The tea party Republicans, and other fringe groups, are upset about something called AGENDA 21. Sounds like some sort of label for a conspiracy in a movie or a spy novel, doesn’t it? What it is is a resolution by the United Nations in regard to encouraging development of cities (over expanding into rural areas), reducing the need for cars and protecting rural areas from over development. What the heck is the UN doing involved in making recommendations about these kinds of matters? Well, they have to do something, don’t they? There are thousands of people from all over the world employed by the UN, many of them sitting in offices in New York trying to make themselves useful.
Now, a lot of tea party Republicans are concerned that, as usual, you see, the UN is trying to take over our lives! Run for the hills! They see Agenda 21 as part of the whole conspiracy to take away freedom, deprive people of their property rights and, eventually, stop them from driving cars altogether.
All of this would be laughable, except it is what percolates underneath our American politics these days and one of the many reasons that oddballs like Ron Paul are taken seriously and a former defeated US Senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum, is not dismissed out of hand. People are frightened. They see conspiracies coming at them from every direction. They want to believe that someone has an answer to what is wrong in their lives, wrong with America and wrong with the world and they seize on what is offered by what appear to be reliable sources.
HOW DOES STUFF LIKE THIS GET STARTED?
I don’t follow the great American conspiracy movement, I don’t listen to short wave radio to get my “truth” and I don’t subscribe to fear magazines with a circulation of 800 copies a month. As a result, these kinds of fear mongering rumors catch me, like most people, by surprise. But, I do read widely and I pay attention to what I read.
Within the last ten to twelve months, I read a column by that old reliable standby of the American right, George Will. In that column, he said that “the left” in America has a preference for driving people out of their private cars and onto public transportation. Wait, that’s exactly what people are saying now about Agenda 21. Is there a connection between what Will wrote months ago and what is happening now? The answer appears to be yes. The next question is whether Will, and others, are part of an effort to intentionally place false stories in the bloodstream of American information systems and debate.
In the old Soviet Union, they had what were called disinformation campaigns. Otherwise known as rumors, disinformation is a clever lie that people are told that is intended to replace actual truth. It is designed to get people to act the way you want them to based on well told lies.
One of the most egregious disinformation campaigns conducted by Soviet agents occurred in Latin America, particularly Central America, during the 1980s. The Soviets spread rumors that Americans were coming there to steal children for their vital organs. This lie was widely believed in the region where education is slim and access to more reliable sources of information is limited or nonexistent. There are those in the region who still believe it now, in 2012. One result of this disinformation is that Americans were attacked by local citizens and, in one case, a woman was beaten nearly to death in a village in Central America.
The Agenda 21 fear mongering can be spread now by any legitimate news organization, or one that appears to be legitimate, giving it news coverage. Just the fact of a report on television or in a newspaper or magazine can make it appear real to the public. The key reenforcing factor about any public lie is repetition: if enough people hear it or read it from enough different sources, then the lie gets wrapped up in truth. Why would so many outlets repeat it, people ask, if there were no truth in it?
A common propaganda technique of the American right these days is to spread half truths and untruths so widely that, eventually, they bubble up into general consciousness. The constant harping on “free markets” is one example, though no one ever defines what a free market would be, other than eliminating any regulation to which the person writing or speaking objects. A free market is free of anything I don’t like, in other words.
Will’s column was far out in front of this apparent effort to scare the public into believing that the UN is planning to take over the world and tell us all how we can live, although Agenda 21 dates to 2002. When I read it those months ago, I wondered where he got such a notion and whether he actually believed that “the left” didn’t want people to have private cars. The fact that a snippet of the same general view was printed by someone with wide circulation and long acceptance like Will gives the whole thing a small stamp of approval.
One thing should be understood: George Will is a smart man and a clever one, too. He knows what he is doing. The easy answer as to how the idea got in his column would be to say he was cribbing ideas from various right wing blogs and newspapers.
The more sinister interpretation is that Will, and others like him, was participating in an intentional effort to inject this fear mongering into American politics. It suggests the possibility that “respectable”, decent and intelligent people like Will, who appears regularly on national television and speaks to groups across the nation, as well as writes his columns, could be agents of disinformation for the cause of destabilizing American politics by scaring the pants off poorly informed, ignorant voters.
There is no question as to what Will represents in American politics. He speaks for the continuation of the advantages and wealth of those who have already attained it in American society. He is a classic royalist, with no pretensions to populism. He thinks that the elites should rule the world and their money and power protected from all threats, period.
The problem with fear is that, once injected, it can’t be removed. There are people who, 20 or 30 years from now, will believe the Agenda 21 was a vital threat to their lives, just as there are people in Central America who believe, still, that American citizens were kidnapping children off the streets to steal their livers and hearts.
For 40 years, Will has pretended to be part of the American mainstream of thought, a successor to William Buckley and others who set the modern conservative “movement” on its way. This kind of fear mongering is dangerous, because it pollutes debate with unending doubt about the motives of the “other side” and gives rise to the idea that most Democrats, and Obama, do not have the best interests of the American people at heart. It creates the idea that Democrats are not just wrong, but intentionally evil and participating in a worldwide conspiracy to destroy basic rights and values. Will’s habits and repetition of supposed truth need to be investigated further and called down. He is not merely a sharp spokesperson for a different point of view about government and politics. He appears to be a person willing to act as a dedicated propagandist for the purpose of promoting continual disruption, a process that we are seeing played out in the 2012 presidential contest.
Because they deal in opinion, columnists are given very wide latitude by newspapers, especially syndicated columnists like Will. In previous generations, noted opinion shapers were well known as water carriers for militarism, for a given president and various points of view. The reader, if informed, knew what they were getting in the “big name” columnists, but, of course people across America took them as authoritative sources, even though much of what they “reported” was spoon fed to them by those in power. Will doesn’t have to answer to anyone about where he got his “information” that the left favors getting people out of cars and onto public transportation. But, the public should demand to know if this guy is something much less than he appears: a mere propagandist sowing the same kinds of seeds of discord once carried out by foreign powers.
Doug Terry, 2.9.12