Wolves, beavers,
and birds

A group of Przewalski’s horses grazing in the Chernobyl Exclusion zone. Photo: Michael Kötter

In wilderness
by disaster,

An accidental

20,000 years
our exile for
this folly–

Grave mistake
to creatures’
Promised Land.


On the fringe no more

Conspiracy theories used to be a “fringe” thing. Aliens landed in Roswell, New Mexico. moon-hoaxBarcodes are the “mark of the Beast.” And it used to take years to hatch a complete conspiracy theory. People watched Stanley Kubrick movies and gathered photos of the “supposed” moon landings. They combed carefully through the actors’ dialogue and the photos’ shadows for clues to substantiate their beliefs. People, most people anyway, shook their heads and laughed about these theories, and we all went on with our lives.

These days the internet allows theories to generate and propagate worldwide in minutes. Slick web sites tout headlines announcing the latest theory as fact. These sites look like news outlets, so the content in them must be true, right? Hillary Clinton is running a pedophile ring out of a pizza restaurant. Barack Obama was not born in the United States. The Holocaust didn’t happen.

The city of Charlottesville, Virginia, hadn’t even finished cleaning up debris left by the crowds of alt-right and counter-protesters when a new set of conspiracy theories hatched. Brennan Gilmore was a counter-protester that day, and he happened to be on the street where James Fields drove his car into the crowd, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 other people. Gilmore had his cell phone out and was filming when it happened. He shared the video with law enforcement and eventually also with the public. Almost immediately thereafter the alt-right took various biographical information about Gilmore, that he had worked for the State Department for example, and spun it to assert all kinds of conspiracy theories that shift the blame for the attack from the man who did it, James Fields, incredibly, to Gilmore! Gilmore wrote

They wrote that I was a CIA operative, funded by (choose your own adventure) George Soros, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, the IMF/World Bank, and/or a global Jewish mafia to orchestrate the Charlottesville attack in order to turn the public against the alt-right…They claimed my ultimate aim was to start a race war that would undermine and then overthrow Donald Trump on behalf of the “Deep State.” (, “How I Became Fake News,” 21 Aug. 2017)

Gilmore was there as a protester and happened to film this horrific scene, and suddenly he is the cause of it? The leaps of illogic are astounding. As an English teacher and a librarian, I wonder all the time what people are learning in school. Is no one teaching students what a logical fallacy is? Such faulty reasoning goes, “Since Gilmore worked for the State Department, he was a government operative; therefore, he is a part of the ‘Deep State’ that is attempting to discredit Trump.”

On such “logic” then what could you conclude about me from these events in my life? I grew up in Texas in a rural ranching area. My parents owned some land. I loved being outdoors. … Then I must have ridden horses a lot growing up, right? Wrong! When I went to Germany as an exchange student and people found out I was from Texas, that was always one of the first assumptions they made about me. You can take virtually any activities or affiliations and string them together to create a theory, but it’s the next step that people seem not to be taking: You must have evidence!

What disturbs me even more than the speed with which these theories multiply is that people I know and love are some of the ones who believe them. I have lost friends on Facebook because they continued to share these types of posts, and when I tried to assert that what they were posting was fake, that there was no evidence for what they were repeating from some unknown source, they became angry at me. I’m not saying I’m always right. I’ve been guilty of reposting some fake stories as well. But everything I’ve been taught about citing sources, checking for evidence, and looking for accuracy made me cringe whenever I saw people sharing “news” that I knew was not based in reality. I was amazed that they did not trust my credentials as a teacher and a librarian.

I realize that what I just wrote might sound arrogant, but I don’t mean it that way at all. It’s just a disbelief in the same way that thousands of scientists are left shaking their heads that people don’t “believe in” climate change. If scientists with doctorates and years of research-based evidence can’t get through to the conspiracy believers, then no one can. I just hadn’t wanted to find that kind of irrational thinking among some of my friends. They either blocked me or I blocked them because we eventually couldn’t stand each other anymore. And that’s really sad. I miss them. But I no longer know how to communicate with them because the system by which they come to their beliefs is incompatible with mine.

I’m just as fascinated as anyone about the moon landings and why we haven’t been back in all these years. It is fun to look at the NASA photos from the moon and to try to see whether it looks like a movie set. But the evidence says we did go to the moon, and until there is evidence—real evidence—to the contrary, I believe there is a US flag stuck in the moon’s soil up there.

People’s beliefs in these theories are no longer just something to shrug our shoulders about. They are causing harm. Edgar Maddison Welch drove from his home in North Carolina to Washington, DC, and entered that pizza restaurant carrying weapons because he sincerely believed Hillary Clinton was running a child abuse operation there, and he was going to stop it by force. Except that there was no child sex ring. It was a conspiracy theory that hatched on the internet and grew into a monster that walked in with a gun. A real gun.