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by Chip Berlet - Political Research Associates
As rumors about President Clinton sweep across the nation,
the destructive power of conspiracism is amply illuminated. Politicians,
religious leaders, and journalists need to repudiate the conspiracist subculture
before it does further damage to civil discourse. As tolerance of conspiracist
claims has grown, the peril to civil society is being ignored. Conspiracism
makes it more difficult to have a serious constructive political debate
in the US. Conspiracism demonizes political opponents, making dialogue
and compromise far more difficult.
Conspiracism is essentially a form of demagogic scapegoating.
Our political debate is increasingly shaped by demagogues that compete
to see who can best vilify the latest scapegoat. In May, 1993 some thirty
progressive political activists, including the author, met at a conference
center in Blue Mountain, NY to share concerns about the growing prejudice
and scapegoating being provoked by intolerant and anti-democratic religious
and secular movements of the hard right. We issued a "Call To Defend
Democracy And Pluralism" that asked everyone concerned about democratic
discourse to repudiate the type of divisive demagoguery rampant in the
In defending democracy and pluralism we must refrain from using the
same polarizing techniques of scapegoating, demonization, and demagoguery
that have been so successful for the anti-democratic right. As we fight
intolerance we will consciously strive to resist using the same intolerant
tactics we oppose. We will respect diversity while defending democracy.
We recognize that many of the individual grassroots activists being mobilized
by the leadership of the anti-democratic right are sincere and honest
people with real fears concerning jobs, family, schools, and personal
safety. They are not our enemies, they are our neighbors-and potentially
We defend the right of all persons to hold religious beliefs and moral
codes without government restriction or interference. But we insist that
in a constitutional democracy the arguments for legislation and regulation
be based on rational debate and factual evidence that demonstrate a useful
purpose and a compelling government interest. 86
The formula for democracy has several related components: over
time, the majority of people, given enough accurate information and access
to a free and open debate, reach the decisions needed to preserve liberty.
Thus democracy depends not only on ensuring freedom of speech, but on ensuring
the ability for all of us to carry on serious debate based on accurate
information rather than conspiracist misinformation.
We all need to spend some time considering how best to defend
liberty and freedom, and what unites us as a nation concerned with democratic
values. In doing so, we need to commit to a process that respects civil
liberties, civil rights, and civil discourse. And since informed consent
relies on accurate information, we all need to rebuke the demagogues who
offer conspiracism rather than critical thinking.
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