There's a ridiculous amount of credulity out there. It's common among those who assumed the SBVfT crowd was telling the truth about everything. As I've been saying in posts and comments for the last couple weeks, I don't think it's a good idea to believe unsubstantiated claims about presidents and presidential candidates, but I also don't think it's always a good idea to believe they're false simply because there's no evidence to prove them true. I don't happen to think there's much strong evidence either way about some key claims of the SBFfT group. The evidence points in Kerry's defense in a couple important spots, and I think it's clearly against him in a couple. Those who believed all the reports simply because Kerry has changed his story a few times on other issues had some evidence of a lack of trustworthiness in the man but none that he lied in the 70s on these particular charges, so I'm going to be as harsh with those who simply believed the Swift Boat Vets for Truth as I am with those who believe Michael Moore, moveon.org, and other 527 groups who offer no or little evidence for conspiracy theories about President Bush. The one difference is that I've never met anyone who simply believed all the things the SBVfT group claimed, and I've met lots of people who believe all these fanciful accounts about Bush, particularly philosophers, who are supposed to have a high threshold for when they should believe something, at least according to them.
This kind of acceptance of conspiracy theories thus seems to me to be much more common on the left, particularly among academics and intellectuals, including philosophers. [That's my experience, and perhaps it's just because of my positioning in a blue state and in academia. Those with conservative tendencies aren't allowed to accept conspiracy theories in that kind of setting.] I think it's pretty clear that I'm no anti-intellectual hick who opposes higher education. This is just something I've observed about some people I know well in academia, and I hate to admit it because this will confirm the anti-intellectualism of those who think academia is a place for people to go when they don't want to deal with the real world and just float around their theories with no concern for reality. This charge has even been leveled against me for saying that we aren't in a war between Christianity and Islam, that most Muslims in the U.S. aren't violent, and that the Qur'an has requirements about jihad that the 9-11 terrorists violated. I was called a liberal for saying such things, and I was told to get out of my high tower and get into the real world, even though I have spent time in an officially Muslim country and know a fair amount about these things from real life experience. So I hesitate to say anything that supports such conspiracy theories against the academy. Yet it seems to me to be true about a large enough group within academia that they are too open to conspiracy theories of their own. In the case of philosophers, some people in my department really do seem this way, but it's not necessarily true about what they're specialists in. It's pretty much restricted to politics and perhaps Christianity. The really ironic thing about all this is that the same people who think it's stupid to believe in God because there's no evidence tend to believe all sorts of conspiracy theories about President Bush with just as little evidence. It's a case of different standards for different situations.
I face this regularly among philosopher colleagues (and a couple of the evening crew of adjunct faculty at the small college where I teach who share an office with me, in this case not philosophers) whenever politics comes up in their presence. This is not the case with all of my colleagues (and I'll mention Mark Steen for being very willing to interact quite a bit on my blog, even when he strongly disagrees with me; even when I don't think he's fair at first, he goes back and looks at it and realizes when he's gone too far, and I hope I do the same to his satisfaction at least as often as he does with me). It's more that some very outspoken people just don't understand that someone can fail to have the assumptions they bring to the discussion, and they talk as if everyone should "of course" hate Bush because he's a jingoistic child of privilege who wishes to shove his religion down everyone's throat and use whatever subversive means he can to achieve that. They just can't imagine that anyone might believe him to be a genuine man of faith who doesn't think God is on his side but is just seeking to be doing what God wants him to be doing, as any Christian should. They can't imagine anyone thinking that his policies could be motivated by compassion rather than controlling everyone, because they can't imagine how a compassionate person could be motivated to support such policies. They can't imagine anyone being sympathetic to his talk of good and evil, because they don't really believe in anything like good and evil. I'm the counterexample to all those assumptions, and it really does show a lack of imagination, given that about half the country shares my views on these issues (broadly construed, anyway).
I just can't imagine being such a conspiracy theorist. How can you have such a predisposition to believe every cockamamie theory that comes up, simply because you happen not to like the guy? Clinton had just as strong a set of detractors, and I didn't see these conspiracy theories popping up all over the place, though again that may be due to my location. People are more likely to believe all the sexual assault charges given his adulterous taking advantage of Monic Lewinsky and the sheer number of such claims, but I didn't see anything like what happened with Arnold Schwarzeneggar in the days before his election as governor of California, and even that's nothing close to the popularity and comprehensive range of conspiracy theories about Bush. The charges of Bush lying about WMD have proved more and more empty over time, and the claim that he based the premise of war on a lie is so far from the truth that it amazes me to see anyone saying things like "no one died when Clinton lied", which if you think about it can only be true if it's true for Bush, since the same statements Bush made were made by Clinton and with the same knowledge. Bush believed in stockpiles of WMD, just as Clinton did. He didn't even emphasize the stockpiles very much. Yet it's so common to hear that the whole premise of the war was a lie is still all too common, due to films like Fahrenheit 9-11 and ads by groups like moveon.org. John Kerry is usually (though not always) more careful than such outright myth-propagation, but Al Gore and Howard Dean have shed no tears in doing Kerry's dirty work for him.
Actor Ron Silver spoke at the Republican convention last nightm and I missed it, but I saw him interviewed afterward. He's a Democrat, and he's surely not on board with this administration in a number of ways, but he looked at the rank-and-file Democrats and the outsiders (or those who wanted to be viewed as outsiders) and saw that their hatred for President Bush was leading them to say things that were opposed to the very things they had espoused under Clinton. They were in favor of humanitarian aid, which was a key component of the president's call to invade Iraq from the very beginning (despite the story told by the opposition that it was added on the eve of the invasion). They had at least let pass all kinds of statements from Clinton that were just like what Bush was now saying. Silver heard this and saw that the mainstream Democrats were being blinded by their hatred of Bush to say and do things that were just insane.
I think the general thrust of what he's saying is exactly right, and Republicans have been saying it all along. It's refreshing to hear it from loyal Democrats. Joe Lieberman was the one candidate who wasn't blinded by hatred of Bush, though it was clear that he opposes Bush on some key issues where I would stick with Bush. I've heard from one conspiracy theorist that Lieberman is basically Bush, and that just shows how slanted the conspiracy theories can make someone's view of someone. Lieberman strongly endorses the current abortion-on-demand policy and merely claims (with no action, of course) that he thinks abortion should be rare. On social issues he's more conservative than some, but he claimed that Bush's tax cut for the richest level of society was more extreme than Reagan's, which just simply isn't the case. Reagan took the tax rate for the rich down to a level lower than Clinton allowed it to remain, and Bush took it back down again, and I don't think he quite restored it to the low level Reagan had it. Yet Lieberman, wanting to reverse the tax cut on the richest bracket, was trying to portray Bush as more conservative than Reagan. Those are just a couple important differences between the two, and I could list a number of others. So when I heard my colleague saying there was no difference, I just couldn't believe he could be so blind.
So why do people believe these conspiracy theories? I can only speculate, but I suspect some of it is from such a vast difference in values leading to an inability to see how someone from a different perspective might see things. To pick on conservatives again, I'll say that I suspect something like this is involved with a lot of the flip-flop charges against Kerry. For instance, most conservatives don't understand the view that at least 99% of philosophers take on abortion, that a fetus is alive and a human organism but not a person. Then they say Kerry is inconsistent for thinking a fetus is alive but supporting laws allowing abortion. He also thinks abortion is often wrong, but he doesn't think there should be laws against it. I think that's a self-undermining position, but what's self-undermining is the thinking of something as very wrong because it harms another being but not wishing to have laws against it. It has nothing to do with abortion. It's a certain sort of libertarianism that I don't like here, in this case used by defenders of abortion rights. It's not the position that a fetus is a human life but not a person that is self-undermining, but many conservatives I've interacted with have thought that to be a flip-flop and not a position. It's a difference of values that prevents someone from seeing that it's a position and not a flip-flop. Those who think abortion is just abhorrent can't see how someone might come to such a view, and that's a failing. Conservatives need to do better at understanding their opponents. This is really to illustrate how easily value judgments can enter into the acceptance of something about someone that simply isn't true, and I think something like that is a big part of the willingness to accept conspiracy theories about the president.
An example on the left is that Bush's selection of Colin Powell and Condi Rice (there's never any bothering to mention all the other minority cabinet members) was simply to make himself look better to liberals by carrying out an action that he's gone on record saying should be illegal -- appointing people who are incompetent except to say things their superiors tell them to say and who are not allowed a word edgewise. Being convinced of his hate for minorities because of his affirmative action views thus fuels the sense that he must hate these two, which fuels the sense that they must have no authority in his administration unless they give in to what others believe, but they as minorities must disagree privately with what Bush expects them to do. How could anyone, particularly a descendant of slaves, ever reasonably think affirmative action could actually harm the groups it was intended to help? Conspiracy theorists about Republicans on race just can't conceive of such a thing, and prior value judgments thus lead to a conspiracy theory with not a shred of evidence and much evidence to the contrary that just gets explained away by further complications that develop within the conspiracy theory.
Another element is just the desire for a weapon to use against someone viewed as truly evil. This can't be the whole explanation, since it assumes the person already views Bush to be evil. Yet once that belief is present, virtually anything that can confirm that can seem likely simply because it fits so well with a portrait already assumed. Then it builds, as the portrait gets worse with each narrative of negativity. At this point we've now got such contradictory yet all-encompassing narratives about Bush that there's no way they can all be true. That doesn't stop the conspiracy theorists from uttering them in all their conflictedness. Someone could believe Bush to be a dunce but Karl Rove a brilliant but evil man who is misleading and using Bush for his own evil aims. That's the only way I can see to put those two myths together.
Other contradictory narratives aren't so easy to put together. Bush is supposedly both a theonomist and a neoconservative (which anyone familiar with theonomists' opposition to Bush and "his neoconservative agenda" will find laughable, and anyone who has read Irving Kristol's complaints about Bush and God will have the same laugh from the other direction). He's supposed to be a dispensationalist who sees the rapture imminent, in which case Israel will become God's people again, yet he's also supposed to be a theonomist who wants Israel's laws to be present in the American system now because America is the refuge of the real chosen people. These views have been on opposite sides (and in fact the extremes, which few have held in their strong form) of theological debates for over 100 years. Conspiracy theorists on the left have him waging a war between Christianity and Islam (even though he's never said such a thing and goes out of his way to say that Islam is a good religion and worships the same God as Christians and Jews), and yet he's also supposed to be a relativistic remover of distinctions between religions, accoding to conspiracy theorists on the right. The truth is that he's in the normal range in between, the range occupied by many Christians. He deliberately caused 9-11 according to one view. Another has his calm composure for the sake of the kids he was with when he found out serving as evidence that he doesn't handle himself well when he's surprised by a devastating event under his watch.
As I said, I deal with this all the time. Those of you in red states who don't know any Kerry supporters are at a disadvantage, because you don't see your own faulty assumptions that parallel the ones I've been highlighting among blue-staters, particularly those in academia who don't know any Bush supporters (or don't know they know any, simply because they assume no one intelligent could think of believing Bush to be a good man). I'm glad to be able to interact with those who don't share my assumptions, but it gets tiring sometimes, and I appreciate having the eight other conservatives and libertarians that I know of in my department. No, I can't count them on one hand (unless I use some fingers twice), but I can count them on two, and I just did, and I'm surprised it's that high. Most philosophy departments are much lower, I'm sure.
So how do I end a long musing on the wall I face in any political discussion with some who are my closest colleagues? I feel like I'm writing a Saturday Night Live skit, because I could keep going with the gag until people laugh, even though it's not funny. I'll just run out of energy, as you probably have. So I'll just conclude with one thought. We all need to be wary of when our value systems, assumptions, and desires to undermine someone we don't like can allow us to be open to conspiracy-theory levels of credulity. Being unwilling to assent to a conspiracy theory is a good thing. Conservatives, who are probably the majority of people who could read through this whole post without giving up on me, have just as much reason to avoid this kind of thing and just as easy a tendency to do it. I'm just less focused on it when it happens because it doesn't belittle my dearly-held beliefs, so I have fewer examples of it that I can recall on command. So I call on conservatives not to do this, not to believe something said about Kerry simply because it fits with what you believe about him or because you hope it might lead him to lose the election. That doesn't mean you should believe they're false, especially if there's some reason to give some heed for those saying it, as with the case of some of the Swift Boat Vets' claims. But don't assert them simply because someone said it. Otherwise, when liberals do the same thing, you'll have no right to complain if you're doing it yourself, and there's no other way to have any moral standing to condemn the Bush-haters if your willingness to believe anything is even remotely near theirs.