What Happens When Pretending to Be Crazy Is a Career Strategy

Thursday, 03 March 2011 12:09 By Paul Krugman, Krugman & Co. | Op-Ed | name.

What Happens When Pretending to Be Crazy Is a Career Strategy
Polls indicate that many Republican voters still believe that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States. (Photo: Doug Mills / The New York Times)

NOTE: In a backstory that accompanied a Krugman & Co. column on Feb. 25 headlined “The Rumor That Won’t Go Away,” it was indicated by editors at The New York Times Syndicate that Representative Jeff Flake of Arizona had not addressed the issue of some conservative voters believing that President Barack Obama was born outside the United States. Representative Flake, has in fact, said many times that he believes that President Obama was born in the country. In a recent interview with CNN Flake said “Barack Obama is a citizen of the country. We ought to get off this kick. And there are plenty of differences we have with the president between Republicans and Democrats than to spend time on something like this.” The Syndicate regrets this error.

I have said this before, but it’s worth repeating: a large segment of the population in the United States is completely impervious to rational argument and the presentation of evidence. In our country, learned ignorance is on the rise.

Take, for example, an interesting online exchange between Australian economist John Quiggin and Jonathan Chait, a senior editor at The New Republic, with regard to right-wing agnotology — that is, culturally induced ignorance or doubt — in the United States. The specific issue is birtherism: the claim that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya or anywhere else that is not in the United States, which polls indicate is a view held by a majority of Republican voters.

Mr. Quiggin suggests that right-wingers aren’t really birthers in their hearts; it’s just that affirming birtherism is a badge of belonging, a shibboleth in the original biblical sense — “an affirmation that marks the speaker as a member of their community or tribe,” as Mr. Quiggin wrote on Feb. 17.

“Asserting a belief that would be too absurd to countenance for anyone outside a given tribal/ideological group makes for a good political shibboleth,” he added.

Mr. Chait counters that many conservatives in the United States believe that the liberal elite media is hiding the truth. But through their access to Fox News and like-minded media organizations, conservatives believe they have learned things the brainwashed masses don’t know.

“They believe that Fox News is not just a network that counteracts the biased liberal media, or even a network that reports the stories that the liberal media ignore, but the vehicle for Truth,” Mr. Chait wrote later the same day.

My view is that Mr. Quiggin is correct as far as right-wing politicians are concerned: for the most part they know that President Obama was born here, that he is not a socialist, that a public health insurance program would not require the setting up of death panels, and so on. However, many politicians feel compelled to pretend to be crazy as a career move.

But I think Mr. Chait is right about the broader right-wing movement. I see it all the time with regard to my economics statistics: when I point out that inflation remains fairly low, or that the Federal Reserve is not literally printing money, people accuse me of using falsified data or say that I am cherry-picking the figures. This is a symptom of epistemic closure in conservative thought: if the facts don’t support certain prejudices, that’s because “they” are hiding the truth, which true believers know.

Just don’t get me started on climate change.

BACKSTORY: The Rumor that Won’t Go Away

By Suzanne Lorge

A recent survey by Public Policy Polling, a research organization in North Carolina affiliated with Democratic organizations, revealed that a slight majority of conservative voters in the United States believed that President Barack Obama was actually born in another country.

And despite a preponderance of evidence against the claim, conservative politicians have not been quick to dispel the wrong-headed musings.

According to the survey, 51 percent of self-identified Republicans said they believed President Obama was born outside the United States (only natural-born citizens can legally become president) and 21 percent said they were not sure. Last year, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that one-third of Republican voters believed that President Obama was foreign-born.

These numbers in the party’s electorate make it difficult for Republican officials to ignore the rumor. While some conservatives such as Representative Jeff Flake of Arizona have tried to move discussions away from the rumor, insisting that the party should move on, others have remained noncommittal.

But Karl Rove, a former White House strategist during President George W. Bush’s administration, has spoken out against Republicans’ perpetuating the rumor about President Obama.

In an interview on Fox News on Feb. 16, Mr. Rove urged Republicans to set “the record straight” when factions within the party start to steer political discussions toward this issue.

© 2011 The New York Times Company

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Paul Krugman joined The New York Times in 1999 as a columnist on the Op-Ed page and continues as a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University. He was awarded the Nobel in economic science in 2008.

Mr Krugman is the author or editor of 20 books and more than 200 papers in professional journals and edited volumes, including "The Return of Depression Economics" (2008) and "The Conscience of a Liberal" (2007).

Last modified on Friday, 04 March 2011 17:53