105 Witches, Birthers and Deathers: On the Lame

We’re at a marvelous moment in American history where, after a deep and painful recession, economic growth remains anemic and constant oil supply shortages hover over us, ready to smother the economy as soon as it wakes from its slumber.  Instead of a vigorous debate about how we can fix our energy problems and put the nation back on a sustainable path towards prosperity, our political parties would rather engage in stunts and games of chicken.

In 2000, the U.S. was running a budget surplus … but after a massive tax cut, three wars and a long recession that sunk tax revenues and increased short-term spending, we now have a large and unsustainable budget deficit.  As Paul Krugman noted earlier this week, instead of doing the obvious: raising taxes back to the levels of 11 years ago, cutting back on our military adventures and doing everything we can to put people back to work, the focus is on blaming the victims — cutting programs for those who have suffered the most in the recession.

But don’t worry about these real problems, there are plenty of fake ones to distract us from considering the inanity of our political leadership.  Two popular sideshows this year have been the birther and deather movements: those who believe that President Obama was not a naturally-born citizen and those who insist that Osama bin Laden is still alive, even though Al Qaeda itself has admitted his demise.

While there are no major polls measuring the deathers yet, a new Public Policy Polling survey found that even after the release of President Obama’s long-form birth certificate, only 48 percent of Republicans believe that he was born in the United States.  This marks a 16 point improvement since the White House released the birth certificate —  and in fairness, the number of people who say he is not a citizen is down to 34 percent — but I still find it remarkable that anyone would hold enough doubt or animus at this point to bother with a ‘not sure’ remark.  Even a devoted doubter like Montaigne would be hard pressed to give that answer.

You might think that this insanity would drive the White House crazy, but actually I can’t imagine a better political circumstance for them.  Instead of having to navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of job growth and deficit reduction, the birthers and deathers put Republican Presidential candidates into a terrible bind.  Disavow this large segment of the GOP primary electorate now and you might have no chance at winning the nomination … but become too cozy with the know-nothings and you’ll have virtually no chance of winning the general election, no matter how bad the economy looks a year from now.

I find it hard to believe that the number of truly idiotic Americans — so easily influenced by supermarket tabloids like The Globe and lunatics like Orly Taitz — can compose nearly a majority of one of this country’s major political parties.  Montaigne in this essay, largely about witches, provides a highly plausible theory about how such mass delusions spread:

At first simple folk are convinced by the event itself: it sweeps over them. From them it spreads to the more intelligent folk by the authority of the number and the antiquity of the testimonies. Personally, what I would not believe when one person says it, I would not believe if a hundred times one said it. And I do not judge opinions by their age.

In other words, the birther theories have been around long enough and repeated for so long that they’ve taken on a certain authority, even if the facts surrounding them are non-existent.  If this is the case, the deathers should slowly start to build in the coming months and could make up an equally strong portion of the anti-Obama vote by November 2012.  False facts, Montaigne wrote, have a way of building up their own ludicrous credibility:

I was recently letting my mind range wildly (as I often do) over our human reason and what a rambling and roving instrument it is. I realize that if you ask people to account for ‘facts’, they usually spend more time finding reasons for them than finding out whether they are true. They ignore the whats and expatiate on the whys. Wiseacres!

Those easily seduced by birther and deather theories will start off with the assumption that Obama is evil and his Presidency illegitimate.  From there, deciding why these theories have relevance become a puzzle of determining how Obama could have pulled off the frauds instead of actually determining whether the theory is true:

They skip over the facts but carefully deduce inferences. They normally begin thus: ‘How does this come about?’ But does it do so? That is what they ought to be asking. Our reason has capacity enough to provide the stuff for a hundred other worlds, and then to discover their principles and construction! It needs neither matter nor foundation; let it run free: it can build as well upon the void as upon the plenum, upon space as upon matter: meet to give heaviness even to smoke.

What conspiracy theories amount to — and I have to admit now that I’ve been highly unfair placing them all on the conservative side, liberals have their own idiotic theories including 9/11 denial and various assassination theories — is a false form of skepticism.  It’s a “prove that humans breathe oxygen” form of skepticism that denies all human knowledge.  True skepticism is about expanding human knowledge and understanding:

By following this practice we know the bases and causes of hundreds of things which never were; the world is involved in duels about hundreds of questions where both the for and the against are false: The false and the true are in such close proximity that the wise man should not trust himself to so steep a slope.

Long before the game of ‘telephone’ was invented, Montaigne describes how rumors spread:

By man’s inborn tendency to work hard at feeding rumors we naturally feel embarrassed if what was lent to us we pass on to others without some exorbitant interest of our own. At first the individual error creates the public one: then, in its turn, the public error creates the individual one. And so, as it passes from hand to hand, the whole fabric is padded out and reshaped, so that the most far-off witness is better informed about it than the closest one, and the last to be told more convinced than the first.

And once these rumors start spreading, it becomes nearly impossible to unravel them.  Take, for instance, the way the birther rumors morphed into discussions of President Obama’s academic record or draft registration forms.  Once you accept the premise that the President is a fraud, debunking one part of the rumor nearly allows it to shape shift into another:

It is wonderful how such celebrated opinions are born of such vain beginnings and trivial causes. It is precisely that which makes it hard to inquire into them: for while we are looking for powerful causes and weighty ends worthy of such great fame we lose the real ones: they are so tiny that they escape our view. And indeed for such investigations we need a very wise, diligent and subtle investigator, who is neither partial nor prejudiced.

Many of this world’s abuses are engendered – or to put it more rashly, all of this world’s abuses are engendered – by our being schooled to fear to admit our ignorance and because we are required to accept anything which we cannot refute. Everything is proclaimed by injunction and assertion. In Rome, the legal style required that even the testimony of an eye-witness or the sentence of a judge based on his most certain knowledge had to be couched in the formula, ‘It seems to me that…’

Montaigne suggests that the best way for cultures to avoid this kind of inanity is to raise children to be inquisitive.  Having three young boys myself, I can guarantee you that they are born inquisitive … if anything, we beat the questions out of them because we get tired of answering every why.  But Montaigne is correct that we need to give them a framework for a life of questioning:

And if I had had sons to bring up I would have trained their lips to answer with inquiring and undecided expressions such as, ‘What does this mean?’ ‘I do not understand that’, ‘It might be so’, ‘Is that true?’ so that they would have been more likely to retain the manners of an apprentice at sixty than, as boys do, to act like learned doctors at ten.

In my opinion, the most important trait for people to adopt in expressing opinions is admission that ideas are purely their own and based on an individualistic point of view.  I have a tendency to state my opinions forcefully — but that doesn’t mean I’m closed to possibility that I might be wrong:

I warrant you no certainty for whatever I say, except that it was indeed my thought at the time… my vacillating and disorderly thought. I will talk about anything by way of conversation, about nothing by way of counsel. Nor, like those other fellows, am I ashamed to admit that I do not know what I do not know.

But even Montaigne recognizes that this can be taken too far and only applies to issues that are matters of opinion … I need to be clear that President Obama was born in the State of Hawaii and Osama bin Laden is still dead, and those are facts, not opinions:

The arrogance of those who attributed to Man’s mind a capacity for everything produced in others (through irritation and emulation) the opinion that it has a capacity for nothing. Some went to the same extreme about ignorance as the others did about knowledge, so that no one may deny that Man is immoderate in all things and that he has no stopping-point save necessity, when too feeble to get any farther.

I’m not one to give advice to Republicans that often, but if I were advising the loyal opposition today, I would suggest that they nominate a ticket that bears no personal animus towards President Obama … doing so would go a long way towards making the 2012 election about issues — real, important issues — than matters of lunacy.  A Jon Huntsman-Tom Coburn ticket, for example, could give the Obama White House a lot of sleepless nights.  Such a contest would be good for the country.

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