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.