Ross Douthat has an opinion piece in the New York Times, “Paranoid About Paranoia,” that makes some important points about fringe beliefs, like those of Discovery Channel attacker James Lee. First, he notes that conspiratorial or otherwise fringe political beliefs are professed by sizable minorities of Americans
To some extent, partisans persist in these arguments — “your side encourages extremists!”; “no, your side encourages extremists!” — because America really is rife with wild and crazy sentiments. The belief that Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim (apparently held by nearly 20 percent of the country) gets the headlines. But as the George Mason law professor Ilya Somin has noted, national opinion polls reveal support for numerous far-out or noxious-seeming notions.
There’s the 32 percent of Democrats who blame “the Jews” for the financial crisis. There’s the 25 percent of African-Americans who believe the AIDS virus was created in a government lab. There’s support for state secession, which may have been higher among liberals in the Bush era than among Republicans in the age of Obama. And there’s the theory that the Bush White House knew about 9/11 in advance, which a third of Democrats endorsed as recently as 2007.
However, he then notes that many of these are symbolic beliefs, professed not out of any deep conviction, but to display membership in a particular identity group:
So are we a nation of potential James Lees, teetering on the brink of paranoid violence? Not necessarily. As the libertarian writer Julian Sanchez has pointed out, it’s worth taking all these polling responses with a substantial grain of salt. For all but the hardest-core conspiracy theorizers, they may express what Sanchez calls “symbolic beliefs.” These are “propositions you profess publicly” but would never follow through on, because they’re adopted as a kind of political and cultural statement rather than out of deep conviction.
Consider the apparently widespread notion that George W. Bush knew about 9/11 in advance. If true, it would suggest that Bush was not merely a bad man or a bad president, but an evil genius on a shocking scale. But as Sanchez notes, “you did not really see a lot of behavior consistent with millions upon millions of people being seriously convinced that their president was a treasonous mass murderer.” Nobody planned an insurrection; few people fled to Canada. Instead, liberals organized for Democratic candidates, as though Bush were an ordinary opponent rather than a stone-cold killer.
[The title of this post comes from an episode of South Park, “The Mystery of the Urinal Deuce,” which discusses 9-11 conspiracy theory, attributing trutherism to said fractional lack of intelligence; video here]