Tuesday, February 22, 2011


An interesting post by John Quiggin at Crooked Timber has been getting quite a bit of notice:
A recent report on a poll finding that a majority of Republicans (that is, likely primary voters) are “birthers”, with only 28 per cent confident that Obama was born in the United States has raised, not for the first time, the question “how can they think that?” and “do they really believe that?”.

Such questions are the domain of agnotology, the study of culturally-induced ignorance or doubt. Agnotology is not, primarily, the study of ignorance in the ordinary sense of the term. So, for example, someone who shares the beliefs of their community, unaware that those beliefs might be subject to challenge, might be ignorant as a result of their cultural situation, but they are not subject to culturally-induced ignorance in the agnotological sense.

But this kind of ignorance is not at issue in the case of birtherism. Even in communities where birtherism is universal (or at least where any dissent is kept quiet), it must be obvious that not everyone in the US thinks that the elected president was born outside the US and therefore ineligible for office.

Rather, birtherism is a shibboleth, that is, an affirmation that marks the speaker as a member of their community or tribe. (The original shibboleth was a password chosen by the Gileadites because their Ephraimite enemies could not say “Sh”.) Asserting a belief that would be too absurd to countenance for anyone outside a given tribal/ideological group makes for a good political shibboleth.

That's interesting, don't you think? Here's Jonathan Chait with a slightly different perspective:
But I do think the concept of agnotology applies here. Quiggin's argument hinges on the fact that conservatives understand that some people do not believe President Obama was born outside the United States (or is a Muslim, or...) But what those conservatives believe is that they enjoy access to truth that is denied Americans who are brainwashed by the mainstream media. The believe that Fox News is not just a network that counteracts the biased liberal media, or even a network that reports the stories that the liberal media ignore, but the vehicle for Truth:

Incredible, isn't it? Whether or not this is a shibboleth, what's important is what it means for America. Here's Quiggin again:
Does all this hurt or help the Republicans? In short-run electoral terms, I think it helps. A base of loyal supporters who, for one or other of the reasons mentioned above, are immune to factual evidence has to help win elections. There are, however, two big costs
  • First, people have noticed that Republicans have a problem with reality. That perception, which undermines the rationale for all sorts of thinking about policy, will take a while to sink in, but it will also be hard to erase once it is generally accepted. In the long run, this has to turn off a fair number of Republican-leaning independents and any remaining Republicans with a capacity for embarrassment.
  • Double-think is very difficult, and people will start to act on the basis of their beliefs. If those beliefs are ludicrously false, trouble is likely to follow.

Hmm,... the second point is obvious, but what is that "trouble" likely to be? Yes, acting on the basis of ludicrous beliefs will likely cause problems. Duh!  Heh, heh. I guess I'd prefer some specifics.

But I'd really like to believe the first point. In fact, I've long been expecting a backlash against such lunacy. So far, however, I've seen little sign of it.

It's hard for me to understand why anyone is still a Republican these days. Yes, Republicans have a problem with reality. But that's been obvious for years. Has it hurt them? True, Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell might have cost them a couple of Senate seats in November, but it was still a huge Republican victory.

And the fact that I want to believe in an eventual backlash makes me all the more skeptical of it. I hope so, but... I'm not going to believe anything just because I want to believe it. This is where Chait's point seems particularly important. With Fox "News" and other far-right media sources pushing these shibboleths so determinedly, we just seem to get more and more people believing them all the time. Will there ever be a backlash? If so, when?

I'd also like to note one of the comments, by Chris Adams, on Quiggin's post:
One major problem related to your second conclusion is that the GOP has unusually trended heavily toward being the party of the elderly and rich for awhile and there are fair odds that many of their current voters will be dead before the consequences are obvious. Breaking the idea of concern for the future is in some ways worse than the actual problem.

Note that the average age of Fox "News" viewers is 65. Is this why we're seeing Republicans consistently favor short-term benefits like tax cuts, despite the disastrous long-term consequences? Is this why they seem to have completely abandoned the idea of investing for the future? Do the elderly not care about the future anymore, if they won't live to see it themselves?

And, of course, Republicans are not just older, on average, they're also overwhelmingly white. The GOP "southern strategy" of deliberately appealing to white racists has made certain of that. And these past few years, we've started seeing real hysterics from a Republican Party which finds itself on the wrong side of America's demographic changes.

So I wonder. Is another reason for Republicans abandoning that concern for the future simply because they see future Americans as browner (and perhaps less Christian)? It's a terrible thought, isn't it?

(I've heard that a lot of them expect to see Jesus return in their lifetime, which sounds pretty crazy in itself. And maybe that expectation of Armageddon also explains why they're not concerned about the future. But I wonder if that's not just an excuse for racist feelings they don't want to admit, maybe not even to themselves.)

Well, either way, Republicans are older and whiter than average. They do seem to be on the wrong side of demographic changes in this country. Yes, there will be plenty of elderly in the future, and elderly people tend to be more conservative (relatively-speaking) and more easily scared. But I also suspect that people might be reluctant to change political parties at the end of their lives - especially when the other party has a reputation for losing touch with reality.

But that's really long-term. I don't think we can wait that long before we start investing in America again, before we start addressing our many long-term problems, before we start using evidence-based, instead of faith-based, thinking.


Anonymous said...

Have you ever considered we would just like to see the danged piece o' paper with the data on it?
Do you really think that a requirement to be President of the U.S does not have need of proof?

Talk about deep thinkers - not you! Why is it so hard to provide said document? Being obstinate? Juvenile? Coy? Properties of one B.Obama?
You have some explaining to do! Educate me!

WCG said...

Heh, heh. Anonymous, if you haven't been convinced by now, nothing will do it. You can't be educated if you don't want to be.

Read FactCheck.org, which is an independent political fact-checking organization, if you're really that clueless.

There's a reason why Republican leaders like to see this kind of craziness, but are too embarrassed to give it any direct support. It's a shibboleth, nothing more.