So after a brief moment in the spotlight, it appears that Ben Carson will not be this week's Savior of the Republican Party after all. But his quick rise and fall raise an interesting question: Why are some people incredibly smart when it comes to some topics, and incredibly stupid when it comes to others?
Despite the fact that Barack Obama has an extensively documented past, and despite the fact that he revealed his birth certificate in a widely covered press conference, it seems that the birthers have turned Obama’s origins into an open question for a large chunk of the public. Here’s the latest survey from YouGov:
It’s not in Wisconsin, where the recall of Governor Scott Walker can have only two possible outcomes. It’s in California, where Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein—long the most popular pol in the state—is facing a large field of non-entities as she campaigns for re-election, and where the challenger who may well emerge from the pack to take her on is California’s leading birther: Republican dentist Orly Taitz.
Twenty-three candidates are vying to take on Feinstein in November, and not one is remotely serious, even if we define seriousness down to having the capacity to raise just a million dollars in America’s most costly state, and to being known as at least a modestly reputable person to 10 percent of the electorate.
Arizona Secretary of State and certified nutball Ken Bennett
Astute readers may have noticed that over the past year or so, I've made an effort not to be too knee-jerk about my partisanship. Not that I've changed my beliefs about any substantive issues lately, but I've tried to be as thoughtful as I can about people on the other side, whether it's conservative writers or conservative politicians. I don't always succeed (the occasional insult still filters through now and then), but I'm doing my best. And I understand that writing about how the other side is evil can be satisfying. It's also popular; I've written or co-written four books, and the most partisan one sold the most, even though it's not a book I'd have much appetite to write again.
That being said, there are times when it isn't enough to say that conservatives are wrong about a particular matter. Being truthful requires saying that many of them are, in fact, nuts.
Andy Borowitz wrote a piece called “In Positive Economic Sign, Republicans Starting to Say Obama Wasn’t Born in US,” and Barry Ritholz writes:
The NYT’s Floyd Norris, on a hunch, decided to crunch them to see if there is any math underlying the funny business. As it turns out, there is: Anyone can check the numbers to see if Borowitz was right — he is.
For most people, the “birther” conspiracy—centered on the belief that Barack Obama wasn’t a natural-born American citizen—ended when the president released his long-form birth certificate to the public last April. Birther claims were always bogus, but the release of the birth certificate was supposed to nail the coffin shut.
Given the ideological chasm that has developed in American politics between people who pay attention to such things, it's worthwhile, in my view, to take careful note of how liberals criticize other liberals, and conservatives other conservatives. Writing in the Claremont Review of Books, this is how Ramesh Ponnurucriticizes two recent books that allege to know what lurks in the heart of the 44th president:
Salon's Steve Kornacki writes on racial and political roots of birtherism:
[A]s Obama seeks to put all of the zany conspiracy theories to rest for good, it's worth remembering that there's a broader phenomenon that birtherism grew out of: The right's instinctive, aggressive rejection of Democratic presidents. [...]
The birthers, far from chastised, found themselves newly energized and freshly suspicious.
“It raises far more questions than it answers,” said Joseph Farah, editor in chief of WorldNetDaily and birther extraordinaire, almost breathless between media interviews. [...]
When thinking about how the birth-certificate fiasco reached such fever-pitch, leading the President of the United States to take to a podium and prove his citizenship, we shouldn’t give racism and irresponsible politicians all the credit. Certainly, this racially-fueled conspiracy wouldn’t have gotten far with a white president; and conservative politicians have welcomed the birther conspiracy as a way to undermine his legitimacy. But the culprit who should really feel ashamed is the media.
Rick Perlsteinhas a great piece in Mother Jones right now on why lies and conspiracies dominate our political culture today. Here's how it starts:
You might have figured that the immediate reaction from the birthers to today's announcement would have been a challenge to the document being released. After all, couldn't this just be another forgery? But interestingly, they seem to have taken it at face value. That's not to say they think it settles the question of Barack Obama's legitimacy. As far as they're concerned, he may have been born here, but he's still no American:
In case you've been too busy painting your tribute Will & Kate figurines to notice, this morning the White House released the famous "long form" version of Barack Obama's birth certificate. Briefly: When you ask Hawaii for your birth certificate, they generate and send to you a legally valid, official document with a seal and everything, but the original remains on file. Birthers have claimed that the version available since the 2008 Obama campaign put it on their website is a forgery, and Obama is hiding the long-form one, because either it doesn't exist or it shows he was born in Kenya or perhaps on Klendathu.