What happens if we aren't?: "The American people are pretty sharp!"
It's long been a standard line for pundits and pols alike. It's an obvious, low-cost way of flattering us, the people.
That notion also lies at the heart of the whole democratic idea:
Yeoman fathers—and auto mechanics—will employ their good, sound common sense in the course of making the nation's decisions. Some such notion lies at the heart of democratic theory.
That said, what if we actually aren't pretty sharp? What if we the people are strongly inclined to fall in line with, to truly believe, The Crazy and The Wrong?
Are we really all that sharp? Consider a recent news report in the New York Times.
The piece appeared in print editions on Saturday, August 15. It was written by Davey Alba, "a technology reporter covering disinformation."
Four days earlier, Candidate Biden had announced that Kamala Harris would be his running-mate. "Since then, false and misleading information about Ms. Harris has spiked online and on TV," Alba wrote—and she offered three major examples.
Sometimes, false claims are simply wrong. They could have been true, but they aren't.
Sometimes, though, false information comes from the land of The Crazy. The fact that millions of people may believe such lunatic claims is the problem we're discussing today.
Below, you see one of the crackpot claims about Harris on which Alba reported:
ALBA (8/15/20): The ‘PizzaGate’ Conspiracy TheoryFor the record, what was "pizza" said to be code language for? You may not want to ask.
On Wednesday, a day after Mr. Biden announced his selection, the falsehood that Ms. Harris is connected to a child-trafficking conspiracy known as PizzaGate was published on the conspiracy-mongering website Infowars, which set off a round of sharing on social media.
PizzaGate hinges on the baseless notion that Hillary Clinton and Democratic elites ran a child sex-trafficking ring through a Washington pizza restaurant. According to the rumors about Ms. Harris, she is tied to the conspiracy because her sister was invited by John Podesta, Ms. Clinton’s presidential campaign manager, to a “Hillary pizza party” in 2016.
On Facebook, users in dozens of QAnon groups and pages posted about the rumor. The falsehood reached up to 624,000 people, according to The Times’s analysis. On Instagram, which Facebook owns, 77 more posts tried to spread the lie further.
And on YouTube, a QAnon channel with over 100,000 followers pushed the conspiracy, too. “Remember, we know what pizza was code language for,” Daniel Lee, a YouTube personality popular in conspiracy circles, told his audience. The video was viewed 30,000 times.
("References in the emails to 'pizza' and 'pasta' were interpreted as code words for 'girls' and 'little boys.' ”)
In our view, Alba's journalistic constructions could be criticized. In essence, she referred to the lunatic PizzaGate allegations as a "baseless" "falsehood." It seems to us that language like that fails to capture the actual nature of the actual problem.
At any rate, Alba didn't pretend to know how many people believed these crazy new claims about Harris. That said, recent reporting about QAnon keeps suggesting that hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people believe the crazy claims which lie at the heart of the "theory."
Nor was this the only crazy claim floating around about Harris. To her credit, Alba tried to nip this in the bud too:
ALBA: Jussie SmollettIn fairness, Harris could have been Smollett's aunt. In that sense, this second claim may come from the land of The Astoundingly Stupid, not from the land of The Crazy.
One of the most convoluted lies that has spread on social media involves the actor Jussie Smollett and the baseless allegation that Ms. Harris is his aunt and knew in advance that Mr. Smollett was planning to stage an assault against himself early last year.
According to the unsubstantiated narrative, when the Chicago Police Department and the F.B.I. investigated the alleged assault, Ms. Harris appeared in Mr. Smollett’s phone records, so she must have been in on the hoax.
The right-wing website True Pundit published an article pushing this argument in November. The article gained new prominence on social media this week, shared nearly 2,000 times on Twitter and reaching 180,000 people, according to CrowdTangle, a tool to analyze interactions across social networks.
A February 2019 article on FactCheck.org concluded that there was no relation between Ms. Harris and Mr. Smollett, and that evidence of her role in the hoax was nonexistent.
Harris could have been Smollett's aunt. Could she have "been in on the hoax?" At this point, we're once again inching our way toward the realm of The Crazy.
Here too, it seems to us that Alba, and the New York Times, haven't quite established their point of view toward such ludicrous stories. Alba refers to this idiocy as a "lie," but also as "unsubstantiated." As we noted yesterday, our journalists are struggling to call a spade a spade when they deal with lunacy of this remarkably widespread type.
Today, the Times does somewhat better. The paper presents another front-page report about QAnon, its third such report in as many days. Today's report starts like this:
ROSENBERG AND HABERMAN (8/21/20): Late last month, as the Texas Republican Party was shifting into campaign mode, it unveiled a new slogan, lifting a rallying cry straight from a once-unthinkable source: the internet-driven conspiracy theory known as QAnon.Is President Trump poised to confront "a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophile Democrats who seek to dominate America and the world?"
The new catchphrase, “We Are the Storm,” is an unsubtle cue to a group that the F.B.I. has labeled a potential domestic terrorist threat. It is instantly recognizable among QAnon adherents, signaling what they claim is a coming conflagration between President Trump and what they allege, falsely, is a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophile Democrats who seek to dominate America and the world.
That isn't the question we're asking. The question we're asking is this:
Does it make sense to describe something that crazy as "false?"
As they continue, today's writers do a bit better. They quote a Texas Republican official referring to such claims as "crazy."
"The lunatics are truly running the asylum," this Republican official says. A bit later, the writers themselves describe QAnon's various crazy beliefs as "untethered from reality." Their locution is perhaps a bit clumsy, but it does convey an idea.
Our journalists still seem reluctant to call a spade a spade in this crackpot area. As a group, they have refused to discuss the possibility that Donald J. Trump may be mentally ill in some way. They don't seem eager to speak directly about us the people either.
Our journalists need to be braver. That said, the larger problem lies in the fact that so many people are crazy enough to believe these crazy claims at all.
The foundations of democratic theory are called into question here. Ideally, our journalists would confront this fact more directly. In reality, they never will.
You see, even as millions work from The Crazy, the rest of us tend to work from The Wrong. We'll discuss that state of affairs in much greater detail next week. But in closing today, let's discuss the role of The Crazy in our politics over the past many years.
Back in the day, the Clintons were accused of multiple murders. The extremely pious Reverend Falwell pushed this claim extremely hard. We were listening to Rush Limbaugh on the day when he fingered first lady Hillary Clinton in the death of Vince Foster.
(Yes, the fact that this went on helps explain how Donald J. Trump reached The Oval.)
Many people were dumb or crazy enough to believe those murder claims. In the face of those poisonous claims, our journalists cowered and hid.
Later, mainstream journalists took the lead in inventing two years worth of crazy tales about the many lies of Candidate Gore. People are dead all over Iraq because they invented that tale.
Later, remarkable percentages of voters told an array of pollsters that they didn't believe that Barack Obama had been born in the United States For four years, our current president played a lead role in spreading that crackpot claim around. When his leading enabler moved from Fox to MSNBC, Rachel Maddow praised her work to the skies and revealed that she had been Rachel's drinking buddy during those birther-rich years.
Over There, in pro-Trump tents, many beliefs seem to be coming from the realm of The Crazy. Democratic theory lies in ruins if so many citizen-voters are able to believe so many crazy things.
That said, our press corps has played a large role in the rise of Crazy Belief over these many long years. And while we liberals like to bash the others for their love affair with The Crazy, our own tribal beliefs have routinely been born in the land of The Wrong.
Large chunks of their tribe are sunk in The Crazy, but we're deeply sunk in The Wrong. What can we possibly mean by that?
Next week, we'll start to explain.
The American people are pretty sharp? For decades, it''s been a rallying cry from pundits and pols alike.
The American people are pretty sharp! But what happens to our politics, and to our culture, if it turns out that we aren't?