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Posts Tagged ‘Ebola’

America’s conspiracy mania: Why Ebola and 9/11 truthers reflect a tortured history

From 9/11 to McCarthyism, we have a long history of conspiracy theories — and government acts have encouraged them

Salon. com  November 3, 2014

America's conspiracy mania: Why Ebola and 9/11 truthers reflect a tortured history

(Credit: AP/Seth Wenig/Bridget Besaw Gorman)

Hey, did you hear that President Obama purposefully allowed Ebola to enter the United States so America will be more like Africa?

That’s what conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly said earlier this month, after the first Ebola case reached our shores. In the darker corners of the Internet, others suggested that Obama was spreading Ebola to justify the imposition of martial law; still others charged that government health officials had conspired with pharmaceutical companies to foster the disease and then to hawk a vaccine to cure it.

How could anyone believe that our government would plot to harm its own citizens? Because it’s happened before. Over the past century, the American federal government has repeatedly conspired against the people who elect it. And that’s why so many people suspect that the same thing is happening now.

From 1932 until 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service denied potentially lifesaving treatment to syphilitic African-American men as part of a study of their disease. And starting in the 1950s, the Central Intelligence Agency secretly tested LSD and other drugs on psychiatric patients. It also hired prostitutes to lure unwitting patrons to CIA safe houses, where the agency slipped LSD into their drinks and observed their reactions.

Meanwhile, the CIA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation illegally wiretapped and harassed thousands of civil rights and antiwar activists, including Martin Luther King Jr. The FBI even sent a tape recording of King making love with one of his mistresses to his office, where the package was opened by his wife.

Then came Watergate, when President Richard Nixon and his aides conspired to spy on their political enemies and then conspired to cover all of it up. And the 1980s brought the Iran-Contra conspiracy, in which federal officials sold arms to Iran and illegally funneled the profits to rebels in Nicaragua.

And when the government wasn’t conspiring against Americans, it was spreading false conspiracy theories of its own. The great master of the genre was Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who blamed the Yalta accords, the Soviet hydrogen bomb, and the Communist takeover of China on “Reds” inside America. Indeed, McCarthy charged, the so-called fall of China reflected “a conspiracy so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”

Yes, a small handful of duplicitous Americans passed atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. But the idea of a vast Communist conspiracy within the United States was itself a lie, hatched by McCarthy and others to whip Americans into a frenzy of fear.

To combat accusations of his own conspiratorial activities, meanwhile, Nixon spread false conspiracies about his predecessors. One Nixon aide faked a cable implicating John F. Kennedy in the murder of South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem, then leaked it to the press.

In the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, finally, the George W. Bush administration invented a conspiracy between the hijackers and Saddam Hussein. Just hours after the attacks Bush instructed counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke to investigate Saddam’s role in them, turning aside Clarke’s protests that “al Qaeda did this.” Then Vice President Dick Cheney went on television to declare that 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta had met with Iraqi intelligence officials in Prague several months before the attack, even though FBI agents found records indicating that Atta was in the United States around that time.

No wonder that over one-third of surveyed Americans in 2006 said that the Bush administration had either planned the 9/11 attacks or knew about them beforehand and did nothing to stop them. And after so many years of government conspiracies, real and invented, no one should be surprised when Americans announce that Ebola, too, is a plot by their government.

Let’s be clear: There is no evidence whatsoever for the claims about President Obama spreading Ebola. The people who spread these lies are reprehensible demagogues, and we should do everything that we can to expose them as such.

But we should also keep challenging government secrecy and duplicity, which provide a fertile ground for conspiracy theorists of every stripe. After last year’s revelations that the government was secretly collecting phone records of millions of Americans, whether they were suspected of a crime or not, many Americans got a bit more suspicious of their government. Didn’t you?

When the government creates conspiracies, it encourages the rest of us to do the same. But if it’s transparent, we’re more likely to trust it.

Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of education and history at New York University. He is the author of Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory and three other books.

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The Historical Roots of the Ebola Scare in the United States

HNN October 24, 2014

For many weeks, on television, in newspapers and magazines, and especially on the Internet, there has been a steady drumbeat of fear, panic, paranoia, misinformation, and ignorance about an Ebola “outbreak” in the United States. Perhaps most regrettable, has been the effort to politicize the illness and blame the “outbreak” on President Obama. Some have gleefully called the virus “Obola;” others have even charged that the administration deliberately introduced this African disease as a covert form of slavery reparations to punish white America for the crime of slavery. There have also been much more serious allegations that the government is covering up the frightening truth that Ebola is transmitted through the air as well as through contact with a patient’s bodily fluids; this view has been espoused by Senator Rand Paul, who told college students that “This thing is incredibly contagious” and the Obama administration “has downplayed how transmissible it is,” and echoed by political analyst George Will, who warned ominously against believing the medical and scientific experts. New Hampshire Senate candidate Scott Brown insists that an Ebola epidemic is coming, carried by arrivals from Africa and even by illegal immigrants with ties to ISIS crossing the Mexican border. It is common sense, he contends, for the public to reject the views of so-called experts.

Of course, there is no Ebola “outbreak” in the United States. Thus far three people have been diagnosed with Ebola in Texas and one in New York. There has been just one fatality, Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian national visiting his family in Dallas. The two nurses who came into direct contact with his bodily fluids have recovered. The lax medical protocols in Dallas that contributed to the illness of the two nurses have already been tightened so that the New York case is very unlikely to lead to additional infections.

Meanwhile, during the same period, some seven hundred American children and adolescents in 45 states and D.C. have been diagnosed with the Enterovirus, and at least two have died. That virus is easily transmitted, much like the common cold or the flu. It seems, according to the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, “When people are anxious about a threat like Ebola, it doesn’t necessarily matter if they look at numbers, facts and probabilities. Because of the way our brains work, something rare and exotic is much scarier than something that’s familiar.”

Is it just “the way our brains work” or is something else at work here that has deep roots in the American past? Duncan’s family, with whom he stayed for several days after becoming ill, has now gone through the 21-day quarantine period. None contracted Ebola. But, an online news site immediately questioned whether the incubation period may really be longer than 21 days, and another proclaimed that Duncan’s family would still be burdened with the stigma of having been exposed to Ebola—a claim notably absent in the cases of the three white American doctors who contracted the disease in Africa but were successfully treated after returning to the United States.

Anyone familiar with America’s racial past will detect some disturbing parallels in these irrational if not hysterical fears: bringing to mind, for example, the 17th century conviction that blackness was a physical and moral curse that consigned Africans to the status of diseased outcasts who must remain permanently under white control; the 19th century defense of slavery as a “positive good” for blacks and whites alike; the popular early 20th century “scientific” literature which proclaimed “The Negro, A Beast;” and the defense of segregation as the last hope for preserving a pure and separate white America.

The response to the thus far much more serious Enterovirus has generally been muted and reasonable. But, what if that virus, rather than Ebola, had been brought to the United States from Africa? Would it now be politically exploited as the Onterovirus and linked to fears of a conspiracy at the highest levels of the government? If one looks at the photos of Thomas Eric Duncan’s family in Texas, what you see is a group of poor, scared, and isolated people who are learning that the stigma associated with Ebola is, at least for them, irreversible, in part because it is embedded in attitudes long associated with blackness itself in our nation’s history.

Sheldon M. Stern is the author of numerous articles and Averting ‘the Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings (2003), The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis (2005), and The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths vs. Reality (2012), in the Stanford University Press Nuclear Age Series. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1970 and was historian at the JFK Library in Boston from 1977 to 2000. 

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