Martha F. Lee is paranoid about conspiracy theories

First aired on The Bridge (18/1/12)
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The moon landing was faked. Paul McCartney is dead. The Freemasons are responsible for everything from the economy to who gets to be a movie star. If you believe any of that for a second, you're a conspiracy theorist. And according to Conspiracy Rising, a new book by University of Windsor professor Martha Lee, they aren't just the laughable byproducts of paranoia: conspiracy theories can be damaging to society and democracy. Lee spoke with host Bob Steele on The Bridge recently about the dangers of conspiracy theories.

Though many associate the current abundance of conspiracy theories with the rise of the internet, they've actually been around much longer. "They become popular at particular moments in history when there's been a lot of political and social change happening," said Lee. "The early 20th century saw conspiracy theories rise to the surface in Great Britain, and in the late 20th century we saw them begin to be popular in the United States, and through to the present."

Odd as it may sound, one of the first modern conspiracy theorists was an upper-class British woman. "I became interested in conspiracy theories by researching a woman named Nesta Webster who wrote in early 20th century Britain," Lee said. "She started off as a pretty liberal person, she was a feminist, but then she became convinced that the British state was being taken over by people who didn't have its best interests at heart. She was worried about immigration, economic change, and she was worried about what was going to happen to her class — she was a member of the upper classes. What you really see in her life is an example of the ways in which social forces can really move somebody to think 'everything seems out of control.'"

As ironic as it may seem, many conspiracy theorists often find it reassuring to believe in even a dark theory, as long as it gives them a sense of order in a chaotic world. That's one of the reasons that conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11 are so popular and prevalent. "It was a tragic event that caused such great repercussions. It changed American foreign policy, led to wars and further violence, and it was horrific," said Lee. "If you look today, you can find that there are hundreds if not thousands of conspiracy theories about 9/11. Somewhere in the region of 35 to 40 per cent of Americans, when surveyed, say that they believe their government was somehow involved in 9/11...that's a pretty startlingly high number of people who are worried about their own government."

According to Lee, the danger of conspiracy theories is that they can often feed anti-social impulses. "The more serious implications of these kinds of theories have to do with their propensity to increase people's choice of violence as a means of political action," she explained. "Think back to 1995, and Timothy McVeigh's decision to bomb the Murrah building in Oklahoma City was inspired by his reading of a conspiratorial book, The Turner Diaries. So that's really something to be concerned about. Conspiracy theories divide the world into people who are good and people who are evil."

So what ever happened to Nesta Webster and her kooky ideas? They've outlived her, apparently. "As for Nesta Webster, she was fortunate in her own publicity," said Lee. "Her work found its way across the North Atlantic and became very popular with the far right." Webster died in the 1960s, but her influence lives on, for better or worse. Maybe it's a conspiracy.