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|Postponing the election: It's a joke, or is it?|
Postponing the election: It's a joke, or is it?
By Alex Beam, Globe Columnist | October 11, 2008
Thank heavens for the Internet; it's put the surprise back in October Surprise.
Here is the latest big-picture conspiracy theory, which has been gathering strength on the blogosphere the way a hurricane feeds on Caribbean waters: It is widely believed, both online and, increasingly, offline, that the Bush administration intends to declare martial law and postpone next month's elections. To prevent Barack Obama's inevitable ascension to the Oval Office, obviously.
This theory/rumor/delusion dates back almost a year and a half, with the appearance on the White House website of National Security Presidential Directive 51, which outlined a policy for "continuity of government" in the event of a national emergency. Such emergency is defined as "any incident . . . that results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption severely affecting the US population, infrastructure, environment, economy, or government functions."
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel says the new directive supplants a Cold War-era emergency memorandum that is no longer valid in the post-9/11 world, with the country at risk of a "no-notice terrorist attack." But on websites with names such as justanothercoverup.com and abovetopsecret.com, the public document - often described as "secret" - was read quite differently. "FEMA Official States Bush Is Planning to Implement Martial Law," is a headline from justanothercoverup. "Pelosi Declared Martial Law Last Night," was a September headline from abovetopsecret.
Like a much-awaited Messiah (I am channeling the famous sociological text "When Prophecy Fails"), the date of the martial law takeover keeps moving forward. This spring it was to coincide with the bombing of Iran, this summer with the devastation wrought by Hurricane Ike. In the minds of conspiracy theorists, the current economic crisis seems like a propitious moment for the suspension of the November election.
The martial law paranoia has an engaging adjunct: the "FEMA coffins" story. If you Google those words, you will find pictures, videos, and reams of text explaining that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has stockpiled 30,000 - or is it 50,000? - coffins (or are they coffin liners? or . . . boxes?) in anticipation of a vast civil disturbance, presumably triggered by the imposition of martial law. "We do not have FEMA coffins," says spokeswoman Debbie Wing.
On the one hand you say, OK, this is Internet madness. On the other hand, you note that Ireland's largest bookmaker, Paddy Power, is laying 20-1 odds that the American election will be postponed. When I first checked that site on Tuesday, the odds were 40-1.
We've seen this movie before, right? Writer Ron Rosenbaum remembers a 1972 story averring that Richard Nixon asked the RAND Corporation to study whether he could postpone that election, which he won, handily. University of California historian Kathryn Olmsted, author of the forthcoming "Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11" notes that Franklin Roosevelt's many enemies were convinced that he would assume dictatorial powers and cancel the election of 1944, which he won handily.
"There are all kinds of trends coming together now to feed the paranoia," Olmsted says. "The financial meltdown evokes Americans' longtime fear and hatred of bankers, and people on the right think Obama's candidacy might mean the end of civilization. What's scary to the left right now is that Obama has a good chance of winning, and there is a segment of the far left that thinks 'they' will never let this happen."
And of course, there is this inconvenient, animating truth: "Sometimes the government does engage in real conspiracies, like Watergate, Iran-Contra, and the assassination plot again Castro," Olmsted explains.
I am sure you remember William S. Burroughs's famous observation: A paranoid is a man with all the facts at his disposal.
Say goodnight, Sarah
The Sarah-Palindrome contest is officially over. (A palindrome is a word or phrase, like "Madam, I'm Adam," that's spelled the same backward or forward.) Here is the last official entry, from Little, Brown copy editor Ben Allen: "Harasser of taxes: A mav, a ma, sex at fore's Sarah." The judges will announce their decision in this space on Election Day, Nov. 4. Unless the Bush administration declares. . . . Oh, never mind.
Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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