John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Native-born looniness

Over at Baltimoresun.com, TV critic David Zurawik had the temerity to suggest that Lou Dobbs’s continued attention to the crackpot “birther” conspiracy theory on CNN — after his own network had discredited it — presents a problem for CNN. He might as well have picked up a stick and swung at a wasps’ nest, because the comments on his post now feature of swarm of loonies.*

All the conventions of conspiracy nuttiness are on display in those comments: refusal to acknowledge facts — statements by public officials and investigation by impartial organizations such as Politifact.com; insistence on unsubstantiated facts, such as the recently produced “Kenyan birth certificate”**; tortured readings of the Constitution; accusations of complicity in the conspiracy by anyone who disputes its contentions, combined with ad hominem attacks; and syntax more tangled than the Gordian knot. Add to it the veiled, or not-so-veiled, racism, and you have classic American hysteria.

We’ve been there before. John Adams, the public was assured, was a closet monarchist out to betray the Revolution, Thomas Jefferson was a Jacobin who would have property owners slaughtered in their beds, Andrew Jackson was a would-be Bonapartist dictator; Abraham Lincoln was an ignoramus (“the original gorilla,” General McClellan called him), Franklin Roosevelt was an insane syphilitic who connived at the attack on Pearl Harbor (two separate rumors), Dwight Eisenhower was a Communist (according to the John Birch Society), and George W. Bush staged the attacks of September 11 to contrive a pretext for going to war. In this historical context, the Obama birth hysteria is trivial.

People in turbulent times who feel threatened by circumstances and fearful, particularly if they are uneducated or unsophisticated, are prone to be credulous about conspiracy theories. And there are always public figures who are quick to channel that emotional energy into their own political purposes. The Know Nothing party’s effort to transmute nativist distress over German and Irish immigration into electoral power in the mid-19th century is a classic example. If your ancestors were German or Irish (or anything other than English/Scottish/Welsh), remember that people like you were once held to be threats to the Republic, and strenuous efforts were made to keep them out.

The House is on vacation, and the Senate is about to adjourn as well, so it’s foreseeable that for the next few weeks the news media, lacking nonsense produced by elected officials, will have to resort to unofficial sources. The birthers will be there.

The birther hysteria is just the just the kind of phenomenon that H.L. Mencken used to say “makes the United States a buffoon among the great nations.”





*I said very much the same thing over the weekend, but fortunately, no one cares what copy editors think about anything, so I have not been favored with the attention of cranks.

**If the birthers insist that the birth record produced by the State of Hawaii is a forgery, how can they be sure that the purported Kenyan document produced by Orly Taitz is genuine? My prediction: The Taitz document will be exposed as a forgery, and it will make no difference.

9 comments:

  1. There's a scary strain of nuttiness running through our society.

    I was particularly surprised to hear some birther on TV claim that a "certificate of live birth" didn't prove anything and couldn't be used to apply for a passport. In fact, that's exactly what I used to obtain a passport.

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  2. In my opinion the Republican Party has been taken over the most extreme religious right (people who love to push their beliefs on others while trying to take away their rights) and that’s who they need to focus on if they real want to win. Good Luck, because as they said in WACO, “We Ain’t Coming Out”.

    In the same vein, to all the birthers in La, La Land, it is on you to prove to all of us that your assertion is true, if there are people who were there and support your position then show us the video (everyone has a price), either put up or frankly shut-up. I heard Orly Taitz, is selling a tape (I think it’s called “Money, Lies and Video tape”). She is from Orange County, CA, now I know what the mean when they say “behind the Orange Curtain”, when they talk about Orange County, the captial of Conspiracy Theories. You know Obama has a passport, he travel abroad before he was a Senator, but I guess he fooled them too?

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  3. It wasn't just in the 19th century: My mother, during the 1930s in New York, saw signs in employment offices that actually said "Jews and Irish need not apply." Blacks weren't mentioned because that was just understood by "everyone." Everyone white, that is.

    Retired in Elkridge

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  4. Considering that Mencken favored the German side in both world wars, he's one to talk, but I digress.

    Yes, we've been through all this before. The penny dropped for me in Russian history class, when one of the child Tsars died, and for years, they had to content with various false claimants, who'd appear far away from Moscow, round up a pack of useful idiots, and march on the city, only to end up (usually) slaughtered for their trouble. Happened several times, too.

    What's especially annoying this go-round is that there's plenty of issues out there far more threatening to the health of this country, but require little more education and knowledge to argue.

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  5. "The birther hysteria is just the just the kind of phenomenon that H.L. Mencken used to say 'makes the United States a buffoon among the great nations.'"

    I'm not convinced that the US has a francise on this kind of stuff. Conspiracy theorists are not confined to any one nation, culture, ethnicity. You find them throughout history, all around the world.

    I think the key is this: "People in turbulent times who feel threatened by circumstances and fearful, particularly if they are uneducated or unsophisticated, are prone to be credulous about conspiracy theories. And there are always public figures who are quick to channel that emotional energy into their own political purposes."

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  6. Having just gotten over the attendances of the latest anniversary of my birth, I feel more the curmudgeon that is my norm.

    John, may I call you John? For purposes of address, I will. We are, after all peers of a sort, both of the Class of '69. There are reasons that both you and I can write inflammatory ideas on blogs without seeing the flames. We are read only by sycophants. Or by those who ignore the rantings of doddering elders. Or those who ask themselves, "What's the use?" To question would be to tilt at another windmill. Note that two of the three reasoners are in opposition to the idea.

    Pam, please do not overreact to those you think are deficient in mental capacity. Use of derogatory terms for the incapacitated has always been boorish, even in like thinking company.

    Paul, just because two or four people make outragous assertions, AND they also share some other trait, does not logically impute the outragousness to all who share the irrelevant trait. For instance, all democrats have ludicrous hairstyles and larcenous hearts, because the penultimate governor of Illinois was a Democrat. There is no need to hide your dislikes. We are among friends, of a sort.

    Bill has, in my opinion hit two nails squarely on the heads - the deplorable state of usage of knowledge and education in the chattering classes.

    Why is that with the passing of each anniversary I feel more and more like the progeny of the beloved Mencken and W. C. Fields.

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  7. Bruce, by all means be familiar. We both agree with Bill that this non-issue is crowding out attention to more urgent matters. And as someone whose health insurance will lapse in two months, I am particularly interested in seeing that we have a clearer and more thorough exploration of the issues than anyone has provided to date. I mean something more than shots of "Socialism!" and scares about old people supposedly being euthanized.

    Not that I'm optimistic about the prospect.

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  8. I hope that when the healthcare "system" in this country is fixed (I have to be hopeful about it at least), that in addition to removing the multiple middlemen sucking profit out from the transaction that should be between us and our doctors, they remember to fix the mess that happened to Medicare under Bush. A friend who depends upon Medicare has been having a very difficult time of it since the prescription plan was blown up into many prescription plans that patients have to choose between. Somehow, patients are expected to know what drugs they will need before they choose a plan. My friend chose a plan that covered the drugs she was on at the time; then her doctor changed her drugs, and the new ones she was put on weren't covered. That's all I know about it, but it sounds insane. How can we know in advance what drugs our doctors will prescribe us in the future? They should ALL be covered. It should be the doctor's decision what the patient should be prescribed. I have similar problems with my private insurance. But my comment is too long as it is.

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  9. The ultimate proof that Obama was born where and when he and his family says he was is not to be found in his birth certificate. I've read enough cheap paranoid thrillers to know that Forces of Evil can forge official documents. No, the real proof is that both Honolulu daily newspapers ran birth notices at the time. That's good enough for me.

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