Birther Whack Jobs: Citizens of Idiot America
Editor's note: Overt racism from the right has taken an unprecedented spike recently. CNN host Lou Dobbs has led a frothy-mouthed crusade, as persistent as it is unfounded, that supposedly calls into question President Obama's citizenship. Dobbs has repeatedly called on the administration to "produce a birth certificate" (which they have already done), and seems hellbent on asserting Obama's alienness -- in spite of tricky hurdles like "truth" and "facts."
It's time to let CNN know that giving voice to Dobbs is an act of irresponsible journalism and vicarious racism. Join MoveOn and many others who are asking the network to address its Lou Dobbs problem.
Just because there are people who believe some mighty peculiar things doesn't mean I'm obliged to pay them any attention. After all, there are folks who are convinced that the moon landing was a hoax, that Israel was behind the World Trade Center attacks and that the US government has been covering up the truth about the crash of a UFO in Roswell, New Mexico, for the past six decades. Not every ludicrous notion is worth the mental energy it would take to debunk it.
Which brings me to the Birthers -- rightwing conspiracy theorists who insist that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and is thus constitutionally unqualified to serve as president. I had assumed they'd gone away last year, after the Obama campaign posted the then-candidate's birth certificate on the internet. But conspiracy theories are a matter of faith, not fact. So I shouldn't have been surprised when the Birthers rose up anew recently, receiving a respectful hearing from the likes of CNN talkshow host Lou Dobbs and various Republican congressmen.
But there's a difference between the loony ideas of yore and their latter-day incarnations. What had once been relegated to the fringes is now front and center. The penniless cranks have given way to well-dressed strategists with expense accounts. The transformative agent: our corrupt and malign media culture.
I am in debt to Charles Pierce, whose fine new book, Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, explains how talk radio, cable news shows and, too often, less dubious sectors of the media have built the promulgation of foolishness into a growth business. (Disclosure: Pierce, a staff writer for the Boston Globe Magazine and a well-known freelancer, is a friend of mine.)
Idiot America -- not the book, but, rather, a state of mind -- is based on what Pierce calls three "Great Premises":
1. "Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings or otherwise moves units."
2. "Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough."
3. "Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it."
These premises, Pierce argues, are at work in absurdities such as the very loud, very public and very idiotic controversies over "intelligent design" (the story of Genesis dressed up as science), the fate of Terri Schiavo (a brain-dead woman who spent years being kept breathing in a Florida hospice thanks to the intervention of talkshow hosts and cynical politicians) and global warming (Pierce spends some time in Shishmaref, Alaska, a once-frozen village now literally melting into the Pacific Ocean).
What's common to all of these examples is that they are built around debates that aren't really debates at all: the folks on one side are so flagrantly wrong that one is tempted to assume they are lying or insane. And as Pierce shows, we are not talking about harmless antics. Rather, such idiocy leads to death threats and warps the scientific consensus needed to stop the planet from heating up into an uninhabitable hell.
Is there anything that can be done? I think the answer is yes, and the way different media figures have handled the Birthers is instructive. Whereas CNN's Dobbs has pandered to them, and even suggested their ridiculous theories ought to be investigated, MSNBC's Chris Matthews hasn't been afraid to call foul.
Recently, for instance, Matthews went after Republican congressman John Campbell of California, the proponent of a bill that would require presidential candidates to prove they are "natural-born citizens", as the US constitution specifies. Under Matthews's relentless barrage, Campbell disingenuously said that Obama met the constitutional requirement "as far as I know". Matthews waved a copy of Obama's birth certificate at him and yelled at him: "You are feeding the wacko wing of your party."
Indeed. The Birthers are ignorant hatemongers, spouting nonsense about Obama's roots as a proxy for their profound disgust that a black man was elected president. And it's tempting to say that the media should simply ignore the Birthers -- not to mention the global-warming deniers, the WTC conspiracists and all the rest. But given the cultural environment in which we find ourselves, such tactics would only lead to conspiracy theories about the liberal media -- as if there weren't enough of those already.
In Idiot America, Pierce quotes a minister in Dover, Pennsylvania, who laments the rise of a citizenry determined, at long last, to stand up for science and reality in the face of the local school board's Adam-and-Eve approach to the teaching of biology.
"We've been attacked," the minister says, "by the intelligent, educated segment of our culture."
Those of us who like to think we're part of that segment need to keep on attacking -- to go after these charlatans and whack jobs, and to point out their lies and lunacy for everyone to see. Enough.