Monday, August 17, 2009

Five Laws of the Crazy Tree

Jesse Walker of Reason Magazine discusses five laws of the Crazy Tree.

The first law of the crazy tree is that it's always blooming somewhere. It will always be easy to believe the worst about your political foes, and there will always be people willing to accuse them of conspiracy. This does not only happen at what appear to be moments of liberal ascendancy, and it doesn't only happen on the right.

The second law of the crazy tree is that lots of people try to exploit it. Consider the narratives we're hearing not just from the health care protestors but about the health care protestors, so frequently derided as either lunatics or pawns. It serves several political interests -- some of them "elite"! -- to paint the opponents of the Democrats' health care changes as a bunch of knuckle-dragging birthers and/or as fakers in FreedomWorks' employ. Once you've defined your opponents as the Other, you have an excuse to ignore their concerns.

The third law of the crazy tree: It has a life of its own. No matter who tries to exploit it, it can easily escape their control. We live in a world where the crank legal theories of the "sovereign citizen" movement, often associated with the racist right, have managed to attract a following in the black underclass, where the ideas were adapted to new ends. I don't know who'll be talking about "death panels" five years from now, but it's easy to imagine many ways the meme might evolve.

The fourth law of the crazy tree: It isn't completely crazy. I don't merely mean that there are conspiracy theories out there that turn out to be true. I mean that the true and the false keep lapping up against each other. Even real conspiracies (say, Watergate or Iran-contra) invariably produce dubious ancillary hypotheses; even the most absurd conspiracy folklore can be a metaphoric way of discussing something real. This is important, because it suggests that a palpably false belief could still deserve our attention.

And that leads us to the fifth, final, and most important law of the crazy tree: It blooms in the center, too. You can't protect yourself from its effects by quarantining the fringes...

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