Even though President Obama released his long-form birth certificate on Wednesday, America’s favorite conspiracy theory is clinging — bitterly clinging, the president might say — to life by its fingernails. Less than two hours after the document appeared on the internet, the Drudge Report posted a link to the blog of Bryan Michael Nixon, art director for an Atlanta ad firm. Nixon observed that the birth certificate appeared to be composed of distinct “layers.” In TPM, Benjy Sarlin reports: “The debunked forgery revelation drew thousands of comments on messageboards, migrated to birther and truther conspiracy guru Alex Jones’ site, while a video explanation was viewed over 160,000 times on YouTube.”
To be fair, conspiracy theorizing is a bipartisan affair. In Salon, Justin Elliott reveals that Brad Scharlott, a professor of journalism at Northern Kentucky University, has written a “29-page academic-style paper” shilling for the other side’s birthers — the ones who believe that Trig Palin is actually Bristol’s. Titled “Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor: Did a Spiral of Silence Shut Down the Story?”, it alleges that Palin conspired with Bill McAllister, her communications director, to divert the press from digging too deep for facts.
It’s not too hard to see why so many intelligent people will blow their time — and in some cases, their reputations — hunting down some Big Lie or other. There’s something fortifying in believing the worst about the people you hate. Canadian journalist Jonathan Kay, who spent two years researching 9/11 trutherism, tells Justin Elliott: “There are people who are polarized who will simply choose the most radical answer to any question that aligns with their ideological point of view. In the years immediately after 2003 when the Iraq war began, you could say anything about Bush in the left-wing press, and you’d find people who would say, “Oh yes, that’s true. He’s a theocrat, he’s a fascist, he’s a Nazi.”
In this sense, conspiracy theories are the bastard offspring of a legitimate mythmaking impulse. You detect an unsavory quality in some public figure, you want to reify it, make it visible and tangible, so you do what good storytellers do: you exaggerate. With his authoritarian streak, Benedict becomes Ratzi the Nazi. Obama’s not the type to own a bass boat or listen to Kid Rock, therefore he’s a foreigner, a Muslim, or both. This is fine to a point; what fun would discourse be without a little hyperbole? The problem only starts when people start believing their own rhetorical flourishes.
Some very fine minds, however, would say it’s no problem at all. In his Republic, Plato has Socrates introduce the concept of the “Noble Lie,” a set of propositions which, though literally false, would help society cohere if treated as true. The concept has attracted a following. A few days ago, I wrote that the French political theorist Charles Maurras argued that Captain Dreyfus should have remained on Devil’s Island even though innocent. Maurras was not being personally vindictive against Dreyfus; he simply believed that France would flourish, according to his own definition, if governmental corruption remained hidden. Also, though Dreyfus himself was innocent of spying for Germany, Maurras believed that Jews were corrupting the nation by their very presence. Like all myths, the myth of Dreyfus the traitor expressed what the teller believed was a higher truth.
The people who hawk conspiracy theories lack Plato’s and Maurras’ subtlety. They don’t believe their stories the way people believe in myths; they believe them literally. They shovel up mountains of data in support of them. Usually, it’s this obsessive detail orientation, this scrupulosity, that gives them away as kooks. One Trig birther I knew built his whole case around the size of Sarah Palin’s ankles, as they appeared in a photo taken some months before Trig’s birth.. Based on his memories of his wife’s pregnancy, he decided they were not, and could not possibly be, the ankles of an expectant mother.
As far as I’m concerned, this impulse to make the mythical, real is a terrible insult to the imagination. People would stay saner longer if they simply said, “Look, I know Barry Hussein was born in Hawaii, but I can’t stand him, so I’m going to believe he was born in Kenya — no, better, Mecca. That’s my world and I’m living in it “ I don‘t have Orthodoxy on my lap, but Chesterton said something like, “The poet tries to get his head into the cosmos. The logician tries to get his cosmos into his head. And it is his head that splits.”
Homeboy sounds like he’s put his time in on message boards.
– Max Lindenman, Anchoress understudy