Thursday, November 20, 2008

Conspiracy Theories New & Old

An old friend of mine from college has recently been sending me news items via e-mail from an obscure news outlet. The subject of all these pieces center around a lawsuit alleging that Barack Obama is not eligible to be president due to questions about his birth certificate and citizenship. After reviewing things through mainstream news outlets,, and some other sources, I've come to conclude the lawsuit has little merit besides raising awareness of the fact that there isn't really any consistent process for determining the qualifications for presidential candidates, particularly the obscure clause about presidents being "native born citizens."

But the lawsuit continued and my friend wholeheartedly believes that Obama and his cronies are illegally hiding this disqualification. This, my friends, is the latest in a long line of garden variety conspiracy theories. I suspect this lawsuit will be thrown out soon enough.

My real question and curiosity centers around the conspiracy theory itself. I suspect people believe conspiracies because they offer simple, dramatic, and clear explanations for bad events that are too difficult or too complex to understand. 9/11, the Communist Red Scare, and the JFK assassination all generated numerous conspiracy theories. Europeans during and after World War I all came up with wild explanations for the events that transpired.

Conspiracy theories all seem to have a similar set of features. They all try and explain events or happenings that are difficult to comprehend or put in context. Economic downturns, terrorist attacks from distant, misunderstood cultures that are out of context, the random assassination of JFK, etc. Not only do conspiracy theories offer believers a supposedly better understanding of the event, but they also offer people an understanding of the event that they prefer to mainstream explanations. Conspiracy theories are always simpler, more dramatic stories that casts the believer as a good guy fighting some shadowy group of "conspirators."

The other feature that seems to persist in conspiracy theories is that the conspirators are usually invisible people who can't easily be held accountable to evidence. The conspiracy theory offers as an explanation of evidence but rarely can it be proven (which is why people should be suspicious of them). Despite the official account of JFK's assassination, people persist in linking it to everything from mob ties in labor unions, shadowy figures in the military industrial complex, or even the Freemasons. The conspiracy theory at its core too often proves irrational and paranoid and serves to ease the mind of the believer more than be a call to action or something to indict wrongdoers. It can't indict anyone of wrongdoing because the figures are all invisible and the theory of course can never be proven. THAT is probably why these theories persist long after they've been disproven. Society doesn't need the theory, THE BELIEVERS DO.

In this latest instance, I read all sorts of accounts about the Obama team conspiring with State legislators, the DNC and others. Crazy tales about people dipping birth certificate paper in special acids to melt the print off an official birth certificate for forgeries abound all over right wing blogs. Predictably, in all the instances, the claims made are fairly simple and straightforward despite their outlandish nature. Most claims are relatively unverifiable as well. So just like UFOs in Roswell, even if the doubters had Obama's official birth certificate in hand I could almost guarantee most of these bloggers would never believe it despite all evidence to the contrary.

Perhaps for some it is easier to buy into a conspiracy theory than it is to face facts about the changing social, political, cultural, and economic realities of America today. It is easier to think that a small group of people are up to no good than it is to absorb and digest complex socio- economic trends and labrynthine institutional paradigms that are completely out of one's control. Conspiracists find it more convenient to point fingers at a familiar face on the evening news and blame them for tragedy. Wrapping one's head around the often puzzling ambiguities of reality proves more difficult. People like the revelatory eloquence of a generated fiction to the often unsatisfying bewilderment of life.

Obama and his team seem to be media savvy enough to know that responding to this lawsuit risks exacerbating it. The Obama campaign appear to have done all that can be reasonably expected to show Obama meets constitutional qualifications. They know the increased media attention resulting from an overly active response could backfire. The mainstream media may not follow some obscure lawsuit, but they WILL take up anything the president-elect discusses at a press conference. Had Obama responded, more people would come to believe it carries weight as a legitimate issue. They also know any response won't satisfy doubters and haters if they aren't satisfied already. The mainstream press is also wise to avoid reporting and commenting on this train wreck of a lawsuit.

The tragedy in pursuing this nonsense will be the resulting disfavor and suspicion that it will bring to the truly legitimate and reliable voices in the conservative blog-o-sphere. While those responsible for these accusations ultimately shoot their own credibility in the foot, they deserve as much. But what of the many sensible and responsible conservative bloggers, journalists, and other right leaning voices around? What of the educated and informed conservative folks with very reasonable and valid criticisms of Obama? The real tragedy is that these other people risk losing credibility with them. Simple guilt by association may ultimately taint the Republican party and conservatives in general through connection to these rumors and it will ultimately prove detrimental to their own cause.

Think of it this way through a similar but related issue: Why should I take anyone seriously on any issue of public conern who is so uninformed as to still think that Barack Obama is a Muslim (23% of Texans as of Oct in a UT Poll)? Unless the conservative movement severs its ties from such appalling ignorance and preposterous conspiracies it risks not only jeopardizing its own political and intellectual efficacy but also threatens its very necessary role as the loyal opposition. As liberal as I am, I do think we need a check on the unrestrained power of the left. Without the voice of sensible and reasoned conservative opposition to liberal ideas, a lot of poor policy making decisions could come about. If conservative voices completely destroy the political capital that stems from credibility and their good reputations as intelligent responsible citizens, who remains to give voice to legitimate problems and concerns with potentially bad policy proposals from the left?

Any thoughts or input readers?

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