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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 conspiracist subculture:

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 our allies.

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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