On Friday, I was laughing at a conspiratorial line in Paul Krugman's column on a Saturday page proof: "I guess arithmetic is just a hoax perpetrated by the deep state."
Then financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein died in an apparent suicide Saturday while awaiting trial on federal sex-trafficking charges at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York City.
Cue the conspiracy theories and trending Twitter hashtags. And lots of eye-rolling.
Kyle Smith wrote in National Review: "It was almost heartening. For a change, Americans on the left and right were united: Both sides rushed to hint that a dark conspiracy must have been behind the death of Jeffrey Epstein in his jail cell Saturday morning."
Aw, so sweet. Everyone's getting in on the lunacy! It was the Russians ... or the Clintons ... or Trump ... or maybe that guy in front of me in the coffee line the other day.
Don't be silly. I don't drink coffee.
On the theories blaming the Clintons and Trump, Smith opined: "Whatever you think of our leading political families ... they don't have a lot to do with the kinds of people who are in the federal holding pen in downtown Manhattan. We may toss around the phrase 'the Clinton mafia,' but let's not let colorful metaphors turn us into idiots. There isn't an actual Clinton mafia, supported by a network of violent criminals behind bars in all the major jails. Hillary Clinton can't just put the word out on the street that somebody in the Metropolitan Correctional Center needs to stop breathing and expect a loyal thug to step up brandishing a bedsheet noose. If somebody wanted Epstein out of the way, it would have been far easier to take him out before he went to jail.
"Do we need answers about Epstein's death? Of course. But the explanation will probably turn out to be that a guard fell asleep, a rule wasn't followed, oversight was poor, or other stupid mistakes were made. Unlike any of the Epstein conspiracy theories, my master theory--that the federal government is incompetent--is exceedingly easy to believe."
Imagine that ... it might just be incompetence. Officers reportedly hadn't checked on Epstein in several hours, according to The Washington Post, and Epstein hadn't been assigned a new cellmate after his old one transferred Friday. Leaving someone who had recently been on suicide watch unmonitored? Not a good idea.
But incompetence doesn't make for a rousing conspiracy theory.
Cameron Kasky, one of the survivors of the Parkland shooting and a co-founder of March For Our Lives, summed up the craziness Saturday, tweeting: "Imagine the dystopia that is a country divided in a hashtag battle accusing a former president and the current president of staging the suicide of a pedophile emperor to cover up their child molestation."
It's all icky. Can we at least agree on that?
While some conspiracy theories are relatively harmless (ahem ... reptilian aliens?), others are not quite so benign.
Myths about vaccines causing autism led enough parents to not vaccinate their kids, helping cause measles outbreaks in the U.S., where the disease was declared in 2000 to have been eliminated. The Pizzagate conspiracy theory led to a shooting (that luckily hurt no one) at Comet Ping Pong in D.C., where the theory said Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of the basement (which doesn't exist), an arson attempt, death threats, and harassment of not only that restaurant, but other businesses near it.
The FBI field office in Phoenix issued a bulletin in May describing the growing threat of "conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists" such as followers of QAnon and Pizzagate, saying, "these conspiracy theories very likely will emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace, occasionally driving both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts."
Renaud Camus' "great replacement" theory--which posits that lax immigration policy and the decline of white birth rates are leading to "genocide by substitution"--has apparently already played a part in the Pittsburgh synagogue attack and the El Paso shooting, as well as Charlottesville (oh, those tiki-torch-carrying white nationalists, such cards).
It's not beyond the realm of possibility that other conspiracy theories will find their way into the news by way of someone acting lethally because of misinformation from a fringe theory that sees someone as wholly evil. Nancy L. Rosenblum and Russell Muirhead, authors of A Lot of People Are Saying, told The Economist in an interview that we're seeing conspiracy without the theory now. "Its proponents dispense with evidence and explanation. Their charges take the form of bare assertion. ... It is a powerful force, with the capacity to animate popular fury, to delegitimize political opposition, and to hijack government institutions."
And now Krugman's quip doesn't seem quite so funny anymore. Is it too much to hope that the theory that Epstein faked his death so he could work with Elvis at that gas station in Poughkeepsie is true?
Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Read her blog at blooper0223.wordpress.com. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editorial on 08/14/2019
Print Headline: BRENDA LOOPER: It's a conspiracy!