Saturday, February 13, 2010

the curious case of the birther movement

Redstate has just banned truthers and birthers (link from Instapundit). Can somebody explain to me why the words "truther" and "birther" keep showing up in the same sentence?

Truthers believe that the United States government engaged in a plot involving hundreds if not thousands of people to murder three-thousand innocent Americans, cause billions in economic havoc, and blame it on innocent Islamic terrorists, all in order to precipitate a war to make money for defense contractors and oil tycoons (how oil tycoons made money out of it is a bit murky).

Birthers believe that a woman who had a child with a Muslim from a third-world country conspired with her mother and maybe some sympathetic record-keeper in order to make it appear that the baby was born in the US so as to help protect him from any custody claims by the father. Muslim fathers from Saudi Arabia are notorious for taking children from their American mothers and the mother never seeing the children again, so it was understandable that there was some fear about this.

How are these two conspiracy theories in any way comparable? One of them involves hundreds or thousands of conspirators who commit mass murder on an appalling scale for shadowy and implausible motives. The other involves two or three conspirators who falsify a single document of no major importance (at the time) for motives that are not only plausible but sympathetic.

Where the truther story is a dark fantasy of ultimate evil, a justification for paranoia and unbalanced hatred, the birther story is a plot line for a family comedy, a sympathetic tale of courage in defending a helpless baby. Birthers don't hate the conspirators. Surely one of the reasons that birthers find the story so compelling is because they feel that they would do the same thing in the same situation. That is pretty much the opposite of paranoia and hatred.

But isn't it mean and undemocratic to doubt the legitimacy of the elected president? Well I suppose so ... wait. Wait a minute, that sounds familiar doesn't it? Where have we heard people doubting the legitimacy of the elected president? Oh, I know! How about the eight years of carping by Democrat extremists about the Florida elections? Why aren't the birthers compared to those people instead of to the truthers? Isn't that a more fitting comparison?

It is clear why the Democrats and mainstream media want to compare birthers to truthers rather than to people who sported "re-defeat Bush" bumper stickers on their SUVs: it is because truthers are whackos who are an embarrassment to the Democratic party and Democrats want people to say, "Well, sure, the Democrats have their truthers, but the Republicans have birthers."

What surprises me is not that the Democrats and MSM want to do this; what surprises me is the number of conservative and libertarian bloggers who went along with it, helping their political enemies to marginalize their political allies. It's not just that these conservative and libertarian bloggers disagree with the birthers, it's the condescending, sneering, and hostile tone with which they do it.

Too many on the political right are quick to take on the tone of the political left when they encounter disagreements within the right. We saw this in the immigration debates when some on the right adopted the leftist slanders of racism and nativism against people who just want the government to control our borders and enforce immigration law. We saw it in the global-warming debates when some on the right joined the left in accusing the skeptics of being against science. We've seen it elsewhere too, but I don't want to provoke further controversies by bringing up more examples.

Depending how much credibility you give to the poll, as many as 36% of committed Republicans are birthers. Republican bloggers who have insulted birthers have therefore offended somewhere around a third of likely Republican voters. Is that politically smart?

What political gain do they see that offsets the potential loss of alienating 1/3 of their allies? I presume their thinking goes something like this: "The birthers are nuts and it is damaging to our reputation that they are associated with us. So if we insult them and disassociate from them then we can limit the damage that they do." If this is the reasoning, then it strikes me as short-sighted.

Sure, if the birthers really were nutcases, then this would make sense. It would be like if a conservative candidate really endorses the 9/11 truther movement, or even fails to distance herself from it adequately, that should end her candidacy. I'm all for that. But --and I can't emphasize this enough-- truthers believe that the president of the United States conspired to murder thousands of Americans for profit; birthers believe that a mother conspired to protect her baby. The problem with truthers is their extreme paranoia and the horrific nature of what they believe (and their associations with with anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists, which are seldom mentioned).

By letting the left decide which conservatives would be thrown to the wolves, the right is playing into their hands, as some have done on global warming and immigration. How has that worked out for us so far? When have we ever gained by giving the left their pound of flesh? By throwing some decent, if imperfect allies to the dogs?

Instead of just conceding the point to the left, the right should defend the honor of birthers even if they cannot defend the theories. Birthers a generally nice, reasonable folk --the kinds of nice folk who think a young mother might forge a birth certificate to protect her baby. Yes, the birthers have a belief that is not well-supported by any evidence, but what's new about that? How many horoscope watchers are there among those who display their contempt of the birthers? How many who are afraid to walk under a ladder or who think that poverty leads to crime? Everyone has beliefs that are not well-supported by evidence.

How about a little charity here? How about standing by your political family instead of taking the other side whenever they embarrass you a little? You don't have to defend their beliefs, just defend them against the leftist slander that they are comparable to 9/11 truthers. And when someone is just appalled at how birthers could doubt the legitimacy of the elected president, point out that this sort of doubt is hardly unprecedented. And when you argue with them yourselves, be respectful. Is all that really so hard?