Smoke Without Fire

Hillary Clinton
Barack Obama
Barack Obama
Barack Hussein Obama II is the 44th and current President of the United States. He is the first African American to hold the office. He was born on August 4, 1961 and as of 2010 his reported net worth was US$ 11.8 million. | Photo: Associated Press | Barack Obama, President, Democrat, Liberal, 2012,

Conservative feelings do not define reality.

Some conservatives have a simple explanation why they say so many false things about Obama, Hilary Clinton and other Democrats: the Democrats make them to it.

Case in point, some right-wingers were crowing earlier this month when Clinton said she wouldn't raise taxes on the middle class, because they thought they'd heard her say the opposite — that she would raise taxes. When one such conservative, National Review's Deroy Murdock, realized his mistake, he explained that even though he was wrong, he was really right because his mistake "highlighted a broader truth." Murdock, you see, knows Clinton will raise taxes on the middle class, so it was completely logical to think she'd said that. The blame for his error doesn’t lie with him, it lies with Clinton for being the sort of sleazy tax-and-spend liberal who makes him jump to such conclusions.

Similar arguments about Obama have been spewing out of the right wing since 2008. If they're suspicious of his citizenship, his religion, his agenda, that doesn't make them political paranoids, it's because Obama's so unAmerican they can’t help jump to conclusions. One blogger argued that as "there is no other president of whom we've asked similar questions" (actually the far right accused both Truman and Eisenhower of being communist agents back in the day) that proves there must be something suspicious about Obama. I can think of at least one reason some people react to Obama differently than every other president, but I can understand why a right-wing blogger would rather not bring up that possibility.

Likewise, during the Jade Helm freak-out — the delusion of some right-wingers that a military exercise in Texas was a plot to take over the state — I heard arguments that even if conservatives were wrong, the fact they believed it proved how evil Obama was ("Obama has really painted a portrait in the minds of many conservatives that he is capable of this sort of thing."). After all, if he was a good, trustworthy person, they'd never have made this mistake, so logically he must be a dictator.

It’s the same "logic" by which conservative writer Dinesh D'Souza has argued that the existence of stereotypes proves they must be true. The fact bigots say "blacks are lazy" or "Jews are cheap" but not the other way around proves blacks and Jews (and other stereotyped minorities) must be doing something that makes people think of them that way.

People who deploy this argument aren't simply claiming that there's no smoke without fire, they're claiming there must be a fire even if they only imagine the smoke. You don’t believe there’s a fire? Well, why did they think they saw smoke, then huh? Do you think they're stupid or bigoted or something?

In reality, our impressions of other people are frequently wrong, and the false impression usually says more about us than them. There are any number of women that I believed, incorrectly, were interested in me. Not because they "painted a portrait" in my mind or because my belief "highlighted a broader truth" but because I wanted desperately for it to be true. Likewise the common teenage conviction that parents are morons says more about teen perception than parental intelligence.

Unfortunately despite all the evidence that our beliefs and feelings are often an inaccurate map of reality, we keep telling ourselves that they are. And once we start down that road, it can be hard to stop. For some people it's much more comfortable to explain away evidence than admit to being a dupe or a gullible sheeple. Murdock could have just said he was wrong, but instead he chose to argue his error was kind of, sort of right. His critics are just focusing on trivial matters such as accuracy and facts, Murdock is looking at the big picture and the "broader truth." So he’s really much more right than the people who think he's wrong.

Except, of course, he isn't.

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Updated Jul 11, 2018 1:00 AM UTC | More details


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