You’re crazy and I’m not
I think the issue of Barack Obama’s eligibility to be President is pretty much settled in everybody’s mind, although not settled in the same way. Most, like me, say that unprecedented amounts of evidence, investigation and scrutiny establish without any doubt that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii and eligible to be President. The other side believes that all official sources are tainted and that the truth is only known through original research on the Internet.
I don’t think that either side has a good intuitive understanding of the other. People on my side would describe the other as (choose all that apply) subversive, suffering mental defect, stupid /gullible/sheep, con men, liars, racists, and paid political operatives. People on the other side might describe people like me as (choose all that apply) subversive, suffering mental defect, stupid /gullible/sheep, con men, liars, racists, and paid political operatives. The historian Richard Hofstadter describes people like me as “consensus” and the other as having a “paranoid style.” I suppose the birthers would reverse those labels. Just as the consensus is taught to “beware the crazies,” the fringe is taught to “beware the authorities”.
There’s a lot of crazy going around
I recently finished Jon Ronson’s book: The Psychopath Test and through that book I was introduced to some really far out brands of conspiracy theory that I hadn’t been aware of before (such as the “no plane” theories of 9/11 and the British 7/7 theories). There are conspiracy theories about the NASA coverup of the end of the world in September 26 of this year (or December 21 of next). There are all sorts of stories about powerful cabals that secretly control the world, and who precipitate disaster whether financial or natural. The New World Order is coming to take away our guns.
It’s not all crazy
Nevertheless, there are real conspiracies to do illegal things. I was recently reminded of an FBI program to infiltrate and disrupt the anti-war movement in the 1960s, COINTELPRO. There was the Nixon campaign dirty tricks. And who doesn’t at least strongly suspect collusion between large corporations at the expense of the consumer?
Why conspiracy theories?
There is always the lone tinkerer who is convinced by confirmation bias, just look at the topic of perpetual motion machines. But apart from that, I think conspiracy theories are ways that we fill the vacuum of information and try to make sense out of random events. People on the on the margins of the information society are especially vulnerable to the vacuum of information because they reject the encyclopedia, the textbooks, the government, recognized experts and the mainstream media. They are forced to become lone researchers (susceptible to confirmation bias) or to get their information from others conspiracy theorists.
People look for explanations to horrific events: natural disasters, financial crises, wars, riots and even personal downturns. Sometimes there aren’t any satisfying explanations. Enter the conspiracy theory.
Finding patterns in things is how we discover how the world works. If I let go of the ball, it always falls. If George Soros goes to Europe the value of the dollar always falls (I made that up). We’re all conspiracy theorists at some level by our nature. Some of us are more skeptical by nature or training, but we all have the gene.
Conspiracies of the consensus
In order for people like me to understand the disaster (widespread belief in Obama conspiracy theories), I want an explanation. Labels like “crazy” or “racist” come easy, but I don’t think labels really explain anything. There is a pathological satisfaction in associating birthers with things that lurk in the depths of our most shameful and unacknowledged bigotry and bias. We pounce on instances where a birther uses bad grammar, wears unsophisticated clothing, uses foul language and lacks the level of culture we expect from our circle of friends. (I think the Russians have an aptly insulting word, некультурный — uncultured.)
I gain a sense power by exposing the flaws in individual birthers. “Aha! Now I know why these crazy people plague me!” And it is natural for me to expect those in power to deal with the situation, to put the violent-talking subversives in jail, disbar the lawyers, and punish the libel and declare in every official way that the birthers are crazy, seditious scum. And I want them to keep doing it over and over until the last birther and his crazy ideas is stamped out.
The birthers demonize the other side too, attaching to people who disagree with them the most vile labels they can imagine (pedophile, hater of country, socialist), foremost of which is “liar.” They are unable to believe that an informed person would not agree with them.
I think we must have a gene for that too.
The fact is that some people are left out of what builds consensus for most of us. The fringe is a marginalized element in the culture. We all try to find our place, and for some of us, the place we find is outside the consensus. There can be any number of reasons, or perhaps there is no reason at all and it’s as random as the day of the next big earthquake.
I come back to the bell curve. With 300 million people in the country, we have to expect a fair number outside the 99.7% percentile. The fringe, like the poor, will be with us always.
This article is from the Understanding the Birthers series.