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Birthers disgust me?

I was over at Gerbil Report™ earlier today looking for something to replace the current worn-out quote of the day, and if you had asked me my reaction to the comments there (including my head Photoshopped onto a nude male cuddling up to Barack Obama), I would have said “disgusting.” I would say that about a lot of birtherism, and my reaction rekindled interest in something I had set aside a couple of weeks ago.

In my article, “Negativity merchants,” I quoted a scientific study that included these words:

A rapidly growing body of empirical evidence documents a multitude of ways in which liberals and conservatives differ from each other in purviews of life with little direct connection to politics, from tastes in art to desire for closure and from disgust sensitivity to the tendency to pursue new information…

I was curious when I published that as to where liberals and conservatives appear within the disgust sensitivity spectrum, but didn’t follow up then; today I did. The results surprised me, who thought nothing was too disgusting for the extreme right wing to say. In an article at the National Journal titled “Gay Marriage and the Political Psychology of Disgust,” the result was presented as the opposite of what I guessed:

Here’s the state of the science of disgust right now. Conservatives are thought to have a greater propensity to be disgusted than liberals do. Many studies corroborate this idea (see here, here, and here).

Now it may be that I use the word “disgust” more figuratively than the scientists. Perhaps my sense of “morally offensive” isn’t what they call disgust.

The real surprise in the article is that liberals answer questions more conservatively when the smell of vomit is introduced into the room. :shock:

Age and birtherism

It’s a well known fact that older Americans tend more towards birtherism than younger ones. Why is that? Is it the result of deteriorating mental acuity? Perhaps it is something else.

According to a new study reported in the New York Times, political leaning is correlated with birth year. The explanation is that one’s political attitudes are formed most strongly in their 20’s:

[whites born in 1941] … came of age under Eisenhower, who was popular throughout his presidency. By the time Eisenhower left office in 1961, people born in the early 1940s had accumulated pro-Republican sentiment that would last their entire lifetimes. …

In contrast, people born a decade later – baby boomers – were too young to be influenced much by the Eisenhower years. Childhoods and formative years under Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon left them relatively pro-Democratic.

It is also well documented that birthers tend not to be Democrats.

Violent rhetoric is bullying

What prompted this article is a new perspective on the violent birther rhetoric gained from reading from Joe McGinniss’ book, The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin.

McGinniss went to Alaska in 2010 to conduct interviews for the book and by a totally unforeseen turn of events, ended up renting a house next door to the Palin’s in Wasilla, Alaska. Although there was no basis for the claim, the Palins considered McGinniss, a stalker and Sarah Palin posted a photo of him on his back porch (looking the other way) on her Facebook page and said he was looking into her children’s bedrooms (something not possible from the McGinniss house). National conservative pundits like Glenn Beck pushed the story, and a storm of violent rhetoric appeared in comments on Andrew Breitbart’s web site and others, comments such as:

“This is one psychotic liberal . I hope someone mistakes him for a moose and puts an end to his publicity stunt. It would be nice if he ends up at the bottom of Lake Lucille.”

“If trapped in a house and not able to get out for food, does anyone know how long a freaky marxist fanatic can survive on a diet of KY Jelly?”

“I hope someone knocks his teeth down his throat.”

“What a spineless creepy bordering on sex-predator freak. I hope he tries to break into the Palin’s yard and gets a gut full of shotgun shell.”

Those are just about me. They get worse:

“hey, Joe, sleep with one eye open, you POS. can’t wait for your grandkids to show up and play in the woods and water.” And, after publishing my home address: “Joe’s lonely wife needs mail, phone calls and other assurances of concern and good will in Joe’s absence.”

Mcginniss, Joe (2011-09-20). The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin (Kindle Locations 1161-1172). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

Some of the locals suggested McGinniss should leave town for his own safety and the local police regularly patrolled the area to prevent an incident. He had to change his home phone number because of the death threats.

McGinniss labels this behavior (by the Palins, the conservative media and the blog commenters) as “bullying” and I completely agree.

Bullying must be vigorously opposed from the start.

Large numbers

What are the chances that…

A while back, I had a story mentioning a Cornell law professor named Michael C. Dorf. Part of the discussion revolved around correctly identifying the person from his name. I mean maybe there is more than one Michael Dorf, but more than one Michael C. Dorf? And even if there were multiple Michael C. Dorfs, surely there wouldn’t be two attorneys with that name. And in the hugely unlikely event that two attorneys share that name, it’s unthinkable that they could be both linked to Barack Obama.

Only, there are two of them. One is the Cornell law professor that wrote a paper on presidential eligibility, and the other is a Chicago attorney who actually represented Barack Obama.

photo of a large number of flamingosI wrote the preceding as if this were an amazing coincidence, but I don’t think it is all that amazing. I mean Dorf is an unusual surname: it ranks number 35,938 in the 1990 census (US Census tabulation). Michael, however, is quite common and C is a common initial. There are lots of attorneys too, 1,225,452 according to the American Bar Association. What perhaps does make this instance really unusual is the connection to Obama, but even that connection is tenuous. The Cornell professor really isn’t connected to Obama except that he wrote an article about presidential eligibility, specifically the possibility of a president achieving a third term by being elected vice president after having served as President. The Chicago attorney’s association is more direct, but back in the past, when Obama was a state senator.

There are three errors of thinking we make in spotting remarkable coincidences (or are they?). The first is to fail to realize that when we talk about the population of the United States, some 300 million people, that a lot of infrequent coincidences are statistically likely. I remember doing quality assurance on a large statewide database, checking for duplicates, and being struck by the number of people born on the same day with the same name,  and this wasn’t even a large state.

The second error is to fail to consider how encompassing the criteria are, and whether the criteria are being manipulated to include a coincidence. In the Dorf example, the category of connection to Obama was expanded, and if that hadn’t worked out, perhaps the criteria would have been “lawyers from Illinois” or “Democrats” or “went to the same law school” or something else. It is one thing to ask “what is the chance that …?” before the fact and quite another to ask “what is the chance that we can find some connection given all the possible connections we could look for?” after the fact.

The third error is to look at any particular unusual event and to assign significance to it. Say that we conclude accurately that we are looking at a one in ten thousand event. But if there are a million people spending hundreds of millions of hours searching for unusual events linked to Barack Obama, chances are that quite a few unlikely (on their own) events will be found.

When a large number of unlikely events is presented in a list, they appear extremely unlikely to have all happened, but such lists are not given in the context of the other list, many orders of magnitude larger, of things that are not unusual at all.

We humans are well-adapted to recognize and assign significance to unusual occurrences. We are not, however, well-adapted to dealing with large numbers and the wealth of information available on the Internet. What looks unusual may not be.

Book review: The United States of Paranoia

I have been enjoying historian Jesse Walkers’s new book, The United States of Paranoia: a Conspiracy Theory. If I had to choose just one sentence to characterize the main thesis of the book, I would choose:

In America, it is always a paranoid time.

The reference is to Richard Hofstadter’s influential article in Harper’s Magazine, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Hofstadter suggested that belief in conspiracy theories was more prevalent on the right than on the left, and less so among the well-educated. Walker takes issue with this characterization of the conspiracy theorist, pointing out several counterexamples. His view is that belief in conspiracies is the norm in America rather than aberration and that it characterizes all social strata. His examples stretch back before the American Constitution. He also debunks some popular stories that I think most Americans (myself included) believe.

Conspiracy theories have been embraced by journalists and congressmen, and even Timothy Dwight, President of Yale University, denounced the Illuminati as a threat to chastity. If you like to know tidbits from the underbelly of American history, here you may find things of interest.

There are also a few pages about birthers towards the end.

I’m still reading, and perhaps I will update the article from time to time.

Irrational optimism

One thing puzzles me about the birthers–their optimism. Conspiracy theorists in general are not at all optimistic. They see themselves as the voice in the wilderness crying, but largely unheeded. They believe they know the truth, but they also believe that the powers they confront, the level of control that the conspirators exert, are so great that it is simply not possible for them to actually win by persuading most people to agree with them. They feel an obligation to try expose the truth, but they have little hope of broad success. As historian Richard Hofstadter wrote of the paranoid style of conspiracy theorists:

the apocalypticism  of the paranoid style runs dangerously near to hopeless pessimism, but usually stops short of it.

Birthers share the common conspiracy theory pattern of a powerful opponent. They believe that President Obama (or George Soros, the New World Order, the Chicago Mafia, or whoever) can essentially make anyone say anything they want, control news coverage, fabricate evidence, and generally keep everyone in the government (all three branches) looking the other way. The masses are traumatized into acquiescence by the fear of massive race riots. Yet despite the apparently insurmountable obstacles before them, birthers are (at least the more vocal ones on the Internet) very optimistic.

Birthers lose 210 cases in court (plus numerous appeals and the US Supreme Court has turned away all appealed to it), yet many are convinced that the McInnish case in Alabama will succeed. One wrote:

Undoubtedly, the walls are closing in on Obama. Reed Hayes will serve as an unimpeachable witness before Roy Moore’s Alabama Supreme Court and from there the United States Supreme Court will have no options but to declare Obama ineligible.

Despite the abject failure of the Cold Case Posse to gain media respect or traction among the general public after three press conferences, numerous radio interviews and a book, birthers believe that “the evidence that will convince even the greatest skeptic” is in the hands of the Posse awaiting the right moment to be released.

Optimism is so endemic among the birthers that the phrase “any day now” has become the mocking byword of their opponents. Birthers are as much characterized by their optimism as their theories.

So why are conspiracy theorists in general pessimistic, but birthers optimistic?

The first and simplest of the speculations is sort of a “counter conspiracy theory.” It goes… Birthers are irrationally optimistic because they are being mind controlled. Cynical manipulators who either for financial gain or political gain, convince birthers using propaganda techniques and trickery to be optimistic in order to motivate them to consume products (like advertising of generally worthless stuff at WorldNetDaily for example) and to motivate them to contribute money to political causes and to vote in elections. While denying that it was for financial motives, Joseph Farah (editor or WND) admitted that they created the birth certificate controversy:

“Well, it’s popular because of us,” said Farah. “We essentially created it, didn’t we? That wasn’t a decision made because there was a constituency out there waiting for this, [or] it was a way to make money. Those people had to be found.”1

I suppose that’s plausible, but not being a conspiracy theorist, I can’t connect the dots.

I think perhaps a better explanation is in the difference in world view between birthers and other conspiracy theorists. Other conspiracy theorists feel uneasy about the world, and seek to understand it through conspiracy theories. They reject the notion of random events in favor of the machinations of the powerful. It is the individual’s knowledge of the conspiracy that frees him from the control of the conspirators, not the overthrow of the conspirators themselves.

Birthers on the other hand are not trying to understand the world, they are trying to deny it. A sophisticated, moral, religious, attractive and smart black man cannot exist and he certainly cannot be the leader of the country. He cannot be who he appears to be. Birthers are not trying to remove Obama from the presidency; they want to unmake his image and deny that he was ever president. This has been their expressed goal since the beginning. Look at birther language on impeachment: “Obama cannot be impeached because he is not really president.”

Birthers have to be optimistic because their core understanding of who they are and their place in society depends on their being right. Being ruled by a black man simply cannot happen. Belief in their imminent vindication and the overthrow of Obama and everything he has ever done is all that sustains them. They want to wake one day and find that it has all been a bad dream. They cannot bear to think that they will never wake up.

I’d like to add one final observation. Most conventional conspiracy theorists are Gnostics; they believe that salvation comes through individual knowledge. Birthers are messianic in their outlook; they look for a savior to deliver them from the travails of the world (and the birthers have latched onto so very many over the last 5 years). There is a third group who believe they are the instruments of their own salvation and of everyone else: these are the militia types and the really scary ones of the lot.

1The word “or” in brackets appeared in the original article by David Weigel, who reported what he heard, presumably without the “or.” The added word reverses the meaning. Without it, Farah is saying that he started the birther movement to make money. I can only assume that Weigel added the word based on some context that he didn’t publish in order to make the meaning correct.