Freak Show

Megan McArdle links to a Financial Times piece by Clive Cook which includes the following quote:

The gap between the right of the Republican party, which is providing the angriest critics of the reforms, and the left of the Democratic party, which thinks the proposals too timid, is unbridgeable. These groups do not merely disagree. They despise each other. Their differences are only secondarily about policy. They hold each other’s values in contempt.

These snarling extremes are nonetheless somewhat alike. They have an equal and opposite penchant for conspiracy theories. Almost a third of Republicans, according to a recent poll, believe the unsupported story that Mr Obama was not born in the US (in which case he would be disqualified from serving as president). But remember that more than a third of Democrats subscribe to the even more outlandish theory that the Bush administration knew about the attacks of September 2001 in advance.

One of the annoying qualities of national debate over the last several months (which seems to increase as Democrats become more desperate about their flagship legislation) is the attempt to find the very looniest possible elements of the right and portray them as being mainstream. Recent weeks have seen left wing commentators pretending that one of the major GOP issues is President Obama’s birth certificate and dredging up “right wing militias”, and inspired renouned prose stylist Harry Reid to create the ringing phrase “evil mongers” for those who question their legislators in town hall meetings. It’s been a staple of “enlightened” liberal commentary since the election that the Republican party is now a spent force, a bankrupt regional party whose only adherents are a few inbred racists who can’t read well enough to find their way out of the trailer park and join the local Hope & Change brigade.

Reality is, of course, a bit different. The number of set adherents of each party has remained roughly the same — elections in the modern US swing not so much on committed partisans changing their minds but on the profoundly un-ideological (and sometimes just plain un-informed) middle swinging one way or the other based on their worries and affections every fourth November.

In that sense, all this posturing is irrelevant. But I can’t help thinking that it does the general body politic harm when either major party either embraces the nuttier of its own members, or intentionally picks out the very nuttiest of its oppenents fringe members and treats them as if they were representative. Honestly, the 9/11 Truthers, the Trig Truthers, the Birthers, and such (not to mention even fringier elements such as militias and those who actively advocated fighting on the side of Al Qaeda) do not deserve to be paid attention to in sane society. Those who think they are helping their cause right now by trying to bring this parade of horribles into the mainstream in order to pin it to their opposition will hurt not only the country as a whole in the long run, but themselves too.

5 Responses to Freak Show

  • Attempts to compare 9/11 “Truthers” to “Birthers” overlook an important point. The question “Is Barack Obama a natural born U.S. citizen?” can only be interpreted one way, and has only two possible answers — yes or no. Either he was or he wasn’t; there’s no in between.

    However, the question “Did Bush know about the 9/11 attacks in advance?” admits of several possible interpretations, listed in order from most to least plausible:

    1. Bush had access to intelligence information indicating the POSSIBILITY of a major terrorist attack being planned, but did not believe the threat serious enough to warrant immediate action.

    2. Bush was given credible but inconclusive information indicating that a terrorist attack was likely to occur in the late summer-early fall of 2001, but again, did not believe the information warranted any significant action.

    3. Bush had good, solid information indicating that Al Qaeda was planning a terrorist attack on the U.S. on or about 9/11/01, and deliberately chose not to take action, since he wanted to use the attack as a pretext for increased security measures and for waging war against countries he didn’t like.

    4. The Bush administration planned and staged the attacks from the outset and merely made them appear to have come from an outside enemy.

    Now, quite a few people (Republicans as well as Democrats) subscribe to theories #1 and #2, whereas only hardcore “Truthers” subscribe to #3 or #4.
    The first two theories mean that Bush simply made an honest mistake in not taking indications of a terrorist attack more seriously, or at worst, that he may have shown poor judgement. However, to embrace #3 or #4 is the real “conspiracy theory” equivalent in irrationality to “Birther” conspiracy theories.

  • The question “Is B. Obama a natural born citizen” can very easily be interpreted in several ways– and most of them are perfectly sane; here’s some ways that the answer could be “no”:
    1) His father, as an official rep of a national party in his home land, counts as a diplomat– thus, the child would be a citizen of Obama Sr’s homeland, as Obama’s mother didn’t fulfill the requirements for her children to automatically be nat-born cits.
    2) Obama renounced his citizenship by taking, as an adult, an Indonesian passport.
    3) Obama was adopted by his mother’s second husband and became a citizen of that country. (2 and 3 is why folks want his college records, BTW)
    4) Obama was born outside the US.

    This is off the top of my head, with a topic I’m not even really interested in.

    “Truther,” on the other hand, is applied to those who think that “9/11 was an inside job.” This would include some of the folks who think Bush “knew about it ahead of time,” but not all of them would be Truthers.

    Now, all that done… the quote is horribly inaccurate or misleading; there was a survey that said one-third of folks surveyed in Utah did not believe or weren’t sure if Obama was born in the US.

    Anne Coulter, of all folks, had a pretty decent point on this whole stupid “Oooh, there’s boogie men! You’re idiots!” argument.

  • Good point, Foxfier.

    Recall that before the election someone had fun going around asking rank-and-file Obama voters if they supported his pro-life stance and his selection of Palin as VP — and many said yes.

    In this case, it wouldn’t surprise me if many of the polled “birthers” don’t even know that you aren’t allowed to be president if you weren’t born in the US (which is, these days, a rather odd rule) and their responses don’t amount to much more than “Yeah, he’s got an odd name and I think I saw on TV he has relatives in Kenya — maybe he was born over there.”

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