I’ve been involved in the Sisyphean quest to talk sense into birthers for about 5 years now. Trying to understand why it hasn’t worked has led me into psychology, political science, neurophysiology, history, sociology, the law, and all sorts of interesting and quirky side studies. Sometimes I frame the question like a theodicy: “If God is omnipotent and just, then why are there birthers?”
Today, instead of mowing grass, I spent the day framing a house for the local Habitat for Humanity, assisted by my trusty Kobalt framing hammer like the one pictured on the right. Even thought the forecast was for 90% rain, it didn’t rain and we had a very good day, the coolest of the summer. Driving home from today’s build, I thought about some emails exchanges I’ve had with birthers, some of whom have a lot of confidence in Mike Zullo. Thinking about those exchanges has helped me to frame the question. In the past I’ve broken down motivations for birthers in a lot of categories, but now I want to focus on just three:
The general studies I’ve done about conspiracy theories has best equipped me to deal with this category. Take someone like Paul Irey, or Mara Zebest. These are partisans from the birther movement. They overstepped their expertise, assisted by the Dunning-Kruger effect, and came up with theories about Obama’s birth certificate, theories that I feel rather confidently are sincere, but wrong. The conspiracist literature is replete with such lone researchers who filter evidence in odd ways and come up with things they find significant, and that others do not. Conspiracy theorists have their following—subscribers to their mimeographed newsletter in times past, and many more today on the Internet where anyone can publish to a worldwide audience for free.
Jim wrote a fine article on confidence schemes and I won’t repeat his description of how scams work. In the classic sense, a con is an attempt to get money from someone by abusing their trust. As I use the term here, I refer to an attempt to get someone’s belief in President Obama’s ineligibility to be President by abusing their trust. I simply don’t know enough to say whether the motivation is money or not.
Much of what we see on the Internet in the way of birther web sites is not, in my opinion, a con. Even someone like Orly Taitz who asks for money quite a bit on her web site does not strike me as a con. Why do I think that? First of all, she has access to a good livelihood as a licensed dentist with a practice in California. I find it improbable that her birtherism is any financial advantage. More importantly for the point I’m trying to make with this article, Orly Taitz doesn’t use trickery to mislead her fans. She says things that are nonsense sometimes, but she doesn’t use the tricks that Jim described.
Jim asked the question: “Is Mike Zullo running a scam on the birthers?” I don’t know enough to answer that question as to a financial scam, but I have no doubt that he is running a confidence scheme as far as the ideas he is selling. To me, it is transparent. The guy does all he can to drum up publicity, holding press conferences streamed live over the Internet, holding a seminar, and regularly appearing on every local radio show he can, but when pressed to deliver, he says that he has to keep keeping his convincing evidence tightly under wraps because it would be inappropriate to talk about it because of an ongoing investigation. Zullo allows inflated titles to be used for him. Most importantly, he cleverly crafts statements in such a way that unsuspecting listeners will be misled, even when he does not literally tell a lie. Let me give a small example: time and time again birthers will say to me that Verna K. Lee confirmed the list of race codes that Zullo presented in his second press conference. Zullo never said that, but they were led by the context of the presentation to believe that all the information in that part of the presentation was from her. In fact, the only thing Zullo actually attributed to Lee was that records were double checked and didn’t have mistakes in them.
Since the beginning, Zullo has promised that something will result from his Cold Case Posse investigation, but he hasn’t delivered. The results remain only a promise, and a pretty stale one by now.
I don’t think Zullo is the only con game in town. The Daily Pen blog comes to mind first to which I would add Joel Gilbert. I also think that there are sincere birthers who still use confidence tricks to persuade: I think the guy who blogs under the pseudonym P. A. Madison is one, along with Sam Sewell and Mario Apuzzo. I would include the folks at Obama Release Your Records in that group.
Now we finally get to one email exchange I had in which was said “Mike Zullo is a good guy.” Lots of people would have said “Bernie Madoff is a good guy.” It is the nature of a confidence man to inspire confidence. I say to a birther, Zullo lied—I can prove it. It makes no difference to them: “I don’t know the whole story”; “he would never lie”; “it was an official police investigation.” I even heard the argument that Zullo couldn’t admit that he used a fake race code table in his presentation because it would give his opponents ammunition to hurt his credibility! Just as you can tell a con by the language he uses, you can tell a sucker by what they say, the lengths of rationalization to which they will go to maintain faith in the con man.
With Madoff, there was a decisive dénouement. He couldn’t repay the money invested with him. He went to jail. I don’t see such a scenario with birther cons, because I can’t envision a decisive event that would topple the sucker’s confidence in them. Obviously, Obama won’t be removed from office for ineligibility, and he’s not going to be convicted of election fraud. So in that sense, the birther cons will not be able to repay the belief and/or money invested with them. But barring some revelation of criminal activity, and I don’t see that happening, birther cons can just say that the Obama Administration was too powerful, and that corrupt officials prevented their success. The suckers will keep believing.