Birtherism: Shibboleth or True-Belief?

There's an interesting exchange between John Quiggin over at Crooked Timber and Jonathan Chait at the TNR. Quiggin:

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 oautside 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.


I do agree with Quiggin that some conservatives who espouse the belief that Obama is a Muslim or a non-citizen don't quite literally believe this. They believe it and don't believe it at the same time — they believe it is the kind of thing Obama would do, whether or not he's actually done it. Quiggin argues that some form of this belief/non-belief can be found in partisans of both parties, and I agree.

But I do think the concept of agnotology applies here. Quiggin's argument hinges on the fact that conservatives understand that some people do not believe President Obama was born outside the United States (or is a Muslim, or…) But what those conservatives believe is that they enjoy access to truth that is denied Americans who are brainwashed by the mainstream media. The 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…