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'Foreign funded special interests' and Jason Kenney's UCP: The 'new conspiracism' comes to Alberta

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Pizzagate protesters in Washington D.C. Photo: Will Sommer/Twitter

The new conspiracism has come to Alberta!

What is the "new conspiracism," you ask, and how is it different from the old conspiracism?

"'Classic' conspiracy theories … arise in response to real events -- the assassination of John F. Kennedy, say, or the terrorist attacks of September 11th," observed Elizabeth Kolbert in a useful piece on the new conspiracism published on April 15 in The New Yorker.

As Kolbert observed, "America has always had a weakness for paranoid fantasies." Canada less so, although if we look for the corner of Canada where such theories thrived in the 1930s, it was Alberta. The imaginary villains of these fantasies weren't always wealthy Protestant families as they apparently are now.

Quoting Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum -- authors of A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy -- New Yorker staffer Kolbert dug into the rise of a whole new class of conspiracy theory in an age when "a confirmed conspiracist now occupies the White House."

What makes the new conspiracism different? Three things:

First, explanation doesn't matter. Whereas old-timey conspiracy theories like the guy with a rifle on the grassy knoll in Dallas on November 22, 1963, are a form of explanation, the new conspiracism requires no explanations. "There is often nothing to explain," wrote Muirhead and Rosenblum. "The new conspiracism sometimes seems to arise out of thin air."

Consider Alex Jones, the conspiracy peddler recently deposed by a lawyer for parents of children massacred in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School, whom Jones has accused of being "crisis actors" in a conspiracy.

"Jones, like most conspiracy theorists, presents himself as a close reader of reality, scrutinizing the gaps in the official narrative that reveal the big lie," observed Charles Homans of the New York Times last week in a reflection on the testimony. "But when that close reading is itself subjected to a close reading, you realize that Jones's appeal comes not from his attention to details but from the velocity with which he blows past them."

Homans suggests the deposition of Jones exposes "the whole unstable architecture of influence in today's politics."

This is a worthy observation. Kolbert tells the troubling but entertaining story of "Pizzagate," in which a guy with a rifle shot up a Washington D.C.–area pizza parlour in December 2016 because he was persuaded satanic rituals and sex trafficking involving Hillary Clinton and her minions were going on in the basement.

Never mind that the place didn't even have a basement. ("The intel on this wasn't a hundred per cent," the shooter later told police.)

Second, it's no longer out-of-power groups that are attracted to conspiracy theories to explain their powerlessness, "it's those in power who insist the game is rigged."

Wrote Homans: "When a particularly cancerous meme surfaces in Trump's Twitter feed, or when white supremacists suddenly materialize en masse in the streets of a college town, the operative question now always seems to be: Where the hell did that come from?"

And, third: The Internet. We all understand how this works now, of course, with increasing clarity.

So what does this have to do with Alberta in the 21st century?

I give you Rockefellergate, or whatever you want to call it, the fruitcake theory that the scions of a famous American oil fortune are secretly financing and conspiring with Canadian environmental groups and prominent environmentalists to "defame" Alberta's oilsands and throw roadblocks in the way of pipelines to tidewater in an effort to land lock our resources.

Needless to say, while there are certainly people all over the planet who are deeply concerned about the huge carbon footprint of Alberta's bitumen mining operations (bigger than British Columbia's entire carbon output, it is said) and money crosses all borders to support many political causes, the idea the Rockefellers are behind a big-money scheme to bottle up the resource is built on the stuff they use to fill bubble-wrap.

But this is now the official position of Alberta's newly elected United Conservative Party government, due to be sworn in on April 30.

Said UCP leader and premier-designate Jason Kenney in his victory speech: "I have a message to those foreign-funded special interests who have been leading a campaign of economic sabotage against this great province. To the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Tides Foundation, Lead Now, the David Suzuki Foundation and all of the others -- your days of pushing around Albertans with impunity just ended."

Kenney has been talking about taking legal action against oilsands and pipeline opponents, and has said he will launch "a public inquiry into the foreign source of funds behind the campaign to land lock Alberta energy." He vowed: "we will use every means at our disposal to hold you to account."

Just how any of this is supposed to work is far from clear.

It's ironic, I suppose, that a political party aided by think tanks and Astroturf groups funded and otherwise abetted by U.S. corporate money would gin up this kind of baseless conspiracy theory. As premier of Alberta, Kenney will not be in a position to direct federal policy, command the attendance of witnesses from other jurisdictions or delve into the books of organizations to prove this dubious theory.

One thing is for sure, though, he has handed the determined opponents of oilsands development -- the people who really would like to lock up Alberta's bitumen resources -- the biggest fund-raising opportunity in their history.

Another is likely: The potential for taxpayer-financed boondoggles is huge, as Conservative lawyers and whomever Kenney hires to run the UCP Government's $30-million "war room" rake up cash that will no longer be available for health care or education.

And unless conflict breaks out in the Middle East, disrupting world oil supplies and sending prices northward, which could happen sooner than you think, none of this is likely to make much difference to Alberta's financial position -- although it will give the government someone to blame for our self-inflicted troubles.

Finally, the ravings of several Postmedia columnists notwithstanding, since the whole edifice is built on an already fanciful conspiracy theory that cannot stand up to scrutiny, it will be very hard for an honest inquiry to reach the conclusions the government wants.

That suggests two additional possibilities: Either the inquiry will never be held, or it won't be honest.

It will be interesting to see which way this unfolds.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post is also found on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Photo: Will Sommer/Twitter​

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