farah, Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.), former presidential and Senate candidate Alan Keyes, assorted tea partiers.
Kernel of Truth? It's fully debunked. Forged Kenyan birth certificates have been exposed, and—despite protestations to the contrary—Obama's birth certificate has been certified by the state of Hawaii, and images have been shown on national television. And that's leaving aside plenty of circumstantial proof, like birth announcements in both major Hawaiian papers from August 1961.
2. Anthropogenic global warming is a hoax. Proponents of the theory that the earth's temperature is rising—especially Al Gore and the United Nations—are trying to pull the wool over the world's eyes. Some believers say that warming is negligible in the scope of geological history, and many argue that even if warming is happening, it's not because of human activity. The goals of Gore and his ilk, they say, are to kill market competition, encourage socialist control, keep scientists' research coffers filled, and/or work to bring about a one-world government by giving the U.N. power to regulate the climate and by eroding national sovereignty.
Proponents: Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), rogue Canadian climate scientist Tim Ball, journalist and British aristocrat Lord Christopher Monckton, Sarah Palin, National Review.
Kernel of Truth? Deniers have long taken advantage of scientists' cautious statements, and "Climategate" breathed new life into the movement, but the science stands: warming is real, and it's caused by human actions.
3. Goldman Sachs intentionally created the economic crisis.
Swooping in from the left, Rolling Stone screed-master Matt Taibbi argued in July that investment bank Goldman Sachs, "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity," has for years created bubbles (dotcom, real estate) while betting against them. As a result, it reaps gains from the run-up but also wins big in the collapse because of its hedges. Ergo, Goldman Sachs created the financial crisis for its own gain. A less virulent strain of this theory notes the many former Goldman execs (Hank Paulson, Robert Rubin, Joshua Bolten, Neel Kashkari, etc.) in government and posits that they have designed the government's economic policy to help the firm.
Proponents: Matt Taibbi, journalist Robert Scheer, Glenn Beck, the Pragmatic Capitalist, the blogosphere.
Kernel of Truth? Goldman undoubtedly did better than any competitor from the financial crisis, and CEO Lloyd Blankfein even admitted—albeit cryptically—that the company had "participated in things that were clearly wrong." This theory is tougher than others to debunk fully, because there's no empirical data available either way. Nonetheless, while Goldman may have profited, that alone doesn't prove malice or conspiracy.
4. Democrats' health plan will create death panels. Part of Barack Obama's devious plan to reform health insurance will be the creation of panels of experts who will decide whether or not patients are "worth" treating, making them arbiters of life and death.
Proponents: Sarah Palin,Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), a lot of angry town-hall-meeting attendees.
Kernel of Truth? Palin was apparently referring to a provision of draft legislation that would have funded consultation about end-of-life care. There was and is, however, no plan for rationing care as a cost-cutting measure, and fact-checking outlet PolitiFact named the theory the "Lie of the Year" in 2009.
5. Barack Obama is a secret Muslim. Drawing many of the same backers as the birther movement, this theory claims that Obama was indoctrinated into Islam while living in Indonesia during his childhood. They worry Obama is trying to undermine America's Judeo-Christian heritage, institute Islamic religious law, betray Israel to the Arabs, and perhaps even allow Al Qaeda to win the war on terror.
Proponents: Anonymous chain e-mail, Libyan dictator Muammar Kaddafi, Swift Boater and propaganda wizard Jerome Corsi.
Kernel of Truth? Nope. Obama belonged to a Christian church in Chicago (for which he ironically also caught flack) and has a record of unambiguous support for Israel and hawkish policies on eradicating Al Qaeda's strongholds in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
6. Sarah Palin is not the mother of her 1-year-old son, Trig.
Someone else—perhaps even her daughter Bristol—is.
Proponents: Journalist and blogger Andrew Sullivan and … well, that's about it. Perhaps also Joy Behar.
Kernel of Truth? No. Sullivan has couched the whole thing as just pointing out minor discrepancies and asking for reasons—not directly making accusations. Palin has understandably refused to dignify these questions with responses. No one else has picked up the theory publicly, although privately some liberals regard it as plausible.
7. ACORN is part of a liberal conspiracy to steal elections.
The coalition of community organizations first came under fire after allegations that members were filing fraudulent voter-registration forms in order to beef up the Democratic vote in the 2008 elections. Pressure heated up after a videotaped sting humiliated the group.
Proponents: Glenn Beck, conservative commentators Michelle Malkin and Andrew Breitbart, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), unsuccessful N.Y. Conservative Party congressional candidate Doug Hoffman.
Kernel of Truth? The James O'Keefe videos showed questionable conduct at the very least, but neither they nor anything else proves a vast left-wing conspiracy between Democrats and ACORN to steal elections.
8. FEMA is establishing detention camps.
The government has quietly made the Federal Emergency Management Agency a shadow government. Even now, FEMA has concentration camps ready across the country to intern American citizens. The idea attracted leftists during the Bush administration and—updated for the Obama administration—now has right-wing adherents.
Proponents:++Glenn Beck (briefly), the Internet.
Kernel of Truth? Too silly to discuss.
9. The Council on American-Islamic Relations is trying to infiltrate Capitol Hill and spread jihad.
Author Dave Gaubatz alleges that the mainstream group is both connected to Islamist terrorists and international jihad and is working to infiltrate the American government by placing interns on Capitol Hill.
Proponents: Dave Gaubatz, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.), Joseph Farah.
Kernel of Truth? CAIR has tried to place interns on Capitol Hill, but as it points out, that's standard practice for advocacy groups of all types and allegiances. There's no proof of sinister motives or an effort to encourage international jihad.
10. Obama wants to conscript Americans into a civilian defense corps.
The group would be a brownshirtlike organization that would enforce order in the United States.
Proponents:Glenn Beck, Watergate burglar and media personality G. Gordon Liddy, Ann Coulter.
Kernel of Truth? Liberal press watchdog Media Matters says the theory stems from a speech Obama made in which he argued for the importance of the Foreign Service, AmeriCorps, and the Peace Corps. That's a far cry from an American Gestapo—a claim for which there's no support.
11. Time magazine wants to restrict the Internet to licensed users.
Time, in concert with pro-censorship groups, is backing a plan that would require a license—i.e., government sanction—for people to get on the Internet.
Proponents: Radio host and conspiracy junkie Alex Jones' twoWeb sites.
Kernel of Truth?Time published a story reporting on a Microsoft executive who'd like to see licensing to combat anonymity. Broadcasting such a controversial proposal—regardless of its merits—is quite the opposite of censorship, as Time's Michael Scherer rightly explained.
12. 9/11 was an inside job.
The truthers, holdovers from the Bush days, just won't go away. They argue that the physics of the World Trade Center collapse doesn't add up, and that the attacks were an excuse for the U.S. to launch wars abroad and enrich defense contractors. Either the government planned and executed them or it knew they were coming and turned a blind eye.
Proponents:Alex Jones, retired religion professor David Ray Griffin, Reagan administration policy analyst Barbara Honegger, British journalist Robert Fisk.
Kernel of Truth? Not even the staunchest mainstream George W. Bush bashers believe this one. Enough said.
13. The Omnibus One-World Government, Unified Currency, Dollar-Abolishing, Free Trade–Advocating Theory of Everything:
To make, first reheat old theories about elite organizations that supposedly control various world governments and would like to create a single, unitary, global regime—the Bilderberg Group, the Council of Foreign Relations, and the Trilateral Commission. Add a healthy portion of slightly newer but equally discredited theories about the Amero, a pan-North American currency, and the NAFTA superhighway, a planned thruway from Canada to Mexico said to be six football fields wide. Freshen with the economic-crisis-born idea that Ben Bernanke is trying to destroy the value of the dollar. Add a pinch of tea-party spice from former Alabama State Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who believes there's a plan underfoot to have a United Nations guard at every American's door. The finished product should taste a little like this.
Proponents: Alex Jones, finance blog Zero Hedge, WorldNetDaily, conservative news site NewsMax, Roy Moore.
Kernel of Truth? Eh, sounds plausible to us.
An excellent and worthy point—but as Newsweek.com's story points out, the evidence demanded by Farah has been provided and verified by the state of Hawaii, as well as by many independent media organizations, and yet Farah's vocal demands for proof have continued unabated. Continuing to call for public officials to release personal documents even after they have been released—and continuing to dispute their authenticity even after they have been independently verified—is the very definition of fostering conspiracy theories. Nonetheless, a clarification is in order: Farah is correct when he claims that he has never explicitly stated that Obama was not born in the United States.