In a recent on-line chat Washington Post reporter Ben Pershing was asked why the “birther” conspiracy arguing that President Obama was not a natural born U.S. citizen has any saliency in the media. His response was inane: “Perhaps because there is an actual videotape of the planes hitting the World Trade Center that billions of people around the world have seen, while there is no videotape of Obama being born in Hawaii or Vince Foster committing suicide.”
How absurd! Conspiracy believers live in an evidence free universe. What might be considered legitimate proof of something for normal, rational people is always dismissed out of hand by the believers in conspiracy. It is a question of faith, not reason, for them. The last word in any debate with a true believer in some conspiracy is to have the believer accuse their opponent of being a co-conspirator.
The idea that a documentary record of something might quash beliefs in a conspiracy is naive. One of the most documented incidents in world history was the Moon landings and there is still a subset of Americans–a small but vocal subset–who insist that it was staged. Astronaut Bill Anders of Apollo 8 in December 1968 fell err to this belief when he said that “three men floating inside a spaceship was as close to proof as they might get.” He could not have been more wrong. It made no difference.
Pershing’s assertion is no less incorrect. In fact, there is also a conspiracy theory circulating that the government staged the 9/11 attacks, so even his analogy is incorrect. Of course, he is stoking the fires of this particular conspiracy with this type of commentary. President Obama has provided his birth certificate, the state of Hawaii has declared it legitimate, and the U.S. government has deemed it appropriate for the issuance of passports and other official documents.
But no matter, it’s not enough for the “birthers,” some of whom visit this planet only occasionally from their home in the Wingnuttia universe.
More interesting to me, why are some people so susceptible to these conspiracy ideas? We have conspiracy theories all around us and they are invariably nefarious plots. Americans, certainly, and perhaps all the cultures of the world, love the idea of conspiracy as an explanation of how and why many events have happened. It plays to our innermost fears and hostilities that there is a well-organized, well-financed, and Machiavellian design being executed by some malevolent group, the dehumanized “them,” which seek to rob “us” of something we hold dear.
Conspiracy theories abound in American history. Oliver Stone’s film, J.F.K., while presenting a truly warped picture of recent American history, shows how receptive Americans are to believing that Kennedy was killed as a result of a massive conspiracy variously involving Cuban strongman Fidel Castro, American senior intelligence and law enforcement officers, high communist leaders in the Soviet Union, union organizers, organized crime, and perhaps even the Vice President, Lyndon B. Johnson. Stone’s film only brought the assassination conspiracy to a broad American public. For years amateur and not-so-amateur researchers had been churning out books and articles about the Kennedy assassination conspiracy. It has been one of the really significant growth industries in American history during the last nearly 50 years.
Lest you think these are diversionary abstractions for those who have nothing better to do or that they are the hobgoblins of cracked minds, I would argue that some conspiracies have been instrumental in charting major turns in the direction of the nation. The most striking example is the American Revolution.
When the British Empire finally defeated France in the Seven Years War in 1763, Great Britain turned its attention to its colonies like it had not done before, partly to exact taxes from them to help pay for the war and the other costs of empire. The Sugar Act, the Townshend Duties, the Stamp Act, the Quebec Act, and a host of other laws designed to raise revenue riled American colonists to rebellion.
Taken together, these efforts of the British government were put forward by a few colonists as a conspiracy to rob Americans of their rights as Englishmen (women did not even enter into the picture at that point). Ultimately, colonials argued that a grand conspiracy was underway to enslave Americans, and that they were compelled to stand together to defend their liberties and defeat a determined, evil oppressor. Interestingly, the liberty/slavery rhetorical imagery had the potential to inflame many Americans, since they saw the dichotomy between freedom and slavery every day in the cities and especially on the plantations. A conspiracy to enslave white Americans, therefore, was an especially potent force in motivating revolution.
So what should we do about this “birther” conspiracy? Does it portend something ominous from those opposed to this new presidential administration, or is it just wingnuts being wingnuts? The history of conspiracy theories suggest that there can sometimes be serious consequences in the interplay of conspiracy ideology with dissent and unrest. Mostly, however, it has not been significant as a motivator for action.
One approach toward the “birthers” is to ignore them and perhaps the argument will go away, or at the very least it will run its course and be forgotten by all but the demented few. Another strategy is to confront the “birthers” head on and respond to their challenges, but I doubt that will be successful in convincing those already committed. It might, however, ensure that there are counterarguments to this nonsense out there and therefore available to all. Then there is the Buzz Aldrin strategy, the Apollo 11 astronaut who slugged one Moon landing conspiracy advocate after being called a coward, a liar, and a thief for saying he had walked on the Moon. I don’t recommend violence.
How do we respond to the “birthers?” What do you think?