I began last Monday with my lucubrations about Orly Taitz and the birther movement. For the sake of symmetry, I will close out with some remarks about another woman of the right, Alaska's ex-governor Sarah Palin.Her block-buster memoir Going Rogue will be published on November 17th; last Friday she market-tested a new speech before some 5,000 right-to-lifers at the state fairgrounds outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Though the press was banned from the event and recording devices forbidden, several reporters, Politico's Jonathan Martin among them, attended as paying customers (tickets went for $30; pledge cards on the chairs offered attendees the opportunity to become one of "Sarah's Rogues" and receive an autographed copy of her book by donating $1000 to Wisconsin Right to Life).
A subject of innumerable conspiracy theories herself--about the state of her marriage, the circumstances surrounding her last pregnancy, the reasons for her abrupt resignation from the governorship--Palin alluded to a conspiracy theory in her speech that got a lot of play last summer: the "death panels" canard. If law-makers don't believe that the lives of the unborn matter, she said ominously, then:
"Perhaps the same mind-set applies to other persons."And then she launched a new conspiracy theory of her own:
"What may they feel about an elderly person who doesn't have a whole lot of productive years left... In order to save government money, government health care has to be rationed... Do you think our elderly will be first in line for limited health care?
"And what about the child who perhaps isn't deemed normal or perfect per someone's subjective measure of their use or questionable purpose in the eyes of a panel of bureaucrats making our health care decisions for us," she continued.
Noting that there had been a lot of "change" of late, Palin recalled a recent conversation with a friend about how the phrase "In God We Trust" had been moved to the edge of the new coins.Actually it wasn't quite her own. Martin noted that Palin was echoing charges that first began circulating in a chain letter dating back to 2007; the redesign of the dollar coin had in fact been approved in 2005, during the presidency of George W. Bush. Astoundingly, not just Politico fact-checked Palin, but Fox News. Fox even reported that "In God We Trust" was moved back to the front of the coin in 2007, by an act of Congress. Snopes.com had debunked that chain letter back in February 2007; Hoax.com posted on the subject a month later. The Hoax post includes a link to a press release from the United States mint which admits--collectors take note!--that "an unspecified quantity" of coins were in fact released without the edge lettering.
"Who calls a shot like that?" she demanded. "Who makes a decision like that?"
She added: "It's a disturbing trend."
Unsaid but implied was that the new Democratic White House was behind such a move to secularize the nation's currency.
As for the conspiracy theories about Palin herself.... Andrew Sullivan has blogged obsessively about her eye-brow raising account of the circumstances of her youngest child's birth--he posted a picture of her taken a month before Trig was born in which she barely has a bulge; he noted how her water broke when she was in Texas and, despite her high-risk pregnancy, she flew back to Alaska for the delivery; he's pressed for (and not received) detailed medical records. (Click here and here for just two of his many posts on the subject.) Even Sullivan admits that he's become something of an Ahab on the subject of Palin; not long ago one of his readers tried to calm him down by suggesting that most of the inconsistencies in her stories stem from her characteristically careless attitude with the truth--there's no grand conspiracy, in other words, just self-aggrandizing lies. "Always tell the truth," as the old admonition goes, "It's easier to remember." Sarah Palin would have done well to heed it.
One of Sullivan's posts included a link to the Anchorage Daily News's editor's blog, on which an e-mail exchange between Palin and Executive Editor Patrick Dougherty can be found. It's dated January 12, 2009. In it Palin complained that the ADN had called Levi Johnston a "highschool dropout" (which he was) and implied that she was connected to Levi Johnston's mother's drug dealing activities (the paper had written nothing of the sort). Then she moved onto the issue of Trig. "And is your paper really still pursuing the sensational lie that I am not Trig's mother?" she asked. "Is it true you have a reporter still bothering my state office, my very busy doctor (who's already set the record straight for you), and the school district, in pursuit of your ridiculous conspiracy?"
"Yes, it's true," Dougherty replied. He went on:
You may have been too busy with the campaign to notice, but the Daily News has, from the beginning, dismissed the conspiracy theories about Trig's birth as nonsense. I don't believe we have ever published in the newspaper a story, a letter, a column or anything alleging a coverup about your maternity. In fact, my integrity and the integrity of the newspaper have been repeatedly attacked in national forums for our complicity in the "coverup." I have personally received more than a 100 emails accusing me and the paper of conspiring to hide the truth....I want to be very clear on this: I have from the beginning and do now consider the conspiracy theories about Trig's birth to be nutty nonsense.But because of Palin's refusal to cooperate, he tells her--to release records, to give statements, to allow third parties to speak candidly--he'd had to spike the story. "It strikes me," he concludes, "That if there is never a clear, contemporaneous public record of what transpired with Trig's birth that may actually ensure that the conspiracy theory never dies. Time will tell."
If that's true, then why has Lisa Demer been asking questions about Trig's birth?
Because we have been amazed by the widespread and enduring quality of these rumors. I finally decided, after watching this go on unabated for months, to let a reporter try to do a story about the "conspiracy theory that would not die" and, possibly, report the facts of Trig's birth thoroughly enough to kill the nonsense once and for all......
In our age of viral communications, thought contagions spread within seconds. Politicians like Palin try to take advantage of the phenomenon for their own purposes. With one well-timed applause line at the Republican convention she was able to recast herself as an opponent of the bridge to nowhere that she'd in fact supported. Unfortunately her gaffes were propagated just as swiftly. Comedian Tina Fey's "I can see Russia from my house" (a pithier take on Palin's own words to Charlie Gibson that "They're our next door neighbors and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska") became an inescapable meme. Judging from the story in this morning's New York Times about her claims that the McCain campaign is stiffing her for $50,000 in legal charges, some of the untruths in her new book might bite back at her as well.
Karl Popper wrote of "the unwieldiness, the resilience or the brittleness of the social stuff, or its resistance to our attempts to mould it and to work with it." The medium in which thought contagions travel--and in which politicians campaign--is social. "Conspiracies occur, it must be admitted," Popper wrote in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1952).
But the striking fact which, in spite of their occurrence, disproves the conspiracy theory is that few of these conspiracies are ultimately successful. Conspirators rarely consummate their conspiracy.Though powerful interests have invested in Sarah Palin's presidential ambitions, her path to the White House is far from assured.
Why is this so? Why do achievements differ so widely from aspirations? Because this is usually the case in social life, conspiracy or no conspiracy. Social life is not only a trial of strength between opposing groups: it is action within a more or less resilient or brittle framework of institutions and traditions, and creates--apart from any conscious counter-action--many unforeseen reactions in this framework, some of them perhaps unforeseeable.