A recent report on a poll finding that a majority of Republicans (that is, likely primary voters) are “birthers”, with only 28 per cent confident that Obama was born in the United States has raised, not for the first time, the question “how can they think that?” and “do they really believe that?”.

Such questions are the domain of agnotology, the study of culturally-induced ignorance or doubt. Agnotology is not, primarily, the study of ignorance in the ordinary sense of the term. So, for example, someone who shares the beliefs of their community, unaware that those beliefs might be subject to challenge, might be ignorant as a result of their cultural situation, but they are not subject to culturally-induced ignorance in the agnotological sense.

But this kind of ignorance is not at issue in the case of birtherism. Even in communities where birtherism is universal (or at least where any dissent is kept quiet), it must be obvious that not everyone in the US thinks that the elected president was born outside the US and therefore ineligible for office.

Rather, birtherism is a shibboleth, that is, an affirmation that marks the speaker as a member of their community or tribe. (The original shibboleth was a password chosen by the Gileadites because their Ephraimite enemies could not say “Sh”.) Asserting a belief that would be too absurd to countenance for anyone outside a given tribal/ideological group makes for a good political shibboleth.

It’s clear, as Dave Weigel points out, that beliefs of this kind are a marker for partisanship, as witness the high correlation between stated birtherist beliefs and approval of Palin. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the statement isn’t actually believed. Rather this is an open question and an important one for agnotological understanding of the emergence of comprehensive culturally induced ignorance as a marker for the Republican tribe.

In this context, it’s worth noting that birtherism is only a minor part of Obama-related Republican agnotology. The belief that Obama is a secret Muslim is similarly widely held, as is the view that he sympathises with those seeking to impose sharia law.

It’s also worth distinguishing such stated beliefs from statements like “Obama is a socialist”, in which what matters most is the interpretation of the term “socialist” (AFAIC, the most common US meaning is “Democrat with spine”). Compare “Bush is a war criminal”. In these cases, facts about what Obama (or Bush) has actually done are less relevant than judgements about the appropriateness of labels.

My feeling (derived largely from observations on climate change and creationism, which raise similar questions) is that we can distinguish numerous different belief states that go along with birtherist answers to opinion poll questions. There are lots of nuances, but most are combinations of the following

  • A conspiracy-theoretic view of the world in which liberal elites (a term encompassing Democrats, unions, schoolteachers, scientists, academics and many others) are plotting to undermine the American way of life and replace it with some unspecified, but awful alternative. In this case, answers to these questions reflect actual beliefs
  • Partisanship as suggested by Weigel in which Republicans choose to give the most negative answer possible about Obama as an affirmation of tribal identity.
  • Doublethink in which people are aware that in some mundane sense Obama was born in Hawaii, but also believe that Republican ideology is true and implies the birtherist answer
  • Conformism, in which people know the truth but give the culturally preferred answer, or choose some evasive form of words, as with John Boehner recently.

Does all this hurt or help the Republicans? In short-run electoral terms, I think it helps. A base of loyal supporters who, for one or other of the reasons mentioned above, are immune to factual evidence has to help win elections. There are, however, two big costs

  • First, people have noticed that Republicans have a problem with reality. That perception, which undermines the rationale for all sorts of thinking about policy, will take a while to sink in, but it will also be hard to erase once it is generally accepted. In the long run, this has to turn off a fair number of Republican-leaning independents and any remaining Republicans with a capacity for embarrassment.
  • Double-think is very difficult, and people will start to act on the basis of their beliefs. If those beliefs are ludicrously false, trouble is likely to follow.

27 thoughts on “Shibboleths

  1. John, you are bending over backwards to be fair again, stop it. Do you really think “Obama is a socialist” is equivalent to “Bush is a war criminal”? You could certainly argue in technical terms that Bush is indeed a “war criminal” (attacking another country pre-emptively, use of very nasty weapons, treatment of prisoners, collective punishment eg Fallujah, failure to look after the conquered people, asset appropriation). Certainly his general behaviour in the lead up to war made it clear that he intended to go to war, wanted war, no matter what. There is no possible analysis that could lead to the conclusion that Obama is a socialist, but it is, as you know, simply one of many collective terms (progressive, liberal) meaning “not of the Tea Party”.

    And do you really think that Americans will (a) recognise that Republicans have a problem with reality, (b) care, (c) change voting patterns accordingly? Seems to me that increasingly, since the election of Reagan, Americans in general (with a few honourable exceptions) have lost touch with reality, like it that way, and vote for politicians who have also lost touch.

  2. I agree with David Horton on every point he made above. I suppose when we look at human history as broadly as possible we can note the following. Culturally endorsed wishful thinking, magical thinking, deluded thinking and fanciful metaphysical thinking are the norm. Logical thinking and empirical investigation really only coalesced with the scientific humanist revolution (Bacon onwards) and remain very much a minority activity.

    However, since logical and empirical endeavours are the only ones that yield real and permanent results, we gain the false view that majority actually support and understand these logical and empirical endeavours. Having said that, the Republicans are certainly an extreme example of culturally induced ignorance. Fundamentalist religions (of all persuasions) are the key culprits in keeping people credulous about all sorts of unsupported fanciful claims and incredulous about well supported scientific claims. The US is heavily saturated with fundamentalist views.

  3. I can think of a few Australian left-wing shibboleths, but if I mention them I’ll be snapped off to the sandpit, forced to argue with truly nasty people, so I will bite my tongue.

  4. I would have thought that the US right-wing’s interpretation of their second amendment rights to bear arms, detached from militia service, was a shibboleth, but it turns out that it’s all been decided through the courts:

    Of course it was a 5-4 decision with republican judges all going the one way, democrat the other.

    (sidenote – what a totally fucked way of deciding on a competent judiciary)

  5. I agree with David’s points. I think Ikonoclast takes it too far – most societies most of the time have a reasonably organised grasp on the local reality. The kind of thinking John Q lays out is characteristic of profound social disorientation. Two examples – The Ghost Dance movement that swept US Indians in the late C19 (bring back the old ways and the buffalo will return and the whites vanish) and, more relevantly, a substantial part of almost all European elites pre World War I (the socialists will communise women, only redemptive struggle can save us, war will ruin us are some common themes). Much the same mix of seeing extreme solutions as inescapable, seeing all threats as overwhelming, denial of the obvious. There are probably other parallels, but I lack the learning.

    Be thankful that it is largely confined to the US. If it escapes and sparks wider rivalries then we are in real trouble.

  6. It seems like Birtherism in particular is seeing the US Right having bets both ways – Americans have the right to believe what they want about where Obama was born and the job of politicians is to listen to the American people but leaders on the far Right like Karl Rove want the wider public to believe th fuss about Birtherism is a Left wing/ Obama plot to paint the Right as loonies. Like with Abbott and climate change, the job of political leaders to promote accuracy and truth within their organisations and amongst their supporters is being passed over in the scramble to win support from the misinformed; they don’t want to lose sure votes by making them better informed.

  7. Obama himself is in denial about certain realities. When asked about the rise of China and the possibility that China would soon match the US, Obama laughed and used words to the effect that, “We are way ahead and China will take ages to catch up, if ever.”

    Paradoxically, Americans see threats everywhere yet remain extremely complacent about their economic and military supremacy and regard this as assured provided that they maintain an agressive global stance. However, their global strategic overstretch and excessive military spending is exactly why they are sending their whole nation into a black hole. The collapse of the US could be stunningly swift. US economic and political life is now totally corrupt. This corruption is the cancer within. Combined with strategic overstretch it will, as I said, make the US collapse remarkably swift.

    The Republicans are fully committed to massive military overspending, strategic overstretch abroad and maintainance of a corrupt plutocracy at home. The Democrats are simply Republican Lite. The chances of the US reforming and saving itself are vanishingly small.

  8. Slackivist has written a fair bit about this. Here is one of his more recent pieces that discusses people equating abortion with slavery:

    I am pretty much astounded every time I read Slacktivist because although he freely admits to being a religious American he does not write stupid or hateful things. I can’t think of anyone else in that category who is alive. I very much hope I am suffering from a large quantity of attribution bias.

  9. Ikonoclast… I had to gasp at the audacious counter-factual analysis offered by Niall Ferguson at his recent IPA gig, where he claimed that public debt would lead to cutbacks in ‘discretionary’ US military expenditure, imperilling western civilisation. The reality of course is that military expenditure is sacrosanct in the US political system – Obama’s ‘cutbacks’ actually only reduce the real rate of military expenditure increase to a mere 5.5%. Despite the obvious fact that US war fighting in the last half century has had no positive effect on the security of US citizens, military expenditure is planned to keep on rising, now to be funded by genuine cutbacks in, among other things, funding for police and emergency services in the ‘homeland’.

  10. Well said PrQ. Your point here is important:

    Such questions are the domain of agnotology, the study of culturally-induced ignorance or doubt. Agnotology is not, primarily, the study of ignorance in the ordinary sense of the term.

    That said, the term “culturally induced” is insufficiently precise, IMO. All ignorance is arguably culturally induced. A typical five-year-old will know almost nothing about the moon landings or even the moon itself and even most literate adults will struggle to say much beyond generalities. Knowledge of the moon beyond generalities isn’t that useful for most people most of the time. On the other hand, those who say they believe the moon landings were faked for some nefarious purpose is in Shire of Agnotology within the City of Ignorance. There’s a cyber identity doing the rounds at Deltoid who insists that his recollection of the tides in his youth at a Gold Coast estuary and his marks today disprove global sea-level rise. There are people who persistently reiterate the “Environmentalists got DDT banned” trope. Just the other day over at Catallaxy someone was insisting that climate change had caused zero extra deaths.

    This kind of ignorance is not so much culturally-induced as culturally interpellated (to borrow from Althusser and Lacan). It is demanded as part of cultural identity. As I noted the other day here, over at Catallaxy, the Liberty Quotes section included a quote from Alaskan ex-Senator/Governor Frank Murkowski declaring against the scientific consensus. What made it quotable was its relationship to the political culture and telos of right-of-centre libertarianism rather than its capacity to report a verifiable phenomenon in the observable world. Similarly a quote attributed to Marx on rightwing blog sites — the way to kill capitalism is taxes — was run uncritically despite the fact that Mr Davidson surely knew it could not be so and could easily have checked. (Initially, when I drew his attention to this he proposed to adjust it to “attributed to Marx” but after I pointed to the problem here, to his credit, he binned the quote). The broader question though is the way in which these instances of culturally-interpellated esoteria move beyond the frontiers of the knowledge community they serve to bind.

    While it is easy to see that “they faked the moon landing” is absurd, other more subtle claims may simply be taken as read. The idea that Obama has been by, historical standards in the US a big-spending or big-taxing President is one such instance. In a local context, the collocation in popular discourse of “BER” and “Home Insulation Scheme” with “fiasco” would be another. Much the same could be said on the question of asylum-seekers and “queue-jumping”/inducing people to get on boats or Muslims and advocacy of “Sharia law”, the presentation of the idea of a price on carbon as some sort of fiscal bait and switch and the claim that the RSPT had been an attempt to destroy the mining industry and the country’s prosperity. Interestingly, Australian finance writer Terry McCrann, shortly after BHP CEO Marius Kloppers’ suggestion of a modest price on carbon, asserted that Kloppers was out to wreck BHP and ought to be dumped. Given that his company has just made a record profit and managed through the MCA’s efforts to save the mining industry about $60bn in taxes over the next decade ($99bn if the Liberals had won), one wonders how many would agree with McCrann, but in a sense it doesn’t matter. In the name of culture, one can clearly say anything and not be howled down as a ranting fool — at least by those who share your culture.

  11. I agree with Fran that looking at ignorance as being culturally induced ignorance is imprecise. There is a more primal aspect which is tribal in nature . It is like the followers of a football team will deny that their boys are doing bad things to women while rejoicing if members of the other team are being found to take performance enhancing drugs. If bad things are said about the followers’ team members someone is out to get them while for other teams their members are low down dirty scum.

    It is about tribal loyalty at an emotional level which is why the tea partiers like to have events to bond. It is about winning and losing and helping the “right” team win.

    Sledging is not unknown in cricket as a tactic to disrupt and dispirit the other side by making them think about anything but the next ball or boundary shot. The birthers introduce doubt and huge fear to keep people occupied while building up their own strength.

    So truth is not the concern of tea partiers and birthers and it only matters if their enemies, who are given value laden negative names, are caught lying or distorting. So there is a powerful well funded group who are immune to factual evidence because they are not interested in evidence, they are only looking at the results, in an all’s fair in love and war kind of way. The tobacco industry has this down to a fine art and has taught the resurgent right in the USA a great deal.

  12. I must say I find it difficult to accept that Hawaii is part of the United States, given the nature of its incorporation. Then again that could be equally true for parts of the continental United States. While it is true that wars against Native Americans had already begun, we are lead to believe in great sincerity that the founders did not envisage an empire that extended across the Pacific Ocean by the end of the nineteenth century setting the stage for that theatre of the Second World War.

    Just suppose, given that 100 per cent accuracy is unlikely, that some of our birth certificates may be incorrect, a problem the drafters of the condition relating to “native born citizen(s)” did not envisage. If this link is correct, since Barack Obama’s mother was an American Citizen, it does not matter about his birth certificate.

  13. The ignorance isn’t spread by word of mouth or favourable personal anecdote, like, say, a great local restuarant or a really good book or movie.

    These degrees and levels of ignorance require a ‘marketing’ machine of huge proportions, deviousness, resources and reach.

    Enter that ole tax-dodger Rupert (and friends).

    That is why I, and apparently quite a few others, find the ABC’s infiltration by that same marketing machine so toxic/infuriating/dangerous.

    I don’t believe people like being stupid. But I do believe stupid people like being told they are smarties who are better informed of ‘reality’ than those ‘elites’.

    PS Ronald @ 8, I think even Bill Hicks was a bit ‘religious’, in the US it is not acceptable to be an atheist, the default built-in-position is belief in a kind of benign benevolent god dictatorship.

    and Wilful, I wouldn’t mind a brief numbered list of, say, your top 3 of those left shibboleths (not for debate, just out of interest).

  14. I suspect that the long and ongoing decline of the US middle class, evidenced by the stagnation of real wages for over a generation, the expansion of working and non-working poor, and withdrawal of welfare safety nets is behind Birtherism and its right wing magical thinking siblings. As with the Roman Empire in its fourth century decline, the official religion has become disconnected with observed reality. It is no longer possible to believe in the Horatio Alger mythology as a vehicle for personal salvation and yet still cling to rationality. Continuing believers are thus ready to embrace almost any other irrational belief that allows them to avoid confronting the fantastic nature of their continuing American dream. The frantic madness of a Glenn Beck conceals the clear reality that US mainstream politics has nothing to offer the majority of Americans. Much more comforting to join a fashion clique of like-minded fantasists than to face up to the sad reality that the system taking from them and giving to the very rich, taking their well paid jobs with health benefits and shipping them off to low-wage countries, and incarcerating them if they step out of line.

  15. @Megan
    This is something that continues to surprise me, even though it is true. Atheism should be considered closer to the ideals of Democracy; instead the Great Democracy has a tacit understanding that all must bow under one God. An ungodly dictatorship imposed by the minions who wish to display their worthiness by crushing the spirit of atheists, agnostics, Christians (of denomination not my own), etc.

    While the shibboleth word is on the table, one that I find amazing in its audacity is the only Christians (of our denomination, often is silently added) get into Heaven. Suspending disbelief in the Heaven part, the idea is that you are not one of “us” until you can get into Heaven. It is a kind of arse backward way of looking at things but not rare among Christians. As far as I’m aware there are similar things for Islam and Muslims.

    As for the ABC, I’ve even stopped watching their News, Four Corners, Lateline, Insiders etc with any sort of regularity—weather forecasts excepted—because it no longer carries the value of careful, objective journalism. They plug each others consulting job or company or whatever; they grab the same AAP feed it seems as the other news operators; they have very few excllent journalists doing journalist stuff, as opposed to mere reporting (eg, rewriting something off the wire or the web). The online stuff is an IPA feed, even worse as if that were possible than a certain national broadsheet. I’ve virtually run out of news sources now 😦

  16. Never mind!

    Spring Hill Voice will fill the newsy void.

    And as one News Ltd shill once said: “Half the stuff on your site is horsesh1t”

    Only half? High praise indeed! And from one who would certainly be an expert in that genre.

  17. And then, of course, there is eventual reality.

    The problem with the US is that in their wealth obsessed culture it is acceptable to lie in order to obtain wealth….for every winner there is at least one loser. Winners do not consider consequences of losers. The other vector is that in a highly litigious culture flexibility of truth is also acceptable, it is an essential element of a legal argument to various degrees.

    And then there is Santa Claus.

    US wealth culture has plenty of personal integrity soft edges to encourage an ideologically convenient interpretation of reality.

  18. While the shibboleth word is on the table, one that I find amazing in its audacity is the only Christians (of our denomination, often is silently added) get into Heaven. Suspending disbelief in the Heaven part, the idea is that you are not one of “us” until you can get into Heaven. It is a kind of arse backward way of looking at things but not rare among Christians.

    Speaking of shibboleths, while what you describe is true for some denominations it has never been true of the Catholic, Orthodox and most mainline Protestant denominations which accept various beasts like ‘baptism of desire’ and the ‘anonymous Christian’.

    The vast majority of Christians are not evangelicals. I do suspect there may be a direct link between birtherism and fundie claims that only Christians can enter heaven, just as there is a clearer link between ideas about biblical literalism and the semidivine status that a literal reading of the US constitution has acquired for some people.

  19. The rightwing noise machine invariably identifies its various embarrassments as things invented by or shared with the Democrats. The committed agnotologist is entirely without shame.

  20. as regards the agnotological reality incursion of the “isulation” and the “school rorts” dirt trickle into the consciousness of the public.

    small minded moi wonders if these two instances of ostensible govenment incompetence were the product of undetected “gretching”?

    i mean if the emails of that high ranking public servant had not been revealed,maybe we would now be thinking Rudd was pulling just another labor “look after your mates rates” or “jobs for the boys” labor scam.
    or couldn’t run a chook raffle?
    as such.

  21. @may
    That is an interesting point, concerning Gretch II, Gretch Unleashed, Gretch is Back, etc. They got form, indeed, for such tricks as gretching.

  22. There has been discussion in other places about Wisconsin and the push by the Republican
    Governor with the Republican controlled legislature to outlaw collective bargaining by public sector workers. It seems that big capital in the form of the Koch brothers has funded the election of these Republican candidates; the brothers have close links to groups which are tea party and birther inspired.

    So “A conspiracy-theoretic view of the world in which liberal elites (a term encompassing Democrats, unions, schoolteachers, scientists, academics and many others) are plotting to undermine the American way of life and replace it with some unspecified, but awful alternative. In this case, answers to these questions reflect actual beliefs”.
    The majority of believers have been fed this line by people with a lot of money and will support the lack of bargaining without realising that their own interests are subverted by their beliefs and that they are actually in a conspiracy against themselves.

    Those who understand that things are bad for them but are unable to see how to make it better like the simplistic views put forward by the rich and powerful about who their enemies are.

  23. So what are the shibboleths of non-republicans? None come to mind- but presumably they exist to some extent.

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