“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?

More “Pizzagate” protesters in Washington (Photo: Will Sommer, Twitter).

‘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 magazine.

As Ms. 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 Nov. 22, 1963, are a form of explanation, the new conspiracism requires no explanations. “There is often nothing to explain,” wrote Dr. Muirhead and Dr. Rosenblum. “The new conspiracism sometimes seems to arise out of thin air.”

Alberta premier-designate Jason Kenney (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Consider Alex Jones, the conspiracy peddler recently deposed by a lawyer for parents of children massacred in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School, whom Mr. 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.”

Mr. Homans suggests the deposition of Mr. Jones exposes “the whole unstable architecture of influence in today’s politics.”

This is a worthy observation. Ms. 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.”

Conspiracy peddler Alex Jones (Photo: Sean P. Anderson, Creative Commons).

Wrote Mr. 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.

Confirmed conspiracist and U.S. President Donald Trump (Photo: The White House).

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.”

Mr. 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 Astro-Turf groups funded and otherwise abetted by U.S. corporate money would gin up this kind of baseless conspiracy theory. As premier of Alberta, Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

Join the Conversation


  1. Every tin pot dictator or wanna be demagogue needs a go to list of external enemies to blame for and perhaps distract the locals from their troubles. Unfortunately the supposed Mexican rapists are not available as they are supposedly busy pillaging America instead, at least according to Trump.

    The enemies need to be vague and undefined, but also have some air of familiarity and power, hence the old Rockefeller name is ressurected. Of course they are hardly the only ones concerned about the environment, but I have observed Kenney and his crew seldom let the facts get in the way of a good story.

    The more credible journalists here will probably try to shy away from this sort of thing, but here in Alberta the mainstream press is often very docile in dealing with the right wing, so I have doubt they will call this out too much. Therefore Albertans will be left to wonder who are these Rockefellers and why do they seem to have it in for us. It will be confusing, but in the absence of much clear rebuttal, some people will fall for it just as they did in the good old days of social credit and some of its wacky conspiracy theories. I am sure Mr. Manning remembers some of that.

  2. Aside from the abundance of foreign-funded libertarian propaganda from which the UCP and the other CRAP parties in Canada and elsewhere benefit, consider the hypocrisy of a politician, who leads a party whose existence has become dependent on absolute obeisance to the interests of transnational corporations, complaining about foreign influences on public policy.

    Jason doesn’t really believe any of the crap he’s spewing; it’s just what he does and always has done for a living. He’s just another one of those special public figures that constantly provide us with opportunities to exercise our multi-tasking skills.

  3. Hey wait a minute, aren’t most of the oil companies currently extracting our precious bitumen foreign owned? So we have a situation where foreign funded anti-tar sand activist opposing foreign funded oil sands activities.

    1. Exactly. From the Guardian, March 22, 2019: “The largest five stock market listed oil and gas companies spend nearly $200m (£153m) a year lobbying to delay, control or block policies to tackle climate change, according to a new report.

      Chevron, BP and ExxonMobil were the main companies leading the field in direct lobbying to push against a climate policy to tackle global warming, the report said.

      Increasingly they are using social media to successfully push their agenda to weaken and oppose any meaningful legislation to tackle global warming.

      In the run-up to the US midterm elections last year $2m was spent on targeted Facebook and Instagram ads by global oil giants and their industry bodies, promoting the benefits of increased fossil fuel production, according to the report published on Friday by InfluenceMap.

      Separately, BP donated $13m to a campaign, also supported by Chevron, that successfully stopped a carbon tax in Washington state – $1m of which was spent on social media ads, the research shows.

    2. Sort of a weird twist on the we are fighting them there so we don’t have to fight them here line. Didn’t turn out too well for anybody that was there…

  4. Well, it is interesting to watch the morons with their twitter toys. This is as close to ‘fiddlin’ while Rome burns’ as one can get without donning a toga.

    In the meantime, out in the real world, there is not a fact to be found in public discourse. Any person purporting to use them to explain circumstances is trounced by the raving mob.

    For a literate, educated, economically enfranchised high tech society this is ridiculous.

  5. I absolutely LOOOOOOOOOVED the “foreign funded interests” line from the premier-elect’s speech on election night.

    I’m sure nobody else noticed the irony of Mr. Kenney’s entire career being a foreign funded interest.

  6. …or, waving the conspiracy flag is not about deflection but is an actual tactic to set, not just stagnate, political discourse.

    When an opposition’s accusation of wrong doing is too quickly countered with a ‘whataboutism’ conspiracy, it suggests the accusations are probably close to true – “it takes one to know one” being the guiding adage. (What was on Kenney’s conscious when he went on and on about the supposed Notley-Trudeau alliance – what do you suppose?)

    And efforts to dispel conspiracy theories take time and effort to deal with, all idiocy does, which does take time away from real debate, affording you cover to proceed as you prefer while you opponents deal with the nonsense. (GSA facilitators taking students off-campus? Really? reminds me of Orwell’s “crimestop”).

    But consider the phenomenon of collective misremembering called the Mandela Effect (because apparently ‘everyone’ remembers Nelson Mandela dying in prison). Society misquotes movie lines like “Play it again, Sam” and “Luke, I am your father” but their falsehood does not matter – they’ve become ‘true facts’. If Kenney spends $30 million on litigating against environmentalist or suggests tidewater access cures provincial revenues, then, like his anecdote of the youth extolling him to return Alberta back to conservatism, Kenney exercises “reality control” …at least in the minds of most of the electorate, by rewriting history in advance (there’s Orwell again – clearly his Jesuit teachers liked the mid-century satirist. Too bad Kenney mid-took it as a ‘how-to’ guide).

    Kenney’s is clearly good with convoluted Machiavellianisms – as David pointed out long ago, Kenney is the leader of the UCP through a “double-reverse-takeover”.

    1. I think that the Jesuits keep Orwell to themselves, rather than teach it to the rubes. At least, I don’t remember being introduced to it in high school – I’m the product of an education much like Jason Kenney’s, although I managed to rise above it.

  7. Anyone who follows politics generally and Alberta specifically knows that leaders always look for scapegoats. Kenney is going to strike woefully short of his claims during the campaign. To make up for that failure he is going to blame Ottawa, Notley and ethereal enemies like you touch on in your column.

    His biggest and most dangerous act is to inflame the already paranoid and scared citizens of Alberta who lost their jobs in the energy sector.

  8. Who else bought into Krause’s absurd conspiracy theories?

    Krause: “I have been working since July 2018 with Notley’s govt to provide information and assist her team in taking the necessary steps to break the pipeline gridlock.”

    “‘I’m frustrated by it, of course,’ Notley says of the [anti-oilsands] campaign. ‘Vivian Krause (the B.C. researcher) and people like her have done a good job of really laying bare the details of this and really showing us the degree to which this had been going on and building over time.'”

    Question for AB progressives:
    Notley was on side with Vivian Krause. How about you?

    It’s bad enough when “conservatives” swallow Krause’s schtick. It’s even worse when progressives fall for it.

    For my NDP friends:
    (This op-ed was not published in Postmedia’s two Alberta newspapers.)
    “Notley’s enabling of oil and gas sector poor political strategy”

    1. Sir: I think Hell just froze over … I find myself agreeing with you on this particular point. I was heartily disappointed when I read of (still-Premier until the 30th) Notley’s remarks on this. One is forced to wonder, do Ms Notley and Mr Kenney actually believe this stuff, or is this just political tactics? Both are smart people—although Ms Notley has an actual education and a law degree while Mr Kenney is a university dropout, nobody accuses him of being the kind of intellectual lightweight as the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave or the Premier of Ontario—so I suspect the answer is the latter.

  9. The question I have is: how on earth is this strategy going to propel Kenney to 24 Sussex Drive? If he really thinks the whole country is just straining at the leash to support the oil industry, he’s making a serious error in judgement. I get that he’s setting the scene for two years of sturm und drang followed by a federal run because he’s so gosh darn determined to save the country from the meany greenies, but I really don’t see how this is going to work.

  10. It’s the outside agitators :

    From Mike Nichols’ The Graduate

    Proprietor: Are you a student?
    Benjamin: Not exactly.
    Proprietor: What’s that?
    Benjamin: I said ‘Not exactly.’ No.
    Proprietor: What are ya then?
    Benjamin: Oh, I’m just sorta travelin’ through.
    Proprietor: I like to know who’s living in my house. Like to know what my boys are up to.
    Benjamin: I’m not up to much, actually. I’m just visiting. I mean, I’ve always wanted to see Berkeley.
    Proprietor: (He stops at one of the landings) You’re not one of those agitators?
    Benjamin: What?
    Proprietor: One of those outside agitators?
    Benjamin: Oh no.
    Proprietor: I hate that. I won’t stand for it. I won’t stand for that.

  11. I am frequently dismayed when I read about the alleged development of “conspiracicism” in the era of the internet. The behaviour of the Rockefellers going back to John D., has been nothing if not conspiratorial. It is amusing to see the right-wing kookosphere characterize the current generation of Rockefellers as “liberals” or “progressives”, but the fact remains that we have never had a press or government that told the truth about the big issues. Three hundred years after the War of the Spanish Succession people still can’t seem to comprehend the notion that those in power tell us stories that support their claims, no matter how ridiculous, and we devour them. The idea that we are not constantly beset by conspirators at every level is absurd. What, if not conspiracies, gives us Jason Kenney, Brian Mulroney, Stephen Harper, the creation of Kosovo, Iran-Contra, fake claims about fleets of Sandinista Migs, not to mention the destruction of the sovereign state of Iraq or the deaths of three million Vietnamese between 1945 and 1975. Given the failure of the people in charge to tell the truth, why shouldn’t people piece together their own versions of reality, with or without the help of con-artists like Krause.

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