The List

The World's Most Unruly Parliaments

The U.S. House of Representatives voted on Tuesday to admonish Rep. Joe Wilson for yelling "You lie!" during President Obama's recent address to Congress. But in some parts of the world, outbursts like Wilson's would barely raise an eyebrow.

SOUTH KOREA

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Source of tension: Korean democracy is a full-contact sport in which debates between the dominant Grand National Party (GNP) and its opponents over foreign policy and media freedom are frequently resolved with fists … or whatever heavy object is in the room.

Low points: South Korea’s first internationally noticed punch-up occurred in 2004 over the impeachment of then President Roh Moo-hyun. MPs loyal to Roh attempted to block what they saw as a coup by refusing to leave the assembly’s podium. Scuffles broke out as security tried to remove the unruly delegates, who began throwing punches and tossing furniture. (Meanwhile, an unidentified man crashed a car into the outside of the building.) The offending MPs later got down on their knees to apologize to the nation.

But the Roh impeachment battle was just a prelude to the December 2008 war over a controversial free trade agreement with the United States. After the GNP submitted the bill to a parliamentary committee on trade, attempting to rush it through before Barack Obama took office, opposition MPs attempted to break into the locked committee room with sledgehammers and an electric saw. The terrified lawmakers inside the room barricaded the door with furniture and fought the intruders with fire extinguishers. TV cameras broadcast the images, including one of a MP bleeding profusely from the face, to viewers around the world. A compromise was reached, but only after the opposition occupied the assembly building for 12 days.

The incident apparently didn’t satisfy the blood lust of Korean lawmakers, though. A debate over media privatization in July devolved into an all-out fistfight.

TAIWAN

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Source of tension: South Korea might be the current world leader in parliamentary brawling, but the all-time champion is probably Taiwan, which has a world-renowned tradition of legislative violence dating back to the late 1980s. Parliamentary riots, which were usually instigated by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) when its main rival, the nationalist Kuomintang, won't budge on a contentious issue, have been a common occurrence for years. These fights are usually pre-planned for maximum media coverage and have actually been used by the DPP as a sort of debating tactic for much of its history.

Low points: The best Taiwanese parliamentary fights can involve up to 50 people throwing punches, shoes, water, food, and microphones over issues ranging from election procedure to ties with mainland China. In one infamous incident, an MP was suspended for six months after punching a female colleague in the face. In May 2005, a Kuomintang parliamentarian sponsored a motion on a bill about transport links with the mainland only to have it snatched out of her hand and stuffed in her mouth. A few months later a Kuomintang legislator was hospitalized and given more than 100 stitches on his face after three DPP rivals forced him to the floor and beat him with plastic sticks. At one point, a minister proposed that legislators be made to take a breathalyzer test before entering debate.

The brawls have made Taiwan's parliament a bit of a laughingstock in Asia, and the mainland Chinese media has particularly relished reporting on them. After a crushing election defeat in 2008, the DPP formally renounced the practice of parliamentary brawling, citing the damage done to Taiwan's image.

UKRAINE

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Source of tension: Since the 2004 Orange Revolution, Ukraine’s Supreme Rada has gotten particularly ugly as members of the ruling Orange Coalition have scrapped with their pro-Russian rivals.

Low points: Parliamentary disruptions were hardly uncommon in the Rada before 2004, but things have gotten particularly ugly in recent years. After the pro-Russian Party of the Regions won a parliamentary election in 2006, pro-Orange parliamentarians attempted to prevent their leader, Viktor Yanukovych, from being elected prime minister by blasting sirens and throwing eggs. Predictably, punches were thrown and one pro-government legislator was reportedly picked up and thrown across the room by a rival.

Other ugly moments include a shoving match involving dozens of lawmakers during a debate on NATO membership in 2008, only a few months after the interior minister slapped the mayor of Kiev in the face and kicked him in the groin during a government agency meeting (the minister said the mayor deserved the “manly slap”). The same minister was suspended this year after a drunken brawl with security guards at Frankfurt Airport.

BRITAIN

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Source of tension: While fistfights are rare in the British Parliament, question time has provided some classic moments of rudeness over the years as backbenchers attempt to score points against the prime minister and ruling party.

Low points: Some prime ministers, Tony Blair for instance, relish the chance to go up against the opposition. Others, like current Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who has been described to his face as transitioning “from Stalin to Mr. Bean,” absolutely despise it. Jeering and booing are common reactions from the back bench, as are meticulously crafted put-downs. It takes quite a bit to actually be asked to withdraw a remark. One MP was formally rebuked for describing a colleague as "a second-rate Ms. Marple.”

In the past week, Joe Wilson’s outburst has frequently been compared to British parliamentary behavior, though ironically, calling someone a liar in parliament is usually frowned upon. (Winston Churchill coined the euphemism “terminological inexactitude” to get around this taboo.) Wilson would probably have been asked to withdraw his remark if he had said it during Prime Minister's Questions, though likening Margaret Thatcher to a “sex-starved boa constrictor," as Labour MP Tony Banks once did, is apparently fine.

AUSTRALIA

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Source of tension: The Australian Parliament inherited Britain’s tradition of “Prime Minister’s Questions” and cutting parliamentary debate style, but in many ways has even less decorum.

Low points: The colorful insult is something of an art in Australian politics and the undisputed master was former Prime Minister Paul Keating, who famously referred to opponents as “scumbags,” “rabble,” “foul-mouth pugs,” “intellectual hobos,” and “brain-damaged” during debates.

Politicians are occasionally ejected from question time for insults like “get back under your rock” and “you are a grub,” but the tradition lives on with leaders like former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer who, in 2007, described Labour Party leader and now Prime Minister Kevin Rudd as mealy-mouthed, duplicitous, and “a boy in a bubble.”

Ducking question time doesn’t help much either. When Rudd tried to avoid the ritual in order to visit a flood-damaged town this February, opposition parliamentarians brought a cardboard cut-out of him into parliament to hurl abuse at.

The List

The World's Most Persistent Conspiracy Theories

With “truthers,” “birthers” and “deathers” in back in the news, here’s a look at five conspiracy theories the won't go away.


SEPTEMBER 11

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The theory: Al Qaeda was not (or was not solely) responsible for the 9/11 attacks. The U.S. government either allowed the attacks to happen or orchestrated them.

The details: Dubious theories about what really occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, began to circulate almost immediately after the attacks took place. For instance, one Arab satellite network reported that 4,000 Jews had skipped work on the day of the attacks. Several books released in the following months in Europe and the Middle East postulated that the attacks had been a "false-flag" operation orchestrated by neoconservatives within the U.S. government to drum up support for the war in Iraq.

It's hardly surprising that such misinformation would spread in the wake of such a catastrophic event. What's more shocking is that a recent poll of 17 countries showed that a majority of people still aren't convinced that Al Qaeda was responsible.

Many "truthers" take issue with other aspects of the official explanation. The popular 2005 documentary "Loose Change" argues that airliners could not have caused the twin towers to collapse in the way they did and that the lack of debris at the Pentagon and Flight 93 crash sites is inconsistent with what a destroyed jet would create. Popular Mechanics devoted an entire special issue to debunking the theories but "Loose Change" remains as popular as ever, with a host of sequels and spinoffs proliferating online.

The "truther" controversy hit the Obama administration this month when "climate czar" Van Jones was forced to resign after it was revealed that he had signed a petition calling for further investigation into who was behind the 9/11 attacks. Other signatories included erstwhile presidential candidate Ralph Nader, historian Howard Zinn, and Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney. Actor Charlie Sheen has also emerged as a prominent advocate for the "truther" movement.


The truth: The bipartisan 9/11 Commission thoroughly investigated the events of September 11 and found conclusively that Al Qaeda was responsible for the attacks. Osama bin Laden himself claimed responsibility for the attacks in 2004, saying they were in retaliation for U.S. policies in the Middle East.

JEWISH BANKERS

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Theory: Jews control the world financial system and caused the financial crisis

The details: Theories that a shadowy cabal of Jewish bankers controls the world have been around for centuries and have been used to justify violence against Jews by everyone from the Russian czars to the Nazis to Al Qaeda. But the global financial crisis has caused these theories to rear their ugly head once again, but this time their being propagated by a new and unlikely source. 

The latest version of the Jewish banker theory comes from China, where IT consultant and amateur historian Song Hongbing published in 2007 a book entitled "Currency Wars." Hongbing claims that a small group of Jewish bankers have controlled the world's private and public banking systems since the days of Napoleon, and then goes on to write that this group not only caused the 1997 collapse, but is now targeting China by encouraging Beijing to open up the country's financial system and buy more Western debt, with the knowledge that bond prices will continue to decline.

The book became a surprise bestseller that fall, with many Chinese seeing the book as a way to make more money on the stock market -- and it offered a convenient explanation for the 1997 collapse. After last year's worldwide financial crisis and the shakiness of American Treasury bond prices, though, the book gained a new measure of legitimacy in China, and apparently even some of the country's highest-level financial leaders have read it.

The truth: The causes of the financial crisis are myriad, from the popping of the housing bubble to the proliferation of over-leveraged financial interests. Millions of Jews lost money along with everyone else.

THE NEW WORLD ORDER

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The theory: A small group of transnational elites is secretly plotting to establish a world government

The details: Many have long suspected that secret societies like the Freemasons or the Illuminati were secretly controlling national governments from behind the scenes. But the economic globalization of recent decades, along with the transnational organizations it has spawned, has only convinced more people than ever that we are headed toward world government, or that a secret one already exists.

Conspiracy theorists such as U.S. filmmaker and radio host Alex Jones argue that organizations like the Trilateral Commission, the Bilderberg Group, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the World Economic Forum are used by elites to unduly influence world events from wars to financial markets.  These theories, of course, do contain a grain of truth -- powerful decision-makers do meet, network, and make decisions at these events -- which only makes it easier for theorists to formulate outrageous theories about occult rituals and mind control.

New World Order conspiracies took a small step into the political mainstream with the presidential candidacy of Texas congressman Ron Paul. Paul -- who has appeared as a guest on Alex Jones’s radio show -- regularly assailed the Council on Foreign Relations and warned of a “conspiracy of ideas” to give up American sovereignty, beginning with a supposed “NAFTA superhighway” connecting the countries of North America into a single economic unit. Concerns about world government have also driven congressional opposition to a number of U.N. treaties like the Law of the Sea. Nationalist groups have argued, misleadingly, that the law would lead to international taxes or even an international military force.

The truth: The emergence of a global power elite has been described by writers from Karl Marx to FP’s own David Rothkopf. But if said elites were really so powerful, it would be a lot easier to get free trade agreements passed.  

BARACK OBAMA

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The theory: Barack Obama was not born in the United States and is therefore ineligible for the presidency

The details: With his mixed-race background, family from three continents, and meteoric rise to prominence, Barack Hussein Obama has proved an attractive target for conspiracy theorists, who wonder if he isn’t hiding something about his true identity from the American people. During the Democratic primary, an online whisper campaign began alleging that Obama was secretly a Muslim. (A bit strange given the parallel attention focused on his preacher, Jeremiah Wright.) The number of Americans believing this theory did not decline after his election and as of March, 11 percent of the public still thought the president was Muslim, according to a Pew Research poll. Only 48 percent were sure that he was Christian.

The second major conspiracy theory about Obama is that he was born outside the United States, either in his father’s home country, Kenya, or his stepfather’s, Indonesia.  Despite a host of evidence that Obama was born in Hawaii, including a certificate of live birth and a story in a local newspaper, the theory has not gone away. A poll taken in July showed that only 77 percent of Americans (42 percent of Republicans) were confident that Obama was born in the United States.

The theories continue to spread online on Web sites like the right-wing WorldNetDaily, but more mainstream media figures like CNN host Lou Dobbs have also called upon Obama to release his birth certificate and supply proof that he was born in the U.S. While no members of Congress have explicitly endorsed “birther” theories, Rep. Bill Posey of Florida did so implicitly by sponsoring a bill requiring presidential candidates to produce a birth certificate.

The truth: Barack Obama was born on Aug. 4, 1961 in Honolulu, Hawaii. While a number of his family members are Muslim, he is a practicing Christian.

AIDS

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The theory: AIDS was manufactured by the U.S. government and authorities aren’t telling the truth about how it is spread

The details: AIDS conspiracy theories have been around since at least the mid-1980s, when the discredited East German biology professor Jakob Segal argued that it had been created in a U.S. government lab. AIDS conspiracy theories have proved particularly popular among African Americans. A 2005 poll found that more than 25 percent of black Americans believed that the U.S. government had engineered the virus and intentionally spread it in the black community.

Some fringe scientists also claim that AIDS is not, in fact, caused by a virus and is simply a condition brought on by lifestyle factors like recreational drug use. While these theories have been thoroughly debunked and discredited, they have earned a number of high-profile supporters, including former South African President Thabo Mbeki, who argued for years that the international consensus on HIV/AIDS was wrong and that the disease was caused by poverty and poor hygiene, rather than sexual transmission.

His health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, urged those with HIV to eat garlic and beetroot. Mbeki’s successor Jacob Zuma finally sacked Tshabalala-Msimang, but lest you think he’s any better informed about the disease, he once claimed to have prevented HIV infection by showering after sex.

The truth: A mountain of scientific evidence shows that HIV/AIDS is transmitted through human-to-human exchange of bodily fluids. Scientists believe the virus originated in Africa in the early 20th century.