As historian Richard Hofstadter pointed out in his classic 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” U.S. history has featured recurring waves of conspiracy theories. Sometimes they have become prominent; sometimes they abide below the surface. Nineteenth-century versions saw threats that were vague and ill-defined (Illuminati, Masons, Papists, Monarchists); more recent ones have depicted our own leaders as traitors, stooges controlled by foreign powers or international movements. Senator Joe McCarthy claimed to see within the U.S. government “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.” The founder of the John Birch Society denounced President Eisenhower as “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.” The imagined adversaries tend to be not only evil, but secretive, unappeasable, and sometimes powerful enough to influence minds and bend history to their will. Mind you, Hofstadter was not limiting his discussion to certifiable lunatics: “It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.”
The United Nations has often been subjected to such theories. Fifty years ago, the John Birch Society called it a known instrument of the Soviet Communist conspiracy. The tradition is continuing on a variety of fronts. One recent subject is the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which is currently under consideration at the U.N. The arms trade is one of the few aspects of international commerce for which there is no international regulation whatsoever. The purpose of the ATT is to try to establish rules for arms exports that will keep guns out of the hands of criminals, insurgents, warlords, and terrorists. In essence, its goal is to get other countries to adopt export controls comparable to those already used by the United States. Its implementation will be at the hands of individual countries; it does not grant “U.N. bureaucrats” powers over the United States or any other country. The draft treaty deals only with the international arms trade; it has no impact on domestic gun sales, laws, or rights. In fact, at the insistence of the United States, the resolution authorizing the negotiations provides for “the exclusive right of States to regulate internal transfers of arms and national ownership, including through constitutional protections on private ownership.” Yet conspiracy theorists, with the encouragement of the National Rifle Association, claim that President Obama intends to use the ATT to circumvent Congress and the Constitutional amendment process in order to supersede the Second Amendment and eliminate gun-ownership rights. Whatever you think of gun rights in the United States, nothing in this treaty is going to change them.
A growing topic of conspiracy theorists today is Agenda 21. This was an agreement that came out of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro 20 years ago. The document—which was not mandatory and was never intended to be—called on countries to take into consideration the environmental impact of their land, resources, and transportation development policies. It also called for steering development toward already developed areas in order to preserve open space. The idea, overall, was to promote “sustainable development,” which seeks to promote economic growth, quality of life, and environmental protection in combination so as to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. This is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, whether the U.N. recommends it or not, but in recent years some groups in the U.S. have denounced efforts at sustainable development as evidence of conspiracy and an unacceptable encroachment on U.S. sovereignty. Even though the Heritage Foundation, a staunchly conservative research institution opposed to sustainable development policies, acknowledges that such policies are not being imposed on anyone by the United Nations, activists across the land are besieging local planning and zoning boards and accusing some very surprised and confused board members of curtailing property rights, revoking Constitutional freedoms, and herding people into urban “human habitation zones” at the behest of the U.N. Evidently, in their view, if the United Nations talked about it and these officials want to do it, then these officials must be operating under orders from the United Nations. And if the United Nations is taking such precautions to operate in complete secrecy through local officials, then they must have the most nefarious of intentions.
These Agenda 21 “skeptics” have not been particularly large in number, but they frequently identify with the Tea Party, which appears to have amplified their influence with local officials. Some of them have claimed to see UN conspiracies behind a Florida septic tank inspection law; others, in Maine, successfully stopped plans to reduce traffic on Route 1. Other skeptics have been influential by any definition. One was the Tampa Bay Examiner, which called smart-growth principles, including plans for light-rail and road improvements, “cover for an agenda to transfer American sovereignty to various tentacles of the United Nations.” In 2010 Colorado’s GOP gubernatorial candidate, Dan Maes, accused his opponent, who was then the mayor of Denver, of using a bike-sharing program to convert Denver into a “United Nations community.” (The horror!) Agenda 21 even made it into the Republican platform at this year’s national convention. “We strongly reject the U.N. Agenda 21 as erosive of American sovereignty, and we oppose any form of U.N. Global Tax.” (I’m still trying to figure out that last reference.) It is noteworthy that the last two examples make only brief and fleeting references to the supposed conspiracy. We can only presume that this is intended to win the electoral support of the conspiracy-minded, who will certainly recognize the reference, without awaking the curiosity of mainstream voters who might be put off by conspiracy theories.
A newer target for conspiracy thinking has been the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the relatively obscure U.N. specialized agency that deals with information and communication technology. In December, the ITU will host the World Conference on International Telecommunications for the purpose of reviewing and updating the one global treaty that deals with international telecommunications. The treaty dates from 1988; every now and then there are changes in the field that need to be incorporated. Yet newspaper editorials have been appearing around the country to the effect that the U.N. is trying to seize control of the Internet. Well, if the Internet is going to operate smoothly between countries, then those countries need to get together to agree on the rules governing its operation; otherwise, they will be working at cross-purposes. That is all that is going on. The Internet is and will remain a vast and decentralized network. Neither the ITU nor the U.N. as a whole will be taking control of it, or even implementing the agreed rules. As with the ATT, the countries will implement the rules themselves.
Perhaps the most striking recent instance of the paranoid style, however, involves Tom Head, who has been the county judge in Lubbock, Texas, since 1999. (In Texas, the “county judge” is actually the chair of the county’s governing body, the Commissioners Court, which combines executive, legislative, and some judicial responsibilities.) In August, Judge Head predicted that if President Obama is reelected, he will make the Congress and the Constitution irrelevant by turning the sovereignty of the United States over to the U.N. Since people won’t like that, he continued, the natural consequences will be “civil unrest, civil disobedience, possibly, possibly civil war. . . . I’m not talking about riots here and there. I’m talking Lexington, Concord, take up arms, get rid of the dictator. OK, what do you think he is going to do when that happens? He is going to call in U.N. troops, personnel carriers, tanks and whatever.” The judge has apparently been coordinating with the sheriff to arrange for the deputies and militia forces necessary to defend Lubbock County from dictatorship, civil war, and UN occupation. I wish them well, and I hope they don’t get too bored waiting.
Conspiracy theories tend to combine bits of reality (there really is a U.N., an ITU, and a document called Agenda 21) with sizable doses of fantasy regarding the meaning and consequences of that reality. The connections seem to be as obvious to the conspiracy theorists as they are inexplicable to others. As such they are also resistant to the persuasive power of logic-based arguments. Needless to say, the U.N. has no capacity to impose its will on the United States, which is a veto-wielding member of the Security Council. Indeed, the UN does not really have a will apart from that of its members. These tales surely tell us more about the times we live in than about anything the U.N. (or President Obama) is actually doing or even has the capacity to do. Conspiracy theories give distressed people someone or something to blame their problems on, someone or something more concrete than impersonal and abstract social forces. They often create a sort of constituency for politicians to pander to, as well, regardless of whether the politicians share the belief. So, perhaps the best we can hope for is that these stressful times will pass and take their conspiracies with them.
This essay also appeared in UNA-Westchester Global Connection, October 2012.
Leslie Kaufman and Kate Zernike, “Activists Fight Green Projects, Seeing U.N. Plot,” New York Times, February 3, 2012.
Stephanie Mencimer, “We Don’t Need None of that Smart-Growth Communism,” Mother Jones, March/April 2011.
Joshua Keating, “U.N. Denies Plans to Invade Texas,” ForeignPolicy.com, August 24, 2012.