Every so often, I’m reminded of an experience I had right after publication of my first book, What’s a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing at the ACLU? (Republicans were very different back then.) I was on a radio call-in show in South Carolina, and a caller challenged my defense of the Establishment Clause by “quoting” James Madison to the effect that “God gave the Bill of Rights to people who live in accordance with the Ten Commandments.”
When I (very politely) informed him that this quote had been debunked many times, that it was not only bogus but inconsistent with everything Madison did say, he yelled “Well, I think it’s true!” and hung up.
Increasingly, it seems, we live in that man’s world.
A few weeks ago, I was at a dinner party; one of the guests was a local judge whom I have always admired. The wine flowed, and as it did, she shared her contempt for the President and the “liberal media” which– unlike “real news” sources like the Drudge Report (!)– had failed to tell citizens the truth about…wait for it…Benghazi!
Last Friday, what I believe to be the eighth Congressional investigation of the Benghazi tragedy–an investigation controlled and conducted by Republicans–once again found no cover-up, no administrative bad faith or lying. As CBS reported
WASHINGTON — The CIA and the military acted properly in responding to the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, a Republican-controlled House committee has found. Its report asserted no wrongdoing by Obama administration officials.
Debunking a series of persistent allegations hinting at dark conspiracies, the two-year investigation of the politically charged incident determined that there was no intelligence failure, no delay in sending a CIA rescue team, no missed opportunity for a military rescue, and no evidence the CIA was covertly shipping arms from Libya to Syria.
It is highly unlikely that this will change the minds of those–like my dinner companion–who prefer to believe in conspiracies. Slate recently reported recent research on the psychology of conspiracy theorists; as the story noted, millions of Americans believed that George W. Bush had engineered 9/11, despite the fact that:
To believe that the U.S. government planned or deliberately allowed the 9/11 attacks, you’d have to posit that President Bush intentionally sacrificed 3,000 Americans. To believe that explosives, not planes, brought down the buildings, you’d have to imagine an operation large enough to plant the devices without anyone getting caught. To insist that the truth remains hidden, you’d have to assume that everyone who has reviewed the attacks and the events leading up to them—the CIA, the Justice Department, the Federal Aviation Administration, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, scientific organizations, peer-reviewed journals, news organizations, the airlines, and local law enforcement agencies in three states—was incompetent, deceived, or part of the cover-up.
If believing in a conspiracy requires one to accept a long list of highly improbable/practically impossible things, why do so many Americans believe them?
Clearly, susceptibility to conspiracy theories isn’t a matter of objectively evaluating evidence. It’s more about alienation. People who fall for such theories don’t trust the government or the media. They aim their scrutiny at the official narrative, not at the alternative explanations. In this respect, they’re not so different from the rest of us. Psychologists and political scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that “when processing pro and con information on an issue, people actively denigrate the information with which they disagree while accepting compatible information almost at face value.” Scholars call this pervasive tendency “motivated skepticism.”
Conspiracy believers are the ultimate motivated skeptics. Their curse is that they apply this selective scrutiny not to the left or right, but to the mainstream. They tell themselves that they’re the ones who see the lies, and the rest of us are sheep. But believing that everybody’s lying is just another kind of gullibility.
I guess that explains my James Madison caller. But it doesn’t make me feel much better about either my dinner companion or the U.S. Representatives (like Indiana’s Susan Brooks) who clearly know better but are willing to play to the paranoia.