Know Your Conspiracies

NEWSWEEK's guide to today's trendiest, hippest, and least likely fringe beliefs.

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.(Newsweek, 2.12.2010, David A. Graham, Newsweek Web Exclusive)

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