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Extremism, Conspiracy Theory And Murder
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross.
Conspiracy theories rooted in racist or anti-Semitic beliefs seem to have
inspired the shooting at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, the murder of
Dr.Â George Tiller, who performed late-term abortions, and other recent attacks.
My guest, Chip Berlet, tracks racist and anti-Semitic groups, paramilitary
groups and groups that believe in conspiracy theories. Heâs just written a
paper called âToxic to Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization and
Scapegoating.â Itâs published by Political Research Associates, which
investigates extremist hate groups. The paper is available on their Web site,
Berlet has been with the group since the early 1980s. He started writing his
paper toward the end of 2008, during the presidential campaign, when he saw
that Barack Obamaâs popularity was creating a backlash from white supremacists.
Chip Berlet, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Now the murder of the guard at the
Holocaust Museum, you say that shows why itâs a mistake to ignore bigoted
conspiracy theories. Can you expand on that?
Mr.Â CHIP BERLET (Author): The man who gunned down the guard at the Holocaust
Memorial Museum, on his Web site, had six chapters of a book in which he went
back all the way to the Civil War to explain his view that there was a
conspiracy of blacks and Jews to take over the money supply of the United
States and create wars and essentially keep white men as sort of captives to
bleed them dry through all kinds of schemes and conspiracies.
So what we have here is someone who believed in a vast conspiracy. He had a
racist and anti-Semitic view of how the conspiracy operated, and he felt that
the time now was to act, that things were getting out of control with the
election of a black president and his idea about what needed to be done to save
Itâs this combination of demonization and dualism and scapegoating and this
apocalyptic idea that time is running out and you have to act now, that when
you infuse that with a conspiracy theory of who the bad folks are, it can lead
MARTIN: Well you know, the murderer of the guard at the Holocaust Museum, there
was a note in his car that was found, and the note said Obama was created by
Jews. Obama does what his Jew owners tell him to do. Is this a common
conspiracy theory now among racists and anti-Semites that Obama is controlled
by the Jews?
Mr.Â BERLET: Well, it goes all the way to the idea of the carpet-baggers, which,
after the Civil War were often seen as Jewish merchants coming down to the
South. And there developed an idea among white supremacists who wanted to
restore the slave South that what we had here was that the Civil War had been
created by the Rothschild banking family as a way to bleed America dry and to
create a central banking system.
And actually in - Mr.Â Brunn, the man who attacked the Holocaust Museum, details
this in his study, where he talked about the Illuminati, this group that is
supposedly behind the Freemasons, were in league with the Jews and the Bânai
Bârith to launch the Civil War and establish the Federal Reserve.
And we know that Mr.Â Von Brunn had actually been arrested for attempting to
arrest members of the Federal Reserve many years ago. So yes, and especially
after World War II, when you had black GIs coming back and saying, you know, we
have rights, letâs stand up for our rights, and developing, you know, the basis
of what became the civil-rights movement. And all across the South, the people
who wanted to preserve segregation then re-interpreted this conspiracy so that
they could explain blacks getting positions of power and privilege, being
appointed to various positions, rising in various industries, getting involved
in politics - they could explain that actually blacks were still inferior, but
they were being put in these positions of power by crafty Jews. And that then
became the major white-supremacist conspiracy theory in America.
GROSS: And I guess part of the evidence that people who believe this now about
Obama, that heâs controlled by the Jews, part of the evidence they would use is
that his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel - Jewish.
Mr.Â BERLET: Right, wow, there you go, proven.
Mr.Â BERLET: And in fact, thereâs a current conspiracy theory that it was a
group of Jews and communists in Hyde Park, on the south side of Chicago, that
had actually groomed Obama and arranged for his election as president.
Now, you know, I used to live in Chicago. I know lots of those folks. And you
know, Iâm sure that would be their dream, but I donât think actually like seven
60-year-old guys on the south side of Chicago actually got Obama elected.
So itâs this over-simplification of how politics and the economy and world
events happen, reduced down to a very simple, dualistic, you know, no shades of
grey. There are bad people, they are doing bad things to us, and thatâs whatâs
dangerous about combining conspiracy theories with this kind of bigoted
GROSS: Now youâve mentioned that a lot of todayâs conspiracy theories date back
hundreds of years ago to the conspiracy theory about the Illuminati. Who were
the Illuminati, and where do they figure in to all of this?
Mr.Â BERLET: The Illuminati were, in fact, a study group in Bavaria. And it was
essentially a group of people who wanted to promote the ideas of the
Enlightenment at a time when revolutionary fervor was sweeping Europe and the
United States. And so you had this guy, Weishaupt, who pulled together these
thinkers to talk about a new society built upon Enlightenment themes.
And a lot of these themes were being discussed in this country by the founders
of our country and certainly led to the French Revolution, which you know, had
some negative outcomes. But what happened was that in the late 1700s, after the
Illuminati group had been banned by the Bavarian government, and it had
collapsed, two writers - one in Scotland, one in France - wrote these books
claiming that all of this revolutionary fervor, which was displacing the
church-state oligarchies, which they thought were proper and God-given, were
created by the Illuminati group, who sent agents into the Freemasons, and it
was the Freemasons, then, who spawned all of these revolutions across Europe
and in the United States.
And then 100 years later, that same theory was re-crafted into the protocols of
the Elders of Zion, which argued that the Illuminati were not the final
controlling cabal, it was actually these rabbis in this secret cell of control.
So it goes back to the late 1700s and then gets re-articulated in the early
1900s as the protocols of the rabbis.
GROSS: And who were the Freemasons?
Mr.Â BERLET: Freemasons are a brotherhood. Itâs a fraternal society that came
out of the people who built the cathedrals in Europe. And they essentially were
free thinkers and, at a time when no one knew mathematics or geometry. The
church, the Catholic Church, taught the Masons all of these advanced mechanical
skills and the ability to use math and geometry to build these wonderful
cathedrals that still are throughout Europe.
And because they were so well-trained, they began to talk about philosophical
ideas, and with the develop of industrial capitalism, they began to attract
people because they were builders - somebody wanted a factory build to weave
wool, somebody had the money to loan - and the Freemasons became a fraternal
organization which attracted very powerful people in a community so that they
could build buildings. And they, then, became blamed for creating this wave of
And to their credit, I mean, the Freemasons did, in fact, pursue Enlightenment
ideas because of their education and training and their history, and were among
the first fraternal organizations to allow Jews to become full members.
GROSS: You know, itâs interesting. Brunn, the murderer of the guard at the
Holocaust Museum, heâs almost like a walking encyclopedia of current conspiracy
theories. Another belief that he had is that Obama has no documentation, no
records, no paper trail, including no birth certificate, and thereâs a whole
conspiracy-theory movement around the fact - the fact that they believe, which
isnât a fact at all, that Obama has no birth certificate. Therefore heâs not an
American citizen. Therefore he canât really be serving as president.
Mr.Â BERLET: Thatâs right.
GROSS: How did that movement get started? Do you know?
Mr.Â BERLET: Sure. It came out of a group of people who had already believed in
a whole range of conspiracy theories about duplicity and evil-doing by
liberals. And basically, it arrived because somebody said you know, thereâs
these different documents going around, and they donât seem to match the
Hawaiian form that is mostly used.
And then they did this huge leap, which is because we canât explain these
discrepancies in our mind, we are concluding that Obama actually is not a U.S.
citizen. And thatâs the classic aspect of all conspiracy thinking, is that
thereâs this leap of conjecture into fact. And then they say well, itâs a fact,
therefore, we have to, you know, make sure, first of all, that he canât run for
president. And when they failed in that, they then launched a whole campaign to
prevent him from being inaugurated. Then during the inauguration, when there
was a foul-up of the oath of office, within minutes, all over the Internet,
there were these claims: Proof - hereâs evidence that heâs not really a citizen
because he didnât really take the oath of office.
Just yesterday, I was listening to a right-wing radio show on the Web, where
they were saying everyone now has to call their congressional offices and
demand that Obama be removed because heâs not legally president.
GROSS: So take something like this birth-certificate thing, you know, the
belief that Obama doesnât have a birth certificate, therefore he canât be
legally serving as president. How do you think the media did with that? Do you
think that there were parts of the media that fed into it, or do you think the
media did a good job in disproving it? And what would you recommend the media
do, pay attention to it and try to disprove something like that or ignore it
because itâs just, you know, wacky conspiracy thinking?
Mr.Â BERLET: Well, I donât think ignoring it is going to help. I do think that
most of the major media dealt with this very quickly and said you know, weâve
looked into this, itâs not true, and then they left it alone. But what they
failed to pay attention to was this growing subculture in the U.S. - after the
inauguration, it continued - of people who felt that the inauguration of Obama
was going to be followed by tyranny - they were going to collect all the guns.
And that led to a guy in Pittsburgh shooting three police officers because he
thought they were coming to collect his guns - and they died. He killed three
So there have been nine murders since the inauguration connected to white-
supremacist conspiracy theories.
GROSS: So three were the police, who you just mentioned; one of them was
Dr.Â Tiller, who was murdered because he performed abortions, and particularly
late-term abortions; and a fifth was the Holocaust guard, Stephen Johns, the
Holocaust Museum Guard. Who were the others?
Mr.Â BERLET: In January, the day after the inauguration, in Brockton, Mass., a
white man killed two Cape Verdean citizens because he felt that non-whites,
Hispanics and Jews were creating a new world order and planned to, you know,
destroy the white race - and two people died in that shooting.
Then in Arizona in May, late May, a gang of racist vigilantes is charged with
having stormed a house with guns drawn and killing Raul Flores and his nine-
year-old daughter. Basically, this is people linked, allegedly, to the
Minuteman American Defense, one of these border-protection vigilante groups,
and they felt that this person was, they claimed, a well-known drug runner. So
they attacked his house. They were going to kill everyone and then steal the
drugs and money and fund their border watch. That certainly was a heinous idea.
And the guy who killed Dr.Â Tiller came out of the Sovereign Citizen movement,
which has a white-supremacist view of constitutional law, in which a white
people have natural citizenship and all other people have legislated
citizenship or regulatory citizenship.
So it goes on. So, a total of nine people since the inauguration.
GROSS: And you think that this is connected to having an African-American
president and that itâs just like increasing the fear among white supremacists
about whatâs happening to our country?
Mr.Â BERLET: Well, itâs that and a bunch of other factors that have all come
together. Itâs the idea of, you know, the economy is in turmoil, and the future
is shaky. That makes people nervous. It comes in a background of white
supremacy and anti-Semitism that floats around the society, andâ¦ So just having
a black president and having a bad economy doesnât explain it.
Itâs having a black president and a bad economy, and basically the backlash
against a lot of the liberation movements - whether itâs the womenâs rights
movement, it certainly was the civil-rights movement, the gay-rights movement -
all of these things have affected how, you know, straight, white, Christian men
in American society have their sense of being displaced. And not all straight,
white, Christian men - Iâm one - but many of the folks like me out there really
are worried that they no longer have a role in American society.
And then you have, you have to admit, the right-wing pundits who are on the
airwaves, day after day, night after night, picking out scapegoats and saying
Americaâs being destroyed by the liberal Democrats. America is being destroyed
by Muslims. Itâs being destroyed by Arabs. Itâs being destroyed by illegal,
quote-unquote, Mexican immigrants.
You know, gay marriage will be the end of America as we know it. Abortion is
murder, then act like it. And we have people actually naming Dr.Â Tiller and
then pretending that their naming of him as a person who is evil has nothing at
all to do with someone deciding itâs time to kill the man.
Now legally, they might be right, but morally, donât you think, a lot of these
folks like OâReilly and Ann Coulter and Lou Dobbs and a whole range of people
who constantly are demonizing individuals and groups and pointing them out as
destroying America, donât you think they have some responsibility for the
milieu that feeds this violent tendency? I certainly do.
GROSS: If youâre just joining us, my guest is Chip Berlet, and heâs written a
new paper called âToxic to Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization and
Scapegoats,â and heâs been following the extremist fringes, anti-Semitic
groups, racist groups, white-supremacist groups, for decades, since the 1980s.
Heâs senior analyst at Political Research Associates, which collects and
analyzes information on extremist, white-supremacist and anti-Semitic groups.
Letâs take a short break here, and then weâll talk some more. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Chip Berlet. Heâs senior analyst at Political Research
Associates, which collects and analyzes information on extremist, white-
supremacist and anti-Semitic groups, and heâs just written a new report called
âToxic to Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization and Scapegoating.â
You were talking about how you think the media, right-wing media, feeds these
conspiracy theories, and the right-wing pundits donât pull the trigger.
Mr.Â BERLET: No, they donât.
GROSS: They donât whisper in someoneâs ear and say you, you go out and shoot
somebody. So how do you think they contribute? Like what role do you think, you
know, extremist broadcasters play in the kind of hate crimes weâve been saying?
Mr.Â BERLET: Who will rid me of this troublesome priest, said King Henry of
Becket? And a few days later, his friends killed him in church, just like
Dr.Â Tiller. This is historically well known, that if you have a society in
which certain high-profile people are constantly pointing at a scapegoat, that
the potential for someone attacking that scapegoat is increased greatly. This
is basic social science.
Now there is no direct causal link, but there is created a milieu in which
individuals who are predisposed already, to not like the individual whoâs being
scapegoated or the group being scapegoated, and it moves them to action through
a process thatâs called apocalyptic aggression.
Apocalyptic just means thereâs a struggle between good and evil, time is
running out, itâs going to happen soon, itâll change history, hidden truths
will be revealed, act now. Get them before they get us. Thatâs apocalyptic
People are being wound up and told that there is a handful of people destroying
America, and you know, really somebody should do something. And then somebody
does something, and these guys are surprised?
Now Iâve got to say, this kind of scapegoating and demonization, it happens on
the left, too. And a lot of this direct mail folks get from Washington, which
says you know, Christian right is out to destroy America. Well, I donât agree
with the Christian right, but I donât really think they want to destroy
So thereâs a lot of this hyperbolic rhetoric that weâve come to accept, and it
just happens, right now, that on the political right, especially since they
lost the last election, itâs been really ratcheted up to a level that creates a
very, very dangerous environment.
GROSS: Now, Rush Limbaugh blamed the murder of Stephen Johns, the Holocaust
Museum guard, he blamed that murder on the left.
Mr.Â BERLET: Right.
GROSS: What logic is he using there?
Mr.Â BERLET: Heâs using a logic that developed in the 1920s, 1930s, when early
analysts looked at Hitlerâs Nazi movement, which was the National Socialist
German Workersâ Party, and they recognized, actually true, that both Italian
fascism and German Nazism came out of a group of socialist ideas who wedded it
What they neglected to then analyze was that once it formed into a major mass
movement, it deleted all of the socialist aspects except for what the right-
wing would call collectivism, the idea that the state was imposing collective
That later became known as totalitarianism. Hannah Arendt wrote brilliantly
about how it could be seen in both Hitler and Stalin, and whatâs happened is
that these right-wing pundits and a whole lot of right-wing libertarians argue
that Hitler, therefore, was a leftist because he was a collectivist and he came
out of this socialist grouping.
Now, most major scholars of fascism today look at it and say, okay, there were
socialist roots, but it turned into something else. And that when it gained
state power or sought state power, it basically worked with the political
So you know, what we have here is an attempt to take a very marginal political
viewpoint about fascism being a left-wing phenomena, and since Von Brunn was a
national socialist, he was a neo-Nazi, therefore itâs a leftist outlook. But it
simply reduces 50, 60, 70 years of social science and brushes it aside and
imposes this very narrow view from the â30s and â40s.
GROSS: Does this explain, in part, why people on the far right have been
calling President Obama a fascist and a socialist and almost using the words
Mr.Â BERLET: Exactly. And in fact it goes back, really, in terms of a public
accusation, to the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt because, of
course, he was, in building a larger government role in American society, which
was seen and identified at the time as collectivist - and you had really the
earliest coalition of right-wing economic libertarians, like von Mises and
others, with a Christian-right movement, which felt that FDR was imposing a
kind of collectivism and socialism that was identical to fascism in Italy and
Germany, which would strip away from America its manly ability to stand up and
be Godâs country.
And so you had this early coalition between the economic libertarians of the
right and the Christian right. After World War II, they tended to drop the more
anti-Semitic aspects in the major reconstruction of the conservative movement
in the 1950s.
GROSS: Chip Berlet will be back in the second half of the show. Heâs the senior
research associate at Political Research Associates. His new paper about
conspiracy theories, âToxic to Democracy,â is available on their Web site,
publiceye.org. Iâm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross back with Chip Berlet, who has
written a new paper about modern conspiracy theories called, "Toxic To
Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization, and Scapegoating." He's the
senior research analyst at Political Research Associates, which tracks
extremist hate groups and paramilitary groups.
Now earlier we were talking about how the person alleged to have shot the
Holocaust Museum guard was kind of like a walking encyclopedia of current
conspiracy theories. What about Scott Roeder who is the alleged murderer in the
case of Dr. George Tiller? Did he subscribe to a lot of conspiracy theories
Mr. BERLET: Well he had to subscribe to one because he had handmade his own
license plate, which is what sovereign citizens do, and it was one of his first
interactions with the law. Sovereign citizens are people who believe that the
Constitution and federal law in general stipulates that the sheriff is the
highest law enforcement officer that can actively function on the state level.
Therefore, they reject federal and state laws that require driver's licenses,
license plates, they don't believe in regulations regarding you know, forestry,
or the environment, or hunting, or fishing. And they basically track back this
And even if they themselves are not aware of it, it comes out of a very white
supremacist interpretation of constitutional law, in which white people are the
natural citizens of the United States, and those people who are given
citizenship through amendments to the Constitution do not have the same rights
as white people. Thus, black people in America are second-class citizens.
So that's conspiracy theory involving bizarre, abhorrent, and ridiculous
theories of law that are believed to be true. And the conspiracy aspect is that
it is conspiracy of secret elites that imposes these federal laws and
regulations on us when, in fact, the Constitution and the amendments donât
allow for it at all. So weâre living in a conspiracy to deprive us of our
GROSS: So how do those theories about secret elites connect with the fact that
he killed somebody because they performed abortions? How do the abortions and
the secret elites connect?
Mr. BERLET: Well itâs the secret elites who allow abortion to occur at all
because we all know itâs evil and it offends God, and if abortion is therefore
murder then folks should act like it. And so there's - it's hard to tell with
Mr. Roeder because all of the details haven't come out. But he appears to
believe a set of ideas that comes out of perhaps something called Christian
Identity, which has an elaborate theory regarding Jewish control in which,
believe it or not, Christian men, white men in America are the real Jews and
the people who claim to be Jews are fakes. And that's why Christian Identity
calls itself identity because your real identity is one of the chosen people as
a white man in America.
It can get very convoluted. So there are indications that he believes either
Christian Identity or a similar kind of belief system in which white Christian
men in America have a very special role to play in America to restore America's
purity. And to restore America's purity from this conspiracy of liberals, and
secular humanists, and maybe Jews, what we have to do is stop abortion and stop
gay rights because these are an offense to God through the Bible. And so this
is particular militant Christian wing of the anti-abortion movement comes to
believe that ending abortion and preventing gay rights is a mandate from God in
order to prepare America for its role as the shining city on a hill in which
will allow for Christ to return in his second coming.
GROSS: You know, I can barely keep up with all these conspiracies that you're
spinning out. There's - it's just such an amazing set of world views.
Mr. BERLET: Yes. My wife's pretty tired of hearing about them. I assure you...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BERLET: ... after 30 years.
GROSS: At least you don't subscribe to these theories. You're just you know...
Mr. BERLET: No I don't.
GROSS: ... keeping track of them. The alleged murderers of Dr. George Tiller
and Stephen Johns, the Holocaust Museum guard, they've been described by many
people as lone wolves. Yet, you're describing them as you know identifying with
specific groups that subscribe conspiracy theories. I donât know if they were
like card-carrying members so to speak of these groups or not, but does the
lone wolf theory ring true to you?
Mr. BERLET: Well, it's a term that has a very precise meaning among folks who
track these groups. Essentially, you know obviously white supremacists, since
the end of the Civil War and even before, have been carrying out armed attacks
against people of color. No surprise there. It happens periodically. There's a
kind of a constant drum beat of attacks and violence that is tracked now by the
federal government - and good that it does.
What you have with the lone wolf theory is that somebody who can be in a
milieu, somebody who may be in an organization, but isnât in a cell planning
violence may decide that the time has come to act. And they act without asking
permission. They decide the time is now and they, without permission and
without telling anyone, go out and commit an act of symbolic violence. They
become martyrs to the causes essentially. And that's what a lone wolf is.
There's another thing called leaderless resistance - is when a small cell spins
out of a movement and it turns into a cell that gets its instructions from
propaganda. And this is an important issue because this is whatâs happening
around the world with the development of new communications technologies. So
you can have the idea - ideologues pointing out whom is the scapegoat, who is
the target, who needs to be removed from the society. And then a cell that is
unconnected to others in the movement will then, on its own, decide to launch
an attack. And that's leaderless resistance.
And then you have the classic cell structure, which people in a movement are in
touch with the leadership and they simply step outside the movement and launch
attacks. And we saw that in the â90s a lot, where you had people who left Aryan
nations, and the Order, and other white supremacists groups and gunned down a
Denver talk-show host, blew up the home of a minister doing human rights work,
engaged in bank robberies. So you have these three forms: the traditional cell
structure violence, you have the lone wolf, and you have leaderless resistance.
And the government is getting it.
And this is the problem with the right-wing extremism report that the
government issued: it doesnât separate these different forms of violence out
well enough, and it doesnât make it clear enough that, you know, the First
Amendment does protect the right of people to say certain things and hold
certain views. And that people who have conservative and right-wing views are
not on some sort of slippery slope towards violence just like people on the
left are not on some slippery slope to violence. So we need a more
sophisticated government understanding. The report had some very good details
about the forces at play here. But its understanding of the First Amendment was
GROSS: The report that I think you're referring to is a Homeland Security
Department report, an internal report, that was issued in April warning that
current conditions resemble those in the early â90s when there was a rise in
right-wing extremism - and this was also the era that the building in Oklahoma
City was bombed.
Mr. BERLET: Yes. That's correct. But here's the problem: we now have a
department that looks at extremism and radicalization. What do those words
mean: extremism and radicalization? Extremists are people that folks in the
center don't like. Martin Luther King was called an extremist and he turned it
around in his letter from a Birmingham jail and said, wow, why are you calling
me an extremist when I'm standing up for rights? So the word extremist and the
word radical in American history has a very bad heritage. It has been used
throughout American history all the way back to the late 1700s to round up
dissidents across the political spectrum.
So I guess what I'm saying is as much as I agree that there is an increase in
the possibility of right-wing violence based on white supremacy and anti-
Semitism in the current period that weâre in, and it scares me, I'm also scared
by the oversimplification and reduction of the government report where itâs not
clear they know how to make a distinction between the government preventing
violence and prosecuting violence, and the government preventing radical ideas
that they donât like.
GROSS: If you were consulting with Homeland Security, what would you tell them?
Mr. BERLET: That the terms extremism and radicalism don't tell you what's going
on. You know there are terms that are less opaque and vague than extremism and
radicalism. Let's start using those terms, white supremacy, anti-Semitism,
homophobia, xenophobia against immigrants, Islamophobia, Arabophobia. You know
there are people who are supremacists. There are people who are bigots. There
are people who see America being destroyed by a group they don't like. We have
names for these people. To simply call them radicals and extremists doesn't
teach anybody what the problem is. The problem is bigotry and dualism where we
divide the world into a good us and bad them.
The problem is when we scapegoat our problems on some group we don't like. The
problem is demonization that says you know they're going destroy it, they're
evil, and they may even be in league with the devil and the end times. And
that's what leads to this outbreak of apocalyptic aggression on people who
already believe these conspiracy theories about secret elites and tyranny.
GROSS: Are there things that you think American law enforcement could be doing
that it's not doing to prevent anti-Semites, white supremacists, and other
extremist hate groups from carrying out acts of violence?
Mr. BERLET: Well let's look at the idea of a lone wolf. Let's look at von
Brunn. He double parked. He got out of his car. He walked towards the museum.
I've walked those steps myself many times as I use the library there. And he
pulled up a rifle and began shooting. How are you going to prevent that if,
unless you have a police state? Unless we lock down the entire country, we have
armed guards on every street corner with automatic weapons, with cameras on
every telephone pole. You know, this is the price we pay for having a
democracy. But there's an obligation we have.
We keep saying what are the police going to do? What is the government going to
do? And I'm saying what are we going to do as a society? When are we going to
stand up across the political spectrum and say enough, and start talking about
this in a public discussion where we really make it clear that people who
demonize and scapegoat on our public airwaves should be sent back to where they
belong, which is standing on a street corner with a shopping cart full of
pamphlets trying to hand them out.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Chip Berlet. And he's been
tracking extremists, white supremacist groups, racist groups, anti-Semitic
groups for decades. He's a senior analyst at Political Research Associates
which collects and analyzes information on white supremacists and anti-Semitic
and other racist groups. And he's written a new report called, "Toxic To
Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization, and Scapegoating."
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Weâre talking about conspiracy theories. And my guest, Chip Berlet is a
senior analyst at Political Associates which collects and analyzes information
on white supremacists and anti-Semitic and other extremist hate groups. And
he's written a new report called, "Toxic To Democracy: Conspiracy Theories,
Demonization, and Scapegoating."
Weâve talked about some of the conspiracy theories that come from the far
right. But there are also some conspiracy theories that come from the left. I
think one of those is the one about September 11th, that the people actually
responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were our
own government. Would you talk about that conspiracy theory?
Mr. BERLET: Yes. I've written about that as well and certainly gained a very
vocal audience of people in, what they call, the 9/11 Truth Movement. Basically
this is broken down into different categories. So there are people who think it
was the U.S. government, and then there are the people who think it was Jews
controlling the U.S. government - theyâre the minority. I have to say in
fairness to the 9/11 Truth Movement, they have tried to keep some of the anti-
Semitism out of it with varying degrees of success, but good for them that they
did that. Within the main body of the 9/11 Truth Movement, there's the let-it-
happen and the made-it-happen crowd. And the let-it-happen crowd thinks that
the government under Bush knew this was going to happen and let it happen to
use it as political leverage for both domestic and foreign policy.
For the made-it-happen people, they think that it actually involved, you know,
not a group of Islamic terrorists, but a planting of bombs in the World Trade
Center by the U.S. government. And then the U.S. government sent a missile to
hit the Pentagon. And there's some very well-known people on the political left
who promote these kinds of ideas and these theories, and it's really been very
divisive. The 9/11 Truth Movement, again, uses these ideas that there's a good
us and a bad them. So it really demonizes the federal government in a way that
is oversimplified and doesnât really talk about any kinds of real struggles. It
doesnât look at systems or structures or institutions of power, and it reduces,
you know, these troubles we have in our society, in domestic and foreign
policy, to things that are simply solved by unearthing and uncovering this
cabal of evil people after which I suppose we have, you know, heaven on Earth.
Itâs a kind of millennial idea of social change, because they donât explain, if
they find the eight bad guys who did 9/11, how theyâre going to get rid of
economic disparity or racism or sexism or homophobia or anti-Semitism or, you
know, environmental depredations or the global warming.
Apparently they think if we find these evil folks, that all of that will be
solved, just like the folks who thought they knew there was a government
conspiracy or sinister conspiracy behind the Kennedy assassination, thought
exposing that would solve all of our problems. Itâs magical thinking,
GROSS: Do you ever feel like youâre going to go crazy, absorbing yourself so
much, you know, so intensely and for so long in really fringy conspiracy
Mr. BERLET: Oh yeah. You know, I have goldfish outside in a pool. Theyâre
(unintelligible) for those who care. My wife and I garden a lot. We go on
hikes. Itâs helpful to work in a group. Iâve worked at Political Research
Associates for, you know, over 25 years and itâs great to be with a group of
people who can say, Chip, you know, youâre getting a little obsessed, donât you
think? Or we have like the atrocity of the week thing we put up on the wall,
you know, the most horrendous thing that came in through the mail that week. So
you know, itâs a little bit like working in an emergency trauma center where,
you know, you develop a kind of sense of humor about it.
GROSS: What was one of the recent atrocities of the week?
Mr. BERLET: Oh, you know, celebrating the attack on the Holocaust Museum
because it exposed the true nature of the Jewish conspiracy. That came off the
GROSS: Wow. Chip, because youâve been studying conspiracy movements and hate
groups for decades â have you ever become a target yourself?
Mr. BERLET: I think that goes with the territory. I was once told by the
Chicago police that someone has been hired to mess with my car. That was a
little creepy. Certainly - I lived in a neighborhood being organized by neo-
Nazis and occasionally, you know, they would come up and threaten me, but you
know, that was, again, to be expected. I was once sued for $33 million by the
Lyndon LaRouch group, but I didnât have it and he lost the case eventually
anyway. So you know, thatâs the way it is.
GROSS: All right. Well, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. BERLET: Itâs a pleasure.
GROSS: Chip Berlet is the senior research associate at Political Research
Associates. His new paper about conspiracy theories is called âToxic to
Democracy.â You'll find a link to it on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
For Health Or Profit, But Not Necessarily For Both
TERRY GROSS, host:
Thereâs a new documentary opening this week that explores the food industry.
Itâs called âFood, Inc.â Eric Schlosser, author of the bestseller âFast Food
Nationâ is a co-producer and appears on the film along with investigative food
writer Michael Pollan. The film also features farmers, scientists and
consumers. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: âFood, Inc.â is a documentary, but the film it reminds me of
most is âThe Matrix,â the movie where humans find out theyâre living in a
simulacrum, a virtual world they mistake for reality. Itâs the stuff of the
most paranoid science fiction. Author and co-producer Eric Schlosser strolls
through a supermarket and explains that most of these colorful foodstuffs, this
so-called variety, comes from five corporations that now control 80 percent of
the market. Those company names, like Farmland - and little pictures of family
farms - theyâre fantasy.
That red tomato? It is, says Schlosser, a notional tomato, flavorless, gassed
to be red, ready to be consumed year-round. That plump chicken? Grown in a
factory, never saw daylight, bred to be almost all breast meat, so its feet
couldnât carry it and its organs barely worked. And us? The way we eat, says
Schlosser, has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000.
And the reality has been deliberately hidden from view. The material of âFood,
Inc.â will be familiar if youâve read Schlosserâs âFast Food Nationâ or Michael
Pollanâs âThe Omnivoreâs Dilemmaâ â and Pollanâs in the film too.
But hearing family farmers sued into bankruptcy by giant corporations and
seeing chicken factories and hidden-camera slaughterhouse footage â thatâs gut-
wrenching, literally. Director Robert Kenner lucidly lays out the reasoning of
Schlosser, Pollan, scientists and nutritionists. He moves from facts about how
we eat now to unintended consequences and hidden costs. Every line, every frame
makes you choke on your popcorn, if for no other reason than the popcorn is a
big part of the problem. Thanks to government subsidies, corn is 30 percent of
It goes into everything, from the high-fructose corn syrup in that soda youâre
drinking to unlodge the popcorn to the Midol you take for the headache the
movie gives you, to the E. coli-ridden bellies of factory-farmed cows. Kenner
introduces us to a low-income family buying burgers from a fast-food drive-up,
which makes perfect economic sense. Thanks to subsidized corn, itâs cheaper to
go for the double burger and soda instead of the non-subsidized broccoli head.
But there is that hidden cost - childhood obesity and mushrooming incidences of
The sheer scale of âFood, Inc.â is mind-blowing. It touches on every aspect of
modern life - and death - as in the case of Barbara Kowalczykâs two-and-a-half-
year-old son Kevin, who died from E. coli. Sheâs now an activist, here lobbying
on the Hill.
Unidentified Woman: We reduced funding for the FDA. We relied increasingly on
self-policing for all of these industries, and now we just have really lost our
Ms. BARBARA KOWALCZYK (Activist): You know, you are really one of the champions
on the Hill for full safety, and itâs a very important cause. Itâs very
personal to me and my family. Really our food safety advocacy work started six
years ago when my two-and-a-half-year-old son Kevin was stricken with E. coli
157H7, and went from being a perfectly healthy beautiful little boy â I have a
small picture with me today that was taken two weeks before he got sick. He
went from that to being dead in 12 days.
EDELSTEIN: Hereâs one of my favorite bits in âFood, Inc.â - because itâs about
an insane philosophy. Pollan says you could reduce the E. coli in the guts of
cows by 80 percent just by putting them on grass for five days, which sounds
like a good deal all around â nature working its magic. But no, the industry
wants a high-tech solution. So Eldon Roth demonstrates his new E. coli-killing
meat mix-in, a tasty blend of ammonia and ammonia hydroxide. Bon appetite.
Points to Roth for talking on camera. Perdue, Smithfield, Monsanto and the
others declined to give their side.
The film makes Monsanto out as the scariest. The former DDT and Agent Orange
manufacturer patented the gene in 90 percent of the nationâs soybean seeds.
Youâll be driven out of business if you re-use them, as farmers have for
thousands of years. Youâll even be sued if some of the seed blows onto your
land and you wind up with Monsanto-patented soy. âFood, Inc.â doesnât end on a
down note, though. The music goes from minor to major key. Gary Hirshberg of
Stonyfield Farms makes the case that every food purchase we make is a political
act. Wal-Mart sells his organic products because people want to buy them, not
because itâs morally enlightened.
I was inspired to lobby my local arthouse to stop selling its giant
agribusiness popcorn with the fake small-farmer figurehead - a real Matrix
character - and go for something organic. Call me a film critic-slash-activist.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.