Do wingnuts really believe all that crazy stuff?

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, May 3, 2012 12:44 EDT
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Joshua Holland has an important piece at Salon (originally Alternet) about the way that paranoid conspiracy theories constantly pumped out by right wing media rule the right wing imagination, and how important it is to understand this about conservatives. He describes what the country looks like for a loyal consumer of right wing media:

The White House has been usurped by a Kenyan socialist named Barry Soetero, who hatched an elaborate plot to pass himself off as a citizen of the United States – a plot the media refuse to even investigate. This president doesn’t just claim the right to assassinate suspected terrorists who are beyond the reach of law enforcement – he may be planning on rounding up his ideological opponents and putting them into concentration camps if he is reelected. He may have murdered a blogger who was critical of his administration, but authorities refuse to investigate. At the very least, he is plotting on disarming the American public after the election, in accordance with a secret deal cut with the UN and possibly with the assistance of foreign troops……

For the true believers, Latin American immigration isn’t a phenomenon to be managed, but a grave existential threat. A plot to “take back” large swaths of the Southwest is a theory that has aired not only on obscure right-wing blogs, but on Fox and CNN. On CNN, Lou Dobbs claimed immigrants were spreading leprosy; Rick Perry, Rep. Louie Gohmert and other “mainstream” voices on the right (that is, people with platforms) agree that Hezbollah and Hamas “are using Mexico as a way to penetrate into the southern part of the United States,” possibly with the aid of “terror babies” carried in pregnant women’s wombs.

I’ll add that they also believe that feminists and Planned Parenthood are part of an elaborate conspiracy to abort every pregnancy in the country, for no other reason than we hate fetuses. From their rhetoric, it’s clear they believe the abortion rate is many times higher than it is, and that the fact that women have 1 or 2 children instead of 9 or 10 on average is strictly because of secret abortions. For instance, Jon Kyle’s famous “90%” number when talking about Planned Parenthood’s services puts their abortion rate at about 30 times what it is. Since there are about 1.2 milllion abortions a year, going off that kind of rough estimating done on the right, you’re left with realizing they believe there’s something like 15 to 30 million abortions a year. I’ve never seen that number bandied about, but right wing rhetoric points to this belief that Kyle’s belief that Planned Parenthood is doing 30 times the abortions there are, and that abortion is the main, and possibly only reason, for the current American birth rate.  A lot of conservatives have taunted me personally with assumptions that I’m constantly getting abortions with my slutty slut self, so you can see why people who also believe that Obama is a covert agent might think there’s some secret underground conspiracy of feminists to emasculate men by secretly stealing away the womb fruit that proves their American seed works. The 4 million proof-their-fathers-had-sex-things we call babies born a year are seen as the rare escapees from the pro-choice conspiracy to wipe out all proof of American virility. 

When you think about stuff like this, you have to wonder. Do they really believe this shit? 

I’m not so sure. I’ve said it before, but I think it’s worth repeating: I think they only “believe” it. Which is to say, there are two kinds of ways people believe something. They have things they believe because they’re factually accurate: That it’s raining outside, that items dropped will fall, that Barack Obama is President. Then there’s stuff that isn’t real that people believe: that there’s a God in heaven and an afterlife, that miracles happen, ghosts exist. These are things you don’t really believe in the same way you believe in truths. It’s more that these beliefs are convenient to apply a belief-like approach to, because the stories make you feel good or, more commonly, because joining in the belief connects you to your community. Everyone comes together under a common delusion: That might be the best way to describe religion. The confusion between these two kinds of beliefs is such that some skeptics, including myself, are beginning to prefer the terms “know” and “accept” to describe accuracy-based beliefs, and leave “belief” to describe mythical beliefs. 

In my experience, the healthiest people (besides those who largely avoid the habit of “belief”) are those who have a strict divide between accuracy-beliefs and myth-beliefs. God stays in church where he belongs, etc. But some people struggle a lot and confuse the two kinds of believing. They’re overly literal in their belief in the supernatural, for one thing. But I think it clearly goes the other way, too, which is that they start to structure their understanding of the reality-based world on the same kinds of myth-making that denotes religion. So, for instance, you have this right wing worship of Sperm Magic and this conflation of male dominance with virility, a magical belief that causes them to make the fetus a symbol of masculine power and see abortion as a ritualistic rejection of it. That, in turn, spurs a belief that feminists are literally trying to abort as many pregnancies as possible, because we supposedly hate men, the only reason they allow for why we might not want men to rule us. This, in turn, creates elaborate conspiracy theories about how Planned Parenthood is trying to subvert the nation and how they secretly are doing 30 times as many abortions as they are, etc. They struggle to understand where accuracy-belief and myth-belief differ.

Look, for instance, at the right wing attempts to make a thing out of President Obama having dated in his 20s before he met Michelle. The way that the story is playing out, you’d think it was scandalous that a man in his 20s has girlfriends and likely has, you know, sex. They aren’t getting this belief from reality. In reality, most people sex, and what’s unusual is if you didn’t have a few sexual relationships that fizzled out before you had one that stuck. But right wingers cling to this myth that abstinence until marriage is the right and proper thing to do, and that myth-belief gets all tangled up with their ability to understand reality. No wonder they think that abstinence-until-marriage is a reasonable thing to teach in schools, even though nearly everyone pushing that had sex themselves before marriage. The observable reality, that most people (including themselves) have sex, is trumped and confused by the myth-reality, where abstinence is the ideal and vanilla sex sounds way more filthy and perverse than it really is. It’s one reason they worked themselves into a frenzy “believing” that Sandra Fluke spends her days and nights at Georgetown pulling trains, instead of being a rather ordinary law student with a fiance. 

So no, I don’t think they believe-believe this stuff. I think they’re just confused about the difference between fake belief and real belief, though I think they’re highly motivated to be confused about it. After all, that confusion helps generate right wing identity. They may even mistakenly believe it’s politically beneficial, though the available evidence shows that it instead causes everyone else to think they’re nut jobs. 

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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