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Time to take conspiracy theories seriously, political science professor says

Before he detonated a truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah building in April of 1995, killing 168 people and injuring more than 800 others, Timothy McVeigh read The Turner Diaries.

A novel set in 2099, the book depicts a violent overthrow of the United States federal government and is based on the premise that a secret cadre of Jews have conspired to create a totalitarian government that has confiscated all civilian firearms and controls both the media and the entire economy.

Though it’s a fictional account, the book has been described as “the bible of the racist right.” It reportedly inspired McVeigh to launch his attack and it fuels the kind of conspiracy thinking that we need to start taking much more seriously according to Martha Lee, a political science professor and author of a new book called Conspiracy Rising: Conspiracy Thinking and American Public Life.

“It’s a horrifying thing to read,” Dr. Lee said of The Turner Diaries, which was authored by a former leader of the white nationalist organization called National Alliance. “It’s the worst kind of hate literature but it gives you some insight into how dangerous conspiracy theories can be.”

Lee’s new book argues that conspiracy theories are a threat to democracy because they foster two paradoxical tendencies: apathy and political extremism. People tend either to not participate in the political process if they believe the outcome has been pre-determined by conspirators, or to react in violently extremist ways like McVeigh did when they believe their rights are being taken away by secretly controlling regimes.

Most people, however, view conspiracy theories as a source of humour rather than a real political threat, Lee said. The book challenges both conspiracy theories and those who dismiss them as trivial and argues that we need to be vigilant about them in order to prevent conspiracy thinkers from coming to power.

“Some of the most significant of these conspiracy theories challenge political legitimacy and therefore have a potentially serious impact on the health of democratic political regimes,” the acting dean of the Faculty of Education writes in the book’s introduction.

Lee will discuss her new book tomorrow on Research Matters, a weekly talk show on CJAM 99.1 FM that airs Thursdays at 4:30 p.m. and focuses on the work of University of Windsor researchers.

Watch a video of Martha Lee talking about conspiracy theories and her new book.