What is there to say? What follows is column 1,429 in the current format, in place since March 2007 – but this has being going on since May 2003 – and there’s no point in counting any longer. What started out as political and cultural comments to a group of far-flung friends turned into a minor blog, on those same matters, with a hundred and twenty readers a day, and on a good day, many times that number. Or maybe that’s on a bad day – disasters and really startling political foolishness does draw readers looking for a sense of what is going on – the details – and who is saying what about what just happened – as if someone might know. So it’s a service – readers can drop by and look on as it’s all laid out, as logically and inclusively as it can be laid out at the moment.
And why do this? The columns here are an attempt to think things through – that’s why they’re so long – no cheating. And of course that activity is personal – an itch that needs to be scratched or something like that. But it’s no more than just an addiction of sorts, to thinking things through. So you do so – over and over. If readers would like to come along for the ride, well, that’s fine. If not, well, that’s fine too. There are other things to do – mow the lawn, take the kids to the zoo or whatever. And of course getting the general idea, or being bored and indifferent, are options too, as is trusting Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck, or Ed Schultz. That covers most people – we are not an intellectually rigorous nation. We’re not French, after all.
But we may be nuts. Anyone looking for a sense of what is going on – the details – and who is saying what about what just happened – as if someone might know – sooner or later hits a wall. No one seems to know quite what is going on and people are saying strange things – evidence doesn’t matter, as there’s some great conspiracy of some sort. Bush ordered the 9/11 attacks and Obama was born in Kenya or Iran and so on. There’s a reason Dan Brown sold so many books about that secret code that proved Jesus was married, and a father, and his children are now secretly ruling the world, or something. Yes, some of us didn’t pay enough attention – it might have been something else, as if it matters. But that pattern is clear. We are not an intellectually rigorous nation, but we like a good yarn – and it might be true, you know. You never know.
The problem is that we take much of this seriously, and David Weigel in this item examines why we do – stating with what he calls the latest flare-up of the conspiracy theory known as Trig Trutherism. That is the odd claim that Sarah Palin’s youngest son, Trig, is not her son at all. Yeah. So what?
But then Geoffrey Dunn – the man who wrote The Lies of Sarah Palin – went and published a long piece on that – and although the Huffington Post refused to run it, Business Insider did. It was all very nefarious stuff, as something seemed to be going on. Maybe Trig was Bristol’s son, or something. Then Justin Elliott at Salon did the heavy lifting – point by point this was nonsense, and not even very interesting nonsense. It was time to move on.
But there was the explanation Dunn gave for writing his piece:
This past week Palin had the gall to giggle and smirk her way through an interview on Fox News in which she supported Donald Trump’s investigation of President Obama’s birth certificate in Hawaii. The hypocrisy is staggering. There is one person who can put an end to the Trig matter immediately and instantly, and that is Sarah Palin.
And the nation yawned, and Weigel comments that this is a familiar rationale for conspiracy theorists – “They investigate as much in sorrow as in anger. They are always just one confession away from the truth.”
And why are they bothering? Weigel recommends reading Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground – the new book by Canadian journalist Jonathan Kay:
His book shows why Americans are becoming so willing to believe lurid fantasies about the government or politicians they don’t like or vaccines or the theory that the federal government was behind the attacks of 9/11 (these believers are the “truthers” of his title). And you realize that the world of conspiracies is only going to get larger.
And there are structural reasons this is coming:
The media, as Kay points out, is more fragmented than ever. Information is easier to come across, and bogus information has a way of jumping to the top of Google’s search pages. That fragmentation is happening at a time of intense partisan anger and economic angst.
All of those facts are well-known, and thoroughly studied. The Gallup Poll asks an annual question about whether voters trust the government. In 2010, only 19 percent said they did, and only 43 percent – a record low – said that they trusted the media. That same year, the Pew Research Center found that 61 percent of Americans got most of their news online, 54 percent got it from the radio, and only 50 percent got it from newspapers. The more people read news online, the easier it is for them to find news that jibes with their ideology.
And of course mistrust in institutions is driving a wave of conspiracy-mongering:
To a man, the leading 9/11 Truthers that Kay interviews say that they found their obsession because they didn’t trust the government and they sought out information from some samizdat source. Richard Gage, the best-known member of Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth, tells Kay that he tuned into the lefty KPFA northern California radio station one day and caught a terrifying, authoritative-sounding – and bogus – interview with 9/11 Truther icon David Ray Griffin.
“How come I’d never heard of any of this?” Gage remembers thinking. “I was shocked. I had to pull my car to the side of the road to absorb it all.”
Robert Balsamo, a co-founder of Pilots for 9/11 Truth, has a similar story. He turned on the news one day and saw Glenn Beck trying to debunk conspiracy theories about the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon with new, grainy video. Balsamo wasn’t convinced, and he “started poking around on the Internet, seeing if he could find a clearer version of the video. Instead, what he found were Truther sites.”
You find what you want to find, not that they are bad people:
But they started to dig because they felt uneasy, and they surfed the Web, and they found a whole alternate history (and occasionally, alternate science) that looked and felt more comfortable than the one they were living through. And so did a lot of other people. They were motivated by mistrust for their “leaders.” And the motivations weren’t always wrong.
Look at the 9/11 conspiracy. Some of Kay’s sources have tenuous connections to reality. Most of them got interested in the conspiracy because something else seemed … wrong. As Kay points out, “Trutherism” didn’t really take off until 2003, when it was clear there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. If you were already inclined to think that George W. Bush had been unfairly put into office in 2000, if you had read the Project for a New American Century’s letters from the end of the Clinton years, well, this was enough to drive you nuts.
And so it did:
A 2006 poll conducted by the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio State University famously found that 36 percent of all Americans, and more than half of Democrats, suspected that “people in the federal government either assisted in the 9/11 attacks or took no action to stop the attacks because they wanted to United States to go to war in the Middle East.” There’s some room for misunderstanding here. After all, most Americans are now aware of the intelligence failures that preceded the attacks. But the numbers remained high when respondents were pressed on other, darker conspiracy theories. They found that 21.1 percent of Democrats, and 18.5 percent of liberals, said it was at least somewhat likely that “the Pentagon was not struck by an airliner captured by terrorists but instead was hit by a cruise missile fired by the United States military.” And 24.8 percent of Democrats, and 21 percent of liberals, said it was at least somewhat likely that “the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York was aided by explosives secretly planted in the building.”
You can see what they were thinking. You can see what a large number of today’s conservatives are thinking when they admit to pollsters that they’ve got some doubts about Obama’s citizenship. Kay sums it up: “If the mainstream media isn’t willing to investigate the dirt about Obama we do know to be true … who knows what other dirt is out there?”
But here’s the real question:
How and when do people stop thinking like that if they don’t trust the media, and if “unreported facts” about their obsessions are a click of the “I’m feeling lucky” button away? They don’t stop.
Of course Weigel finds some cold comfort:
They assume that our political leaders are hyper-competent. They’ve developed, then covered up, Rube Goldberg designs to get what they want and maintain their power. This is no small achievement. If, on the other hand, the conspiracy theorists are wrong, well, that means the world is random, and the people who wield power or influence can screw up like everyone else. No one wants to believe that.
Ah, so maybe the only two choices, for these people, are conspiracy or chaos. Taking the time to think things through, carefully, with no shortcuts, is a third alternative – but only if you have the time, or inclination. Ah well.
But there’s something else that gets in the way of that, and Rick Perlstein covers that in his new history of political lying:
It takes two things to make a political lie work: a powerful person or institution willing to utter it, and another set of powerful institutions to amplify it. The former has always been with us: Kings, corporate executives, politicians, and ideologues from both sides of the aisle have been entirely willing to bend the truth when they felt it necessary or convenient. So why does it seem as if we’re living in a time of overwhelmingly brazen deception? What’s changed?
Today’s marquee fibs almost always evolve the same way: A tree falls in the forest – say, the claim that Saddam Hussein has “weapons of mass destruction,” or that Barack Obama has an infernal scheme to parade our nation’s senior citizens before death panels. But then a network of media enablers helps it to make a sound – until enough people believe the untruth to make the lie an operative part of our political discourse.
For the past 15 years, I’ve spent much of my time deeply researching three historic periods – the birth of the modern conservative movement around the Barry Goldwater campaign, the Nixon era, and the Reagan years – that together have shaped the modern political lie. Here’s how we got to where we are.
So, politicians have always lied, but why does it seem like there’s so much more lying than there used to be? The politicians didn’t change, but there was the right’s successful attack on the liberal media in the post-Nixon era with a very odd call for civility:
There evolved a new media definition of civility that privileged “balance” over truth-telling – even when one side was lying. It’s a real and profound change – one stunningly obvious when you review a 1973 PBS news panel hosted by Bill Moyers and featuring National Review editor George Will, both excoriating the administration’s “Watergate morality.” Such a panel today on, say, global warming would not be complete without a complement of conservatives, one of them probably George Will, lambasting the “liberal” contention that scientific facts are facts – and anyone daring to call them out for lying would be instantly censured. It’s happened to me more than once – on public radio, no less. …
The protective bubble of the “civility” mandate also seems to extend to the propagandists whose absurdly doctored stories and videos continue to fool the mainstream media. From blogger Pamela Geller, originator of the “Ground Zero mosque” falsehood, to Andrew Breitbart’s video attack on Shirley Sherrod – who lost her job after her anti-discrimination speech was deceptively edited to make her sound like a racist – to James O’Keefe’s fraudulent sting against National Public Radio, right-wing ideologues “lie without consequence,” as a desperate Vincent Foster put it in his suicide note nearly two decades ago. But they only succeed because they are amplified by “balanced” outlets that frame each smear as just another he-said-she-said “controversy.”
And Kevin Drum adds this:
I guess I’ll need to think about this. Rick might be right. But then again, many thoughtful conservatives would place the blame elsewhere. I recommend that the New York Times public editor assemble a panel of media analysts from across the political spectrum and hold a round table discussion on this topic. That should clear things up.
Yes, he’s being sarcastic. But Perlstein is after more than the feckless media:
The Gipper’s inauguration ushered in the “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” era of political lying. But it took a deeper trend to accelerate the cultural shift away from truth-telling-as-patriotism to a full-scale epistemological implosion. Reagan rode into office accompanied by a generation of conservative professional janissaries convinced they were defending civilization against the forces of barbarism. And like many revolutionaries, they possessed an instrumental relationship to the truth: Lies could be necessary and proper, so long as they served the right side of history. …
This virulent strain of political utilitarianism was already well apparent by the time the Plumbers were breaking into the Democratic National Committee: “Although I was aware they were illegal,” White House staffer Jeb Stuart Magruder told the Watergate investigating committee, “we had become somewhat inured to using some activities that would help us in accomplishing what we thought was a legitimate cause.”
Even conservatives who were not allied with the White House had learned to think like Watergate conspirators. To them, the takeaway from the scandal was that Nixon had been willing to bend the rules for the cause. The New Right pioneer M. Stanton Evans once told me, “I didn’t like Nixon until Watergate.”
And the words echo on:
“We ought to see clearly that the end does justify the means,” wrote evangelist C. Peter Wagner in 1981. “If the method I am using accomplishes the goal I am aiming at, it is for that reason a good method.” Jerry Falwell once said his goal was to destroy the public schools. In 1998, confronted with the quote, he denied making it by claiming he’d had nothing to do with the book in which it appeared. The author of the book was Jerry Falwell.
You might be one of those who likes, or is addicted to, thinking things through. What can you do with something like that? He didn’t say what he said – he didn’t write what he wrote. Okay. Now what?
And on current policy issues, Greg Sargent notes it would be easier to take deficit hawks more seriously if there were an agreed-upon definition of what a deficit hawk is – but there isn’t. And he cites Ezra Klein:
If you want to understand why the budget debate so infuriates people who actually care about deficits – and, in particular, people who actually care about health-care spending – consider this: The central health-care reform in Paul Ryan’s budget, the one that’s got him so many plaudits for courage, would actually increase costs. The health-care reform that progressives have been pursuing for more than two years would cut them. And yet calling for Medicare to be privatized and voucherized is considered serious, while calling for a public option is considered tiresome.
Sargent adds this:
Making this more irksome, Paul Ryan’s plan as written has as much chance of passing as the public option does.
This goes back to a problem that’s afflicted this debate ever since Ryan began getting plaudits for fiscal seriousness and deficit hawkery – which, not incidentally, began to happen well before he unveiled his proposals. The problem is that the meaning of the term “deficit hawk” is largely arbitrary. …
It doesn’t mean “someone who fully committed to reducing the deficit by any means necessary, even if it means tax hikes and – paradoxically enough – new government programs.” Rather, it means “someone who is fully committed to reducing the deficit through tax cuts, entitlement reform and an unswerving adherence to general hostility towards expansive government.”
So they’ve made this hard to think through:
The public option isn’t considered “fiscally hawkish” for the same reason proposed tax hikes on the rich aren’t considered “fiscally hawkish,” even though they would downsize the deficit in a big way. Expanding government involvement, or redistributing the tax burden upwards, smacks of soft, bleeding-heart, big government liberal squishiness. In terms of tone, such talk simply doesn’t sound “hawkish.” Talk of cutting and slashing and quasi-privatizing does sound hard and tough and “hawkish.”
I know that sounds glib. But imagine if everyone who used the term “deficit hawk” agreed that it should refer only to those want to reduce the deficit by any means necessary, with nothing at all taken off the table. The conversation would start to sound very different, wouldn’t it?
Yeah, people would start sounding like Paul Krugman:
When I listen to current discussions of the federal budget, the message I hear sounds like this: We’re in crisis! We must take drastic action immediately! And we must keep taxes low, if not actually cut them further! You have to wonder: If things are that serious, shouldn’t we be raising taxes, not cutting them?
And he argues that is not an exaggeration:
Consider the Ryan budget proposal, which all the Very Serious People assured us was courageous and important. That proposal begins by warning that “a major debt crisis is inevitable” unless we confront the deficit. It then calls, not for tax increases, but for tax cuts, with taxes on the wealthy falling to their lowest level since 1931.
And because of those large tax cuts, the only way the Ryan proposal can even claim to reduce the deficit is through savage cuts in spending, mainly falling on the poor and vulnerable. (A realistic assessment suggests that the proposal would actually increase the deficit.)
President Obama’s proposal is a lot better. At least it calls for raising taxes on high incomes back to Clinton-era levels. But it preserves the rest of the Bush tax cuts – cuts that were originally sold as a way to dispose of a large budget surplus. And, as a result, it still relies heavily on spending cuts, even as it falls short of actually balancing the budget.
So why isn’t someone offering a proposal reflecting the reality that the Bush tax cuts were a huge mistake, and suggesting that increased revenue play a major role in deficit reduction?
Ah, that would mean thinking things through. We don’t do that sort of thing.
And Krugman trots out the statistics – we are not “groaning under crushing, unprecedented levels of taxation.” Our taxes are much lower as a percentage of national income than taxes in most other wealthy nations – we aren’t that heavily taxed, either by historical standards or in comparison with other nations. But of course those are only facts.
But that is not how Ryan sees it:
The core of the Ryan proposal is a plan to privatize and defund Medicare. Yet this would do nothing to reduce the deficit over the next 10 years, which is why all the near-term deficit reduction comes from brutal reductions in aid to the needy and unspecified cuts in discretionary spending. Tax increases, by contrast, can be fast-acting remedies for red ink.
And that’s why the only major budget proposal out there offering a plausible path to balancing the budget is the one that includes significant tax increases: the “People’s Budget” from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which – unlike the Ryan plan, which was just right-wing orthodoxy with an added dose of magical thinking – is genuinely courageous because it calls for shared sacrifice.
True, it increases revenue partly by imposing substantially higher taxes on the wealthy, which is popular everywhere except inside the Beltway. But it also calls for a rise in the Social Security cap, significantly raising taxes on around 6 percent of workers. And, by rescinding many of the Bush tax cuts, not just those affecting top incomes, it would modestly raise taxes even on middle-income families.
All of this, combined with spending cuts mostly focused on defense, is projected to yield a balanced budget by 2021. And the proposal achieves this without dismantling the legacy of the New Deal, which gave us Social Security, and the Great Society, which gave us Medicare and Medicaid.
But it’s not going anywhere. No one is allowed to think that through, of course – it might work, it might not, but we are not an intellectually rigorous nation. But we like a good yarn – and it might be true, you know. You never know. And that’s the problem. You never know.