Four of these things are not like the others...

>> Thursday, January 17, 2013

Sixty-three percent of registered voters in the U.S. buy into at least one political conspiracy theory, according to results from a recent Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind Poll. The nationwide survey of registered voters asked Americans to evaluate four different political conspiracy theories: 56 percent of Democrats and 75 percent of Republicans say that at least one is likely true. This includes 36 percent who think that President Obama is hiding information about his background and early life, 25 percent who think that the government knew about 9/11 in advance, and 19 percent who think the 2012 Presidential election was stolen.Generally, the more people know about current events, the less likely they are to believe in conspiracy theories – but not among Republicans, where more knowledge leads to greater belief in political conspiracies.

The most popular of these conspiracy theories is the belief that President Obama is hiding important information about his background and early life, which would include what’s often referred to “birtherism.” Thirty-six percent of Americans think this is probably true, including 64 percent of Republicans and 14 percent of Democrats.


However, belief in such conspiracies is not limited to the political right. Twenty-five percent of registered voters think it’s probably true that President Bush knew about the 9/11terrorist attacks before they happened, a figure that includes 36 percent of Democrats. Similarly,23 percent of those interviewed say that President Bush’s supporters committed significant voter fraud to win him the 2004 Presidential election in Ohio. Belief in this conspiracy theory is highest among Democrats, (37 percent say it is likely true), though 17 percent of independents and 9 percent of Republicans think so as well.
- "Conspiracy Theories Prosper: 25% Of Americans Are 'Truthers'",
Fairleigh Dickinson University press release, January 17th, 2013.

I've seriously been trying to figure out what's going on there since reading about this poll in Salon this morning.  My suspicion is that there's some bias going on here that Fairleigh Dickinson is trying to spin with a kind of feint at objectivity; i.e. the real point of what they were trying to do is to show that way too many Republicans are crazy (or at least ignorant) birthers, but since they don't want to come off like they're picking on anybody, they throw in a couple of "crazy" things liberals believe in to say, "Hey, see, we're equal opportunity nut-counters!"

The thing is, the liberal crazy talk they went for includes one seriously crazy idea that has some currency among the fringe left and paranoid libertarian right, and a not-so-crazy idea that has roots in an admittedly partisan Congressional committee staff investigation (PDF link) and investigative reporting (including a thoroughly-researched and somewhat infamous piece by the admittedly flaky Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. for Rolling Stone; the archived version of the piece is now behind Rolling Stone's paywall, but this analysis by Dan Tokaji highlights some of the virtues and failings of RFK Jr.'s work).

I would like to be utterly clear that I'm not saying that the 2004 Presidential election in Ohio was stolen.  But I'm also obligated to point out that it's not necessarily crazy to think that it might have been.

Which makes it a different beast than the three cryptids FDU uses to round out their poll.

Those would be (1) the allegation that President Bush had foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks; (2) that President Obama is hiding important information about his early background and life; and (3) President Obama's supporters committed significant voter fraud in the 2012 Presidential election.

Indeed, as I type these out, I can't help noticing that they're all different beasts, really.  We have one assertion that's fairly thoroughly debunked and wasn't terribly plausible to start with, an assertion that's vague and improbable to the extent it's relevant to anything at all, and a vague assertion that can't fairly be assigned and probability at all and so far as I know hasn't been particularly investigated one way or another (but may not be inherently irrational, anyway).

I think it just has to be said that the September 11th, 2001 attacks on Americans have been thoroughly investigated, have been looked at from quite a lot of angles by quite a lot of people, and there's just no plausible argument whatsoever that the Bush Administration had foreknowledge of the attacks in the kind of context the FDU survey seems to imply.  That is, it's clear that there were some bureaucratic foul-ups and entanglements that led to some information that might have prevented the events not landing on the right desks or being evaluated in what, in retrospect, might have been a preferable manner; and it appears that the Bush Administration made an at the time justifiable policy decision that in retrospect seems to have been mistaken not to prioritize the infamous August 6th, 2001 Presidential Briefing and may have chosen the assessments of Pentagon analysts who underestimated Osama bin Laden's threat to the country over assessments from the CIA.  Which, you know, looks like some bad calls in hindsight, but I think we have to understand that there are Presidential decisions that look bad from any reasonable perspective--invading Iraq without an exit plan comes to mind as an obvious example--and Presidential decisions that might have seemed reasonable at the time but look pretty terrible in the rearview (not irrelevantly, that list happens to include doing nearly almost everything the CIA has ever thought was a good idea, so I find the Bush Administration's decision to ignore the CIA one of the fewish times they happened to be right about a national security issue more ironic than awful).

But we know who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks and we know who planned them, and we have a pretty good grasp of how events unspooled.  So if the implication of "President Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks before they happened" is supposed to be that Bush planned the attacks or at least allowed them to go forward, well, there's no evidence of that and it's a fairly stupid assertion.  The fact is that the Administration didn't need to allow three thousand people to die and several thousand more to be injured to come up with a casus belli--all it takes to get a blank check for a war, really, is making up a bunch of horseshit about weapons of mass destruction supposedly being somewhere sometime in the country you want to attack.  And it's pretty obvious, anyway, that Afghanistan wasn't the war the Bush neocons wanted--they wanted Iraq, a country that was running a pretty good record of giving other nations pretexts for war in those days even if you didn't fib (or, charitably, misconstrue) re: WMDs.

Of course, vagueness is an endemic problem with the questions and data showing up in the FDU press release.  Is President Obama hiding something about his background and early life?  Well, if you're talking about his birth certificate, which has been published and vouched for by all sorts of officials, I think it's safe to say "no".  If you mean there's something else the President is hiding--probably not anything relevant at this hour, no.

Let me digress a moment, and tell you how I know Americans landed on the Moon.  Only I need to digress again and remind you there's a Sherlock Holmes story, "Silver Blaze", that contains one of the most famous exchanges in the Holmes canon:

"Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

 "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

"The dog did nothing in the night-time."

"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes. 

From this, Holmes correctly deduces the perpetrator of the crimes being investigated is someone the dog knew well enough not to be excited by.  But the key thing, obviously, is sometimes the fact the dog doesn't bark is as much a piece of evidence as anything else.

In the case of the Moon landing--getting back to that as we wind our way back to the President--let's observe that the United States was in the midst of a "space race" against the Soviet Union; that the Soviet Union had an active space program that included devices to track launches and trajectories of near-Earth objects; that the Soviet Union would have derived enormous political benefit from beating the United States to the Moon; that the Soviet Union had spies and infiltrators throughout the American government (not to mention free access to public information like American newspapers); that it would have provided the Soviet Union an enormous propaganda coup, not to mention enormous national satisfaction and schadenfreude,  to humiliate the United States on the world stage (and, indeed, they seized every opportunity they ever had to do so--e.g. the crash of Gary Powers' U2 plane behind Soviet borders, which they played out to give the United States a chance to deny they were flying spyplanes in Soviet airspace, only to reveal after the American denials that they not only had wreckage, but also a living pilot).  And yet, when the United States proudly announces we've put men on The Moon, does the dog bark?

You know, the dog does not.  The dog publishes the news in their state-run newspapers (though, amusingly, they only put a small item on the front page and then the rest of it made page five) and the dog abandoned his plans to put anyone on the moon and focused on orbital programs, a field to which the United States had devoted relatively little effort.  You can bet your ass, your lower intestine, pretty much everything under your belt that if even a whiff of fakery had come to the Soviets by way of their radar arrays or whispers from their American moles, Brezhnev would have been everywhere screaming, "Shenanigans!  Shenanigans!"  Or however you say that in Russian.

This is how I know that President Obama doesn't have any really awful skeletons in his closet and is a U.S. citizen (above and beyond his birth certificate and his being vouched for by government officials in Hawai'i): I really think Hillary Clinton wanted to be President.  I really think John McCain wanted to be President.  I'm not completely sure Mitt Romney wanted to be President, but he sure acted like it sometimes and spent a lot of money on wanting to be President.  I think there are a lot of really wealthy, really influential, really powerful people who would have loved to whip out a copy of Barack Obama's Really Actually 100% True Not Fake Authentic Birth Certificate showing he was the Kenyan love child of Bill Ayers and, I dunno, the late Tokyo Rose or somebody, and would have loved to have him seized by Homeland Security agents in the middle of a nationally televised debate and deported in front of millions and millions of astonished Americans.  I think any of these same people frankly would have settled for a fifth-grade History essay with an opening paragraph reading, "Karl Marx was very interesting and there were many good things about Karl Marx but also many bad things about Karl Marx."

Yet, when I listen, I hear no barks, no growls, no yips, no murmured whines.  Yeah, I hear the braying of jackasses from off in the distance and wonder that Donald Trump isn't in Prison-For-Assholes (hey, it could be a thing), but the dogs, the dogs don't bark.

So that version of "Obama is hiding something" is pretty nutty, yeah.  Doesn't mean there's nothing, I guess.  He probably hasn't disclosed full details of the first time he jerked off, so I guess you could say he's hiding that (and really, personally, I don't need to know, so thank you, Mr. President).

And then there's the question FDU asked--this really, really vague question--about whether Obama's supporters, unnamed and unknown, committed some kind of voter fraud in 2012 somewhere, with or without the President's knowledge, consent or permission.  And I would have to be fair and say it isn't crazy to wonder about that, but there's also really not any evidence of it, and so if you think that's true, well, you may not be crazy per se but you may or may not be thinking rationally.  If you think Democrats stole the election because they're Democrats, or because nobody possibly could disagree with you, or because you had a dream about a dancing midget in a red room who also informed you the gum you like is coming back (sorry, been watching Twin Peaks again), you might just be crazy or stupid, or crazy and stupid.  But if you have some specific evidence that ought to be investigated, I can't positively say there'd be nothing to it.

Which is still different from what set us off on this walk through the woods.  Because when we're talking about Ohio in 2004, we aren't talking about something vague, we're talking about some fairly specific allegations that might or might not be true, but they're not wholly implausible nor are they lacking in any evidence.  So it might not be the least bit crazy or even stupid to answer FDU with a "somewhat true" or an answer that causes you to be lumped in with "probably true" or "unsure" or "don't know".  I would go so far as to say that the allegations are specific enough and raise enough concerns for "unsure" or "don't know" to be rational, informed, non-paranoid answers.

Nor can you say there aren't dogs barking over the 2004 Ohio results.  While John Kerry didn't contest the Ohio results, third-party candidates did and obtained a recount; Kerry later expressed skepticism about the results, as did other Democrats, and a Democratic congressman had his staff research and author a 102-page report spelling out many of those problems.  Within days of the 2004 Presidential election, much of the media was already tamping down voter fraud concerns by calling them conspiracy theories, and other media venues responded over time by suggesting those media sources were, intentionally or simply as a result of institutional myopia, furthering a cover-up.  There's at least food for thought there.

The best logical argument that there wasn't electoral fraud in Ohio in 2004 turns out to be questionable in a really interesting way; the question that an accusation of fraud in 2004 begs is, "Then why didn't they steal the 2008 and 2012 elections?"  Because elections are kind of like Pokémon, in that you have to catch them all, and (besides) we know that what Karl Rove has really hankered for is Republican control of Washington far into the foreseeable future.  The interesting problem, though, is that the answer to this question could be, "Who says they didn't try?"  Which is an interesting question and also, frankly, a miserable, frightening and depressing one.

I don't want to give this enormous amounts of screen space, because I'm not convinced, myself.  It's just an interesting idea.  Something to talk about.  And not wholly irrational, though there's also no good evidence for it.  But the idea is that maybe the GOP tried for repeats in 2008 and 2012, and they simply screwed up because their polling data and their assessments of the demographics led them to underestimate what the turnout for Obama would look like.  If you're going to steal an election, after all, you don't want to do the old banana republic thing where El Presidente walks away with 300% of the vote; what you want is a squeaker that's close enough nobody will doubt it could be true, but not so close it begs for a recount.  So you need good data going in, a really accurate projection of what the results will look like, and if you've drunk your own Kool-Aid and think you already have pretty good numbers and nobody's going to turn out for the other side and you're just trying to fix a fight you're already looking good in when the truth is you're being rope-a-doped, well....

We're getting off topic with this, because the real topic is that the FDU thing has me scratching my head.  But I can't resist pointing out that this scenario, which may be total bullshit, produces one of the most entertaining and fascinating (and, again, frightening) explanations for Karl Rove's bizarre meltdown on Fox News on election night, where he insisted that the Ohio results were still too close to call even if Fox's math nerds were saying to put a fork in Mitt Romney in OH.  There's even an unsubstantiated account that hackers may have played a role in preventing a debacle in Ohio.  Which I'm not endorsing; I'm just saying it's interesting, is all, and I don't know that thinking there might be something to it puts you in the same tinfoil-hat-wearing crowd as a 9/11 truther.

Especially, again, in light of the fact that I think there's pretty good evidence that the 2004 Ohio election was flawed, and the real question isn't so much whether it was a good election, but whether the problems changed the outcome and whether they were intentional or merely the result of errors or incompetence.

So I don't know who FDU thinks they're serving with their framing of this particular public experiment.


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