Truthers vs. Birthers: Not All Conspiracy Theories Are Created Equal
Every party has got its base. And every party has got its basement. It’s a place where the party keeps under the lock and key, or at least tries to, some of the more eccentric sections of its base. Kind of like what you do to your crazy uncle who insists on wearing his underwear on his head and what the non-magical folks do to Harry Potter in between the academic years at Hogwarts.
That’s the theory. In practice we know that you can’t keep a crazy man (and woman) down. Moonbats keep pirouetting through the night sky, fighting duels with wingnuts, and the more moderate and saner sections of the respective bases -- us -- thank God for all the political paranoia and madness out there that provides us with a fodder to blog and pontificate about.
Recently, much attention has been bestowed by the mainstream media and the left-wing blogosphere on the phenomenon of “birtherism.” In case you fell asleep from a compassionate conservatism fatigue sometime midway through George W.’s second term and have thus missed the last few years of political excitement, the birthers are people who believe that the current occupant of the White House is un-American because, quite literally, he is un-American. Or to be more precise, non-American.
Various conspiracy theories abound and are percolating through blogs and discussion boards on how Barack Obama, Hawaii’s favorite baby, was really born in Kenya (the undisputed birthplace of his father, dreams of whom have inspired one bestseller already and will no doubt in time be turned into a Hollywood movie starring Will Smith). Kenya, not being one of the 57 states of Obama’s union according to the U.S. Constitution (at least the parts of it not shredded and chewed up by Dick Cheney and the rest of the Bush junta), does not qualify the non-aborted fetuses delivered there to aspire to the leadership of the free world.
Opinion polls suggest every third Republican can be described as a birther. For example, 39 percent in this poll want more coverage of the issue. Curiously, so do 14 percent of Democrats. In another one, 28 percent think Obama was born overseas, and 30 percent do not know. Does that make them birther agnostics?
Needless to say, everyone from Jon Stewart to the New York Times and Huffington Post to Ben Smith have had a ball deriding the stupidity and the extremism of a large section of the conservative movement.
Many on the conservative side have responded to this by suggesting that the Democrats should not throw stones in glass madhouses because the party of hope, change, and audacity has got its own crazy uncle in the basement in the form of 42.6 percent of Democratic voters who do not believe in the official version of events connected with 9/11. These people have become known as “truthers."
Now, as a philo-American, though not an American (I should come clean at this point and declare that I’m definitely not eligible to stand for the position of president of the United States), I don’t have a dog, or a crazy uncle, in this fight. For the record I do not care if Obama was born in Hawaii, Kenya, or a manger in a little town of Bethlehem (as many of his supporters seem to think), though I don’t have any reason to disbelieve his official curriculum vitae. Being a believer in free speech, I’m also firmly of the opinion that people are entitled to hold any opinion, no matter how foolish or offensive to others. In fact, being vocal about one’s outlandish beliefs should be encouraged as the best way for the public to quickly assess the person’s mental competency.
You don’t want fools running around while keeping their extreme beliefs to themselves, lest some of them accidentally become czars or something.
But there’s something in this mutual “yo mama” mud-slinging (“Your people are crazy.” “My people? What about your people?”) that does strike me as rather odd, and that’s the assumption of moral equivalence -- as if all eccentricities, idiocies, and conspiracy theories were inherently equal. But this is clearly not so. Let us briefly recap:
The birthers believe that Barack Obama lied about the place of his birth so that he could become the president of the United States.
The truthers believe that George W. Bush murdered (by commission or omission) 3,000 of his fellow Americans and caused two trillion dollars worth of immediate economic damage to his country in order to launch two wars that have killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, drained another trillion dollars from the Treasury, and provided an excuse to destroy the Constitution and turn America into a police state.
To put it in fairytale terms (the next closest thing to a conspiracy theory), we are taking here about Pinocchio versus Lord Voldemort on steroids and the stimulus package.
Or to return to uncles once again, it’s the difference between an uncle who wears his underwear on his head and an uncle who sexually molests 6-year-old girls, strangles them, and then buries their bodies in his backyard.
Everything in life, including craziness, is a matter of degrees. That’s why we should be wary of an automatic resort to moral and other equivalence as a debating tactic. To do so risks conceding far too much for the momentary comfort of mental egalitarianism. No country on earth is perfect, true, but the United States has been a hell of a lot better in all respects than the Soviet Union. Democracy (or capitalism) might be the worst system ever invented, as Churchill reminded us, except for all the others. All conspiracy theories are deluded, but not all of them are equally contemptible and dangerous.
The belief that NASA faked the moon landing gave us a few laughs; the belief that the Elders of Zion were conspiring against civilization gave us the Holocaust.
The truth, more often than not, tends to be quite prosaic. On August 4, 1961, Barack Obama was born at Kapi'olani Maternity & Gynecological Hospital in Honolulu, Hawaii, of an American mother and a Kenyan father. On September 11, 2001, nineteen al-Qaeda operatives, without prior knowledge by any government (bar that of Afghanistan), used four airplanes as flying bombs against targets in New York and Washington, D.C.
The polls tell us that many, too many, on both sides of politics think otherwise. Personally, however, I would be much more concerned if large sections of my party’s base believed a president to be a mass murderer rather than a con artist. All men might be created equal, but how they choose to pursue their inalienable right to craziness separates the harmlessly eccentric from the dangerously deluded.