Sunday, May 1, 2011

Conspiracy Theories

Kate Zernike of The New York Times writes, in "The Persistence of Conspiracy Theories:"
No sooner had President Obama released his long-form birth certificate than Orly Taitz, the doyenne of the “birther” movement, found reason to doubt it.

“A step in the right direction,” she said, even though it was precisely the document that many birthers had been demanding of the president. And then she argued that it was still subject to authentication.

Donald Trump, similarly bouffant, blond and politically inclined, likewise breezed past the new evidence of Mr. Obama’s citizenship, pausing only to take credit for forcing the release of the document before suggesting that the president was hiding something else — bad grades.

So much for Mr. Obama’s hopes of stopping the “silliness.”

To many, those who doubt Mr. Obama’s citizenship are driven simply by racial prejudice; they are unwilling to allow that America’s first black president could hold the office legitimately.

Many scholars of conspiracy theory agree. But they also note that such theories are hardly unique to Mr. Obama; they have a long history in the United States and elsewhere, coming from left and right, covering all sorts of subjects, political and otherworldly (the twin towers were not hit by airplanes; Paul is dead). And those who doubt Mr. Obama’s citizenship fit the mold of other conspiracy theorists: they don’t loose their grip on their beliefs easily, if at all. ...

Ms. Zernike describes some other conspiracy theories, then writes,
In a way, it is human nature to want to construct a narrative to resolve anxieties, to be drawn to mystery or the perception of it.

But the strong embrace of conspiracy theories is also embedded in the American experience. A fear of enemies — real and imagined, internal and external — defined those who forged this country. A place created as God’s country was bound to see the subversions of Satan behind every uncertain turn. ...

... What Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics” is encouraged by popular culture, in movies like “Birth of a Nation” and “The Da Vinci Code,” and by those whom Professor Goldberg [a history professor at the University of Utah and the author of “Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America.”] terms the “conspiracy entrepreneurs” — whether Glenn Beck or Jerome Corsi, who went from self-styled expert on John Kerry’s military record to self-styled expert on Barack Obama’s heritage. The Internet, where you never have to confront an idea you don’t like, allows these theories to grow deeper and wider. ...
Ms. Zernike's article is worth reading in its entirety, here, and Richard Hofstadter's essay, "The paranoid style in American politics," can be read, here, at Harpers Magazine, where it appeared in 1964.

Ms. Zernike makes the point that the "paranoid style" is not just an affliction of what Hofstadter called the "Radical Right" and isn't only seen in a political context.

Update: Hofstadter's essay is also featured in a collection of links at "The Paranoid Mentality."

1 comment:

Julie said...

>A fear of enemies — real and imagined, internal and external — defined those who forged this country.

This country is *forged? Well, then. What are birthers complaining about when they allege the long form birth certificate is forged!?