The 12-stage ‘evolution’ of a Richard Dawkins Twitter scandal

Richard Dawkins has once again been embroiled in a Twitter storm, the latest upset caused by the prominent atheist’s comments about aborting fetuses with Down syndrome.

Of course this is not the first time the esteemed Oxford academic has found himself the focus of a collective scolding from the social network – a pooled rebuke occurs roughly once every three months.

To prepare you for the inevitable repeat here are the 12 stages of any Richard Dawkins Twitter scandal:

  1. The eminent biologist will employ the rigid rationalism of his discipline to a highly emotive issue – the lack of Nobel prizes for Muslims or how some types of rape are worse than others. Dawkins will then share this insight with his one million followers on Twitter.
  2. A cluster of Dawkins’ devotees will debate the professor’s contention in a reasoned and scientific fashion.
  3. Someone negatively affected by Dawkins’ clinical assertion will spot the tweet and take issue with his post, replying “really?? #twat”.
  4. A Twitter user with Jesus/crescent moon as their profile picture will call Dawkins a “c*nt”, likening the biologist to Josef Mengele and/or Harold Shipman. Soon thereafter Herr Hitler will be invoked.
  5. A journalist will spot the reaction, read Dawkins’ original tweet and pen a quick article highlighting the “prominent atheist’s latest Twitter storm”.
  6. A member of the blue tick Twitter elite – a newsreader or “social commenter” – will pick up on the rumpus, tweeting how the professor’s original post was “indefensible” and how these comments are “the worst yet”.
  7. Twitter users with #reason, #doubt and #MissTheHitch in their profile will distance themselves from Dawkins, telling their 73 followers that The God Delusion author no longer speaks for “atheists/anti-theists”.
  8. Dawkins will continue to defend his position, while other media outlets pen similar hit-focused articles on the brouhaha, many highlighting his past Twitter indiscretions. Right-wing media in the US will pick up on the tempest, decrying Dawkins as the emblem of a world “abandoned by God”.
  9. People personally affected by the issue of Dawkins’ original post will pen angry responses to Independent Voices and the Huffington Post, many concluding with the line: “How can such a clever man can be so stupid?”
  10. Dawkins will issue an apology via his website for the “misunderstanding” and though he will concede his “phraseology” was wrong he will maintain his “logic” was sound.
  11. Attempting to squeeze a few last hits out of the now-subsiding “outrage”, a journalist will write a meta-piece attempting to explain the anatomy of a Dawkins Twitter scandal.
  12. Wait 90 days and repeat.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

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Ann Coulter is wrong, ‘soccer’ is the most American sport imaginable

Our American brethren are delighting in the World Cup. And so they should be. Not only are the Red White and Blue through to the knockout stages, but they’ve advanced thanks to a coherent team ethic and some strong individual performances. The on-field success for the US has translated into packed fan parks, record viewing figures, and a huge boost to the already burgeoning popularity of the game across Atlantic.

However everything in the US is political, so of course one right-wing media pundit has decided to piss all over everyone’s fun by decrying the “growing interest in soccer” as “a sign of the nation’s moral decay“. Fortunately, this castigation came from Ann Coulter, a pundit whose career as a contrarian borders on, as Alyssa Rosenberg argues in The Washington Post, “performance art”.

Yet taking the syndicated columnist at face value, her objections run thus:

“Individual achievement is not a big factor in soccer. In a real sport, players fumble passes, throw bricks and drop fly balls — all in front of a crowd. When baseball players strike out, they’re standing alone at the plate. But there’s also individual glory in home runs, touchdowns and slam-dunks. In soccer, the blame is dispersed and almost no one scores anyway. There are no heroes, no losers, no accountability, and no child’s fragile self-esteem is bruised… the prospect of either personal humiliation or major injury is required to count as a sport.”

“In a real sport, players fumble passes, throw bricks and drop fly balls – all in front of a crowd.”

A fumbled pass, such as when US defender Geoff Cameron mishit a clearance in the early minutes of the game against Portugal? The ball went straight to Nani, who shot past Tim Howard – all in front an audience far bigger than has ever watched one of Coulter’s “real sports”.

“When baseball players strike out, they’re standing alone at the plate.”

Like Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev’s shocking error against South Korea in the team’s opening match? But if you’re looking for real individual responsibility, how about a player stepping up to take the fifth kick in a penalty shootout knowing that a miss will send his national team out of the World Cup?

If a baseball player strikes out to lose a game, there’s often another one the next day. The World Cup is staged every four years, with one player nearly always responsible for an entire nation’s progress or elimination – all in front of a global audience of millions.

“But there’s also individual glory in home runs, touchdowns and slam-dunks.”

A player gaining individual glory, such as Lionel Messi scoring a wonder goal in extra time against Iran or Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa single-handedly denying Brazil’s potent frontline a goal?

“In soccer, the blame is dispersed.”

Of course, it was the entire Italian team’s fault that Claudio Marchisio got sent off. Likewise, everyone with a Uruguayan passport is to blame for Luis Suarez biting Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder.

“There are no heroes, no losers.”

Quite right – there are no heroes such as John Brooks, the young substitute whose 86th minute header gave the USA an unlikely victory against Ghana, paving the way for the Klinsmann’s team to gain passage out of the group of death? I presume a nine match international ban and a four month stadium ban would make Luis Suarez the most obvious loser of the 2014 World Cup… so far.

“The prospect of either personal humiliation or major injury is required to count as a sport.”

The prospect of personal humiliation such as that suffered by England player Steven Gerard, who made two catastrophic errors during the match against Uruguay that led to England’s early exit? As for major injuries, the sport is littered with broken legs, concussions, career-ending tackles and, in some fortunately rare cases, even deaths.

“Most sports are sublimated warfare.”

Here Coulter is quite correct. There is no clearer sublimation of warfare than football. Witness the Argentinean team unfurling a flag that read “Las Malvinas son Argentina’s” before their World Cup warm-up game against Slovenia.

So here’s the rub: Coulter knows nothing about football, but has attacked “soccer” because of its European heritage, arguing that it represents the collective over the individual. This plays into the conspiratorial mindset of many conservative Americans who fatuously believe that the European nations, with their mixed economies and socialised medicine, are Bolshevik enclaves, while bemoaning “communist fifth columnist” Barack Obama for attempting to bring down the American way of life by reforming the beleaguered US healthcare system in the form of the Affordable Care Act.

What football represents is not only a freedom to gain individual glory and make individual mistakes, but also the possibility of the triumph of the group, where a nation can achieve more by working together than simply relying on the personal self-interest of the players.

If you’re looking for individualism and self-interest, members of the England squad are currently sat playing Xbox 6,000 miles from Rio. The American team, with arguably lesser individuals but a far stronger collective mindset, is still very much in the tournament. The notion of the American dream has two components – individual as well as collective (national) achievement. As such, “soccer” is probably just about the most American sport there is.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

Soccer’s cultural invasion of the US hasn’t started – it’s already over

“Who’s your team, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester?” It’s the stock opener posed by every waiter, concierge or taxi driver in New York City. “Manchester City is beautiful,” “Wenger has to go,” “Why did Ferguson say ‘no’ to Mourinho?”

In the US, soccer talk is everywhere, with City’s triumph in the Premiere League and Barcelona’s loss of La Liga giving way to speculation on the World Cup, the US national team and “Klinsmann, man, what the fu*k?”

On ESPN, retired nobles of the European game – van Nistelrooy, Ballack, Ekoku, McManaman – glean greenbacks for discussing the forthcoming tournament in Brazil, each discussion bookended by adverts showcasing their footballing heirs in the latest batch of Hollywood-inspired mini-movies for Nike.

Papers of record, such as the New York Times, feel comfortable to run front page editorials on Fifa corruption, while Morning Joe, the popular breakfast show on MSNBC, offers regular updates on the English game, each segment welcomed with puppy-like enthusiasm by the Georgia-born host Joe Scarborough – as much for his love of the game as for the bafflement it elicits from his co-host Mika Brzezinski.

New York is bathed in emblems and icons of the European game. Soccer shirts are widespread, with the names of Suarez, Rooney or Messi as likely to adorn clothing as those of Carmelo Anthony (Knicks), Eli Manning (Giants) or Derek Jeter (Yankees).

In the early months of last season, a marketing campaign by broadcaster NBC had New York’s iconic subway trains emblazoned with individual team colours from the Barclays Premier League or “BPL” as is the common abbreviation, while Times Square was decorated with the hue of Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool et al.

All the games from the BPL season just gone (for which the broadcaster paid $250million) were available to watch across the NBC channels – small subscription required – with the time difference meaning that a midday kick off in the UK was watched upon waking up on the east coast or through a haze of booze in the early hours on the west coast.

Premier League games continued throughout the day, usually at 10am EST and then midday EST… then you could switch channel and watch a game from La Liga at 5pm EST.

Speaking to The Guardian in October, Jon Miller, NBC Sport‘s president of programming, said: “There have always been a lot of people in this country who have loved soccer, but I don’t think as many people really embraced the Premier League as they have now. It has become part of the daily conversation in this country, much more relevant and important.”

That’s certainly evident, with the viewing figures for Premiere League games on NBCreaching a total of 31.5million for the season, with 5million watching the denouement on the final Sunday.

The crunch game between Liverpool and Chelsea at the end of the campaign was watched by more than 940,000 viewers, an impressive figure considering kick off was 8am EST. In total, NBC devoted thousands of hours of coverage to the English game, replete with commentary and analysis every bit as sophisticated as that delivered by the UK’s Sky Sports.

Adding to the mix were Fox Sports and beIN Sports, between them broadcasting Champions League, FA Cup, and even Capital One Cup matches.

Soccer is culturally ingrained into the US way of life. The traditional view of US sports is a landscape dominated by the big four – football, ice hockey, basketball and baseball – with Major League Soccer (MLS) a poorly followed sideshow popular with immigrants or, up till recently, fans of David Beckham.

Although the MLS is growing, the relative weakness of the league (there are currently only 19 teams, soon to be 21, with no relegation) hasn’t hindered the sport’s burgeoning popularity. The contradiction of the US is that it boasts a thriving soccer culture without having a strong domestic league.

As Simon Kuper points out in his book Soccernomics, “Major League Soccer is not American soccer. It’s just a tiny piece of the mosaic. Kids’ soccer, college soccer, women’s soccer, indoor soccer, Mexican, English, and Spanish soccer, the Champions league, and the World Cup between them dwarf the MLS”.

According to Miller, soccer is rapidly overtaking other sports “in terms of attention and social conversation, coverage in print and broadcast news,” a product not only of NBC’sconverge but, according the TV executive, a levelling in the interest in other sports, particularly baseball and college football.

Yet the upsurge in US soccer is not a product of NBC or David Beckham’s recent sabbatical to LA to “put soccer on the map”.

For many years the game has been the sport of choice for the offspring of white, middle class Americans, a more genteel pursuit that many parents (the clichéd “Soccer moms”) view as far less dangerous than the contact-rife American football – itself a sport under increasing scrutiny following a series of life-changing injuries in both the professional and amateur game. With basketball the game of the inner cities, soccer has become the game of the suburbs, a recreation divorced from the associations of violence, money, drugs and corruption that have scarred the country’s more indigenous sports.

A 2006 Fifa survey found more than 24million Americans played soccer, a figure likely to have increased substantially over the past eight years, while a 2011 ESPN poll rated soccer as the second most popular sport in the country for 12-24-year-olds. Young players, of course, turn into older fans.

This popularity has been bolstered by strong female participation with the US women’s national team regarded one of the best in the world despite the lack of a professional domestic league, while the big European clubs, sniffing dollars, have been quick to market themselves stateside, routinely participating in pre-season tournaments across the Republic’s major cities.

Of course, all this will count for little in Brazil, with Klinsmann’s Red, White and Blueunlikely to progress out of the group stages (although the US’s continued participation in the big tournaments has certainly added to its domestic popularity).

Regardless, television viewers are assured. Even though the US had long left the tournament, more than 24million Americans watched the 2010 World Cup final between Holland and Spain, more than the average viewers for that year’s World Series games between the Yankees and the Phillies.

Popularity aside, the chances of the men’s US national team winning a major soccer tournament anytime soon are absolutely zero… so only slightly less than England. Yet the game as a sporting and cultural phenomenon has already won.

Until recently, “the global game” was called so despite the seemingly impenetrable enclave of North America, with many within the US viewing the spread of soccer akin to the spread of communism – a nefarious ideology followed by foreigners and fifth columnists.

Unfortunately for those wishing to preserve the cultural purity of “American” sports, not only is soccer past the TSA and across the Rio Grand, but it has already set up some nets and is having a kick-a-bout on the White House lawn. The invasion hasn’t begun. It’s already over.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

Arizona to pass law allowing discrimination based on religious beliefs

On Wednesday the Senate in Arizona passed legislation that would allow businesses and state employees to deny services to any customer based on their religious beliefs.

Pushed through by the state’s Republican majority, proponents of the Bill argued that it was required to protect business owners from legal action should they refuse to offer services on religious grounds. However, opponents contended that the legislation was tantamount to state-backed discrimination, with same-sex couples the most likely target.

In November, the UK Supreme Court ruled against Peter and Hazelmary Bull, devout Christians who refused a gay couple lodgings in their bed and breakfast hotel because it “violated their faith”. The Bulls were challenging an earlier court decision that forced them to pay £5,000 in damages, with the case going someway to clarify Britain’s current legal standing on matters of sexual orientation versus religious liberty.

In the US, the question of equal rights versus religious convictions is far less settled, with predominantly conservative state legislatures currently looking to push back against the federal overturning of a ban on same-sex marriage last June.

The Arizona Bill states: “Exercise of religion means the practice or observance of religion, including the ability to act or refusal to act in a manner substantially motivated by a religious belief whether or not the exercise is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief.”

In opposition, Arizona Senate Democratic Leader Anna Tovar described the Bill as “discrimination under the guise of religious freedom,” adding, “with the express consent of Republicans in this Legislature, many Arizonans will find themselves members of a separate and unequal class under this law because of their sexual orientation”. Senator Steve Yarbrough, one of Bill’s sponsors, rejected Tovar’s evaluation, arguing that it serves to “prevent discrimination against people who are clearly living out their faith”.

Similar legislation designed the protect religious liberty has been floated in Idaho, Kansas, South Dakota, Kansas and Tennessee. All have been struck down, with opponents arguing successfully that the proposal would not only discriminate against same-sex couples, but would provide legal backing for prejudice based on race, religion, sex, nationality, age, familial status or disability.

Should the Bill pass the House of Representatives, Arizona will stand alone as a solitary success for those campaigning on the grounds of religious liberty. Yet the push back against the repeal of the Defence of Marriage act is just part of a wider trend in the US, with the evangelical wing of the GOP determined to drive state law more into line with Biblical law, most notably in the religious lobbying to restrict access to abortions – even in cases of rape and incest.

In the post 9/11 paranoia, journalist Oriana Fallaci popularised the idea of Europe being consumed by Islamification, a notion given crude lip service in the UK by the English Defence League (EDL) and the rhetoric of “creeping Sharia”. Yet in the US the threat of religious literalism is far less fatuous, with the mainstream (albeit fractured) Republican Party openly invoking God’s word to justify discrimination against homosexuals.

Yet with a series of court rulings reversing bans on same-sex marriage, even if Arizona’s Bill does become law (it is expected to pass the state House), the faithful will still have a long way to go to push back the onrushing tide of secularism in the US. Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between church and state remains in place… albeit with a few bricks soon chipped off.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

Putin’s anti-gay propaganda law finds support among America’s social conservatives

In a recent attack on the White House, conservative political commentator Pat Buchanan paraphrased Ronald Reagan by suggesting “Barack Obama’s America” had taken the place of the Soviet Union as the world’s “evil empire”. It was an appraisal that echoed a speech given by Vladimir Putin in mid-December, in which the Russian leader said that over the past twenty years the US and the erstwhile communist state had switched roles.

For many on America’s Christian right, the Cold War represented more than a bi-polar nuclear stand-off between two superpowers but the bleeding edge of a cosmic battle between the faithful (America) and the Godless (the Soviets). Yet more than two decades after the end of the Soviet experiment, American social conservatives are now looking to Moscow as the guardian of the Christian moral compass.

Since the introduction of Russia’s now-infamous anti-gay propaganda law in June, the country has witnessed a sharp upturn in the number of attacks on members of its LGBT community, while those protesting the legislation have found themselves often targeted by police for mistreatment and arrest.

The bill, which bans “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations“, was introduced by Putin as a means of buttressing his dwindling support among Russia’s youth by appealing to members of the very conservative Russian Orthodox Church. In July, Putin declared, “The adoption of Christianity became a turning point in the fate of our fatherland, made it an inseparable part of the Christian civilization and helped turn it into one of the largest world powers”. This mixture of religion and nationalism was not only a nod to the faithful, but a populist sop to a citizenry of which 90% support legislation that stigmatises the gay community.

Unsurprisingly, the move was decried around the globe, with Europe and the US particularly vocal in their condemnation. Just last week, more than 50 current and former Olympians criticised the anti-gay law, and called on the International Olympic Community (IOC) and the event’s multinational sponsors to do more to change the situation in Russia ahead of this week’s games in Sochi.

Since the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) was ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court last June, American gay rights advocates have stepped up their efforts to end bans on gay marriage in at least 20 states, a move that enjoys considerable public support with a 2013 Gallup poll suggesting that around 50% of American adults favour allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally.

Momentum has gathered so quickly that the established wing of a highly divided Republican Party seems to have lost its appetite for a fight over the issue, with House GOP lawyers withdrawing from a defence of DOMA in July. More recently, when asked if the Party should support two openly gay Republican candidates running for office, House Speaker John Boehner stated publically that he did.

Yet equal marriage remains a controversial phenomenon in the US, particularly for the Republican Party’s right flank. So, with the GOP establishment either preoccupied with a futile attempt to repeal Obama’s Affordable Care Act or an unwillingness to push against the populist tide, Putin’s draconian legislation has become a clarion call for social conservatives across America’s religious heartland.

Just days after Russia’s anti-gay legislation became law, the Daily Caller, a conservative news and opinion website, published a swooning editorial by Austin Ruse, the President of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, entitled ‘Putin is not the gay bogeyman’. In the article the author praises Russian resistance to the “political movement to regularise and even celebrate homosexuality,” while criticising the law’s American opponents, stating that there is no “human right to parade your sexual preferences and practices down public streets”.

A week later, Larry Jacobs of the World Congress of Families (WCF) gave a radio interview in which he called the Russians the “Christian saviours to the world,” before heralding the anti-propaganda law as “a great idea”.

In August, Rush Limbaugh, a right-wing mouthpiece who hosts a daily syndicated radio show, explained that Russia’s anti-gay laws were a reaction to the country’s need for population growth, reasoning that more people are required for economic security, while offering praise for the Russian leader for “putting his foot down” against a “full-frontal assault on what has always been considered normalcy”.

The same month, Kris Mineau, head of the Massachusetts Family Institute, struck a more nuanced tone during a recorded Tea Party conference call, attacking President Obama for his opposition to Russia’s anti-gay legislation while noting that by cancelling the planned summit with Putin one day after criticising the Russian law,Obama had turned the advancement of LGBT rights into American foreign policy.

Similarly, Buchanan has on several occasions stated his admiration of the Kremlin, most notably stating that “Putin was trying to re-establish the Orthodox Church as the moral compass of the nation it had been for 1,000 years before Russia fell captive to the atheistic and pagan ideology of Marxism”. Writing in the World Net Daily, the 75-year-old former senior advisor to Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan, continued his moral rebuke by lamenting, “Only yesterday, homosexual sodomy, which Thomas Jefferson said should be treated like rape, was outlawed in many states and same-sex marriage was regarded as an absurdity.

Yet American support for Russia’s state-backed persecution goes further back than 2013, with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) highlighting 14 leaders of American conservatism that have visited Russia in recent years to specifically lobby for anti-gay legislation. Indeed, the Illinois-based WCF, just one of six US groups to have signed a controversial global petition backing Russia’s anti-gay law, is scheduled to hold its next global meeting in Moscow this September, with the Russian organisers trumpeting their credentials on the event’s website:

[The] choice of Moscow as the place to organize the next Congress is connected to serious steps in our country [Russia] at the national and international levels aimed at protection of the natural family, family and moral values. Efforts of representatives of Russian society, Russian pro-family organizations defending the priority of marriage and family, parental rights and the sovereignty of the family, the right of children to live with their family, with father and mother, spiritual and moral foundations of human society were highly praised by WCF organizing committee.

In a December speech, Putin struck a similarly conservative chord, arguing that, “Many Euro-Atlantic countries have moved away from their roots, including Christian values. Policies are being pursued that place on the same level a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership, a faith in God and a belief in Satan. This is the path to degradation.”

Throughout the Cold War, America’s tough stance towards the Soviets was buttressed by a religious right ready to decry communism as the embodiment of Satan on earth. Viewing the Soviets and communist system as literally evil (and conversely America and capitalism as good) proved a comfortable fit with the premillennial worldview of the evangelical masses.

Yet the spiritual battle ground appears to have shifted with American social conservatives now viewing homosexuality rather than communism as the centre-piece of the good-versus-evil paradigm. So with equality being pushed at home, while Putin fashions himself as a 21st century protector of the Godly abroad, it’s perhaps unsurprising that those on America’s religious right are now looking east and seeing another piece of Reaganite imagery – that “shining city upon a hill”.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

God says ‘no’ to birth control in proxy war over Obamacare

To what extent should an employer’s religious beliefs affect the rights of its employees? You’re quite correct – they shouldn’t. Once you pass from the private sphere into the public sphere – the marketplace, for example – employees are protected from the whims of employers by the law.

This is fairly straightforward stuff, yet amazingly this simple premise is set to be challenged in the US, with the Supreme Court hearing two cases in which employers will argue that their private religious affiliations prevent them from offering female employees birth control provisions.

Let me run that by you again – the seemingly most prosperous, scientifically forward and politically advanced (the American revolution is after all still going) nation in the world is set to debate whether employers can legally refuse to provide female birth control as part of their healthcare package.

Unsurprisingly, as with everything in contemporary US politics, this is yet another proxy war over the Affordable Care Act, with Obama’s landmark legislation being tested, pushed, pulled, bitten, scratched and kicked at every turn by a Republican Party that has placed its entire stack of chips (plus its watch, its car, the house and its wife) on Obamacare’s repeal.

Myriad companies have attempted to sue the government over a rule in the Act that states for-profit companies (excluding Churches and non-profits) should provide birth control in their health insurance plans. We’re not talking about abortion here – we’re talking about IUDs and the morning after pill.

Yet that has been enough for two companies, aided by a febrile atmosphere in which the political right are determined to scupper the ACA backed by a religious right determined to see birth control reduced to prayers and a pair of crossed fingers, to have their grievance heard by the highest court in the land.

The companies in question are a Christian-owned craft supply chain called Hobby Lobby and a furniture company owned by a family of Mennonites. Both argue that they morally object to being made to pay for birth control provisions because they believe it is akin to abortion.

Yet even if you think religion is an important matter – it is soaked into American political culture like a 200-year-old bloodstain – the problems of letting employers decide on which laws they will follow and which they won’t because of moral objections are obvious. What if an employer believes cancer treatment is morally wrong? What if they believe HIV is a curse sent by God and those infected deserve his wrath? Should the employees be forced to pay for these prohibitively expensive treatments on their own?

What if a restaurant owner objects to serving black people on moral grounds? Should they be allowed to circumvent the law based on whimsy? The Supreme Court is due to hear the cases early next year, with a decision likely next summer. Fortunately, the Obama administration has proved itself resolute on matters of the Affordable Care Act, despite the main exchange website offering all the technical wherewithal of a ZX81.

“The President believes that no one, including the government or for-profit corporations, should be able to dictate those decisions to women,” read a White House statement on Tuesday. We wait to see if the Supreme Court agrees.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

JFK’s assassination was not ‘The Moment That Changed America’

This week’s cover of Time Magazine commemorates the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK with a cover story entitled “The Moment That Changed America”. The article, like so many before it, makes the persuasive case that the country which emerged from that “uniquely deranged event” was different, more suspicious, more paranoid – a nation now blighted by doubt.

That scarring moment in the national psyche, so the argument goes, gave rise to a conspiracy industry, one that continues to thrive and evolve, with the disbelief surrounding official accounts of the Kennedy assassination echoed in contemporary national traumas, whether that’s 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombings or the Sandy Hook shooting.

Even today, around 60% of Americans (according to an Associated Press poll) believe that the 35th President was the victim of a conspiracy, despite the weight of evidence to the contrary, while a case could be made that more recent surveys indicating that “over half the American population consistently endorses some kind of conspiratorial narrative about a current political event or phenomena” is a direct legacy of that single Texas killing.

Yet it seems bizarre that the country could change so dramatically with the death of one man, albeit the President and in extraordinarily obscene circumstances. Many academics have argued that conspiracy theory is not a reaction to a single event, but the societal response to ever-increasing governmental secrecy – what Peter Knight, an expert on conspiracy theory at the University of Manchester, calls a “crisis of trust”.

Speaking to the HuffPost, Knight said the Kennedy assassination wasn’t the origin of this crisis – “it was retrospectively posited as the moment that led to the unravelling of America”, with Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories beginning much later in the decade. Knight suggested that after the publication of the Warren Commission report, the majority of Americans accepted the official lone gunman version.

For Knight, who authored the book: The Kennedy Assassination, “it was really only in the wake of the other Sixties assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate and the revelations about the misdeeds of the CIA that conspiracy theories that imagined a vast conspiracy within the government – the government in effect constituted a conspiracy against the people – that conspiracy theories became more mainstream.”

As such, it was not the Kennedy assassination that caused the change – “three quarters of Americans trusted their govt in 1963; three quarters of Americans distrusted their government by 1993” – but as the mistrust grew, the murder of the President came to be seen as “the beginning of a larger plot”.

In her book Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11, author Kathy Olmsted offers an historical perspective as to how conspiracy became soaked into the American national character, suggesting the phenomenon is far older than the assassination – a product of public distrust towards officialdom that stretches back to the nation’s birth. Yet for Olmsted, the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination do mark a watershed in the history of American conspiracy culture as these particular speculations “were initially spread by a grassroots network of amateurs”.

Witness the raft of online “investigations” by members of the public in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings as seemingly everyone with a broadband connection looked to piece together the events of the day at their keyboard, filling the vacuum left by a lack of official explanation.

For Olmsted, that phenomenon started in 1963. “It was housewives and graduate students and ordinary workers who raised the first doubts about the official narrative,” she told HuffPost.

She continued: “Unlike the anticommunist conspiracy theorists of the 1950s, the Kennedy theorists had no alliances with wealthy businessmen or government agencies. They not only believed that government officials had conspired, lied, and covered up aspects of the murder; they also believed that they could expose this conspiracy on their own.”

“They developed a nationwide, grassroots network to pool their knowledge and prove that ordinary citizens could penetrate the national security state’s culture of secrecy.” From that moment on, she argued, “many Americans came to believe that they had the ability and the duty to expose the government’s lies on their own”.

Yet this trend of seeking out alternative explanations seems to have mutated to such an extent that discounting official versions of events has become almost a reflex, with an increasingly polarised American citizenry more inclined to grasp for whatever conspiracy most chimes with their existing political leanings rather than countenance more likely explanations.

The abhorrent use of the Sandy Hook massacre by gun rights activists, who used conspiracy theories to thinly veil a political message, is an obvious case in point.

There is also an obvious threat that this type of conspiratorial expression does to genuine, fact-based dissent, while the “anything goes regardless of veracity” ethos can easily be co-opted and used against minority groups.

It’s a danger Olmsted recognises, but she believes the trend could be reversed if government adopted a more transparent posture. “Excessive secrecy breeds distrust, and excessive distrust makes it difficult for democracy to function,” she said. “If government officials release more information, there will be fewer conspiracy theories about the government.”

Knight too is wary but said it is important not to “just dismiss conspiracy theorists as wackos”. Serious thought should be given to the idea that many Americans have come to understand their recent history through the lens of conspiracy theory, he argued, adding: “Some conspiracy theories are indeed dangerous, but not always – it depends on what political projects they are used to support (and it is the political projects that are dangerous).”

Knight conceded that some conspiracy theories “do indeed lead to a polarisation of beliefs, and to extremism, such as Timothy McVeigh, but they are also a source of sceptical entertainment.”

“We need to be careful not to be excessively paranoid about the possible dangers of popular paranoia,” he adds. “We need to ask ourselves why so many people are attracted to this way of explaining historical causality.”

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.