Five Laws of the Crazy Tree

The liberal historian Rick Perlstein published an op-ed in the Sunday Washington Post about the roots of "the birthers, the anti-tax tea-partiers, the town hall hecklers." In America, Perlstein argues, "the crazy tree blooms in every moment of liberal ascendancy, and...elites exploit the crazy for their own narrow interests."

In one way, the article is refreshing: At a time when many liberals have been describing the protests at the health care "town halls" as an unprecedented event, even as a sign of incipient fascism, Perlstein reminds readers that flare-ups like this actually happen fairly frequently in American history. But the article is aggravating, too, and not just because it casually conflates the bona fide kooks with anyone who happens to protest at a tea party or a town hall. Reading the piece you get the impression that the crazy tree grows only on the right, and that the health care battle is a simple case of hysterics attacking enlightened reform.

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. (One of Perlstein's own historical examples -- the anti-Catholic nativists of the 19th century, one of the less attractive products of the antebellum reform era -- isn't easily identified with either the modern right or the modern left.)

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, though Perlstein seems to suggest you can:

It used to be different. You never heard the late Walter Cronkite taking time on the evening news to "debunk" claims that a proposed mental health clinic in Alaska is actually a dumping ground for right-wing critics of the president's program, or giving the people who made those claims time to explain themselves on the air. The media didn't adjudicate the ever-present underbrush of American paranoia as a set of "conservative claims" to weigh, horse-race-style, against liberal claims. Back then, a more confident media unequivocally labeled the civic outrage represented by such discourse as "extremist" -- out of bounds.

While I share Perlstein's antipathy to the he-said/she-said style of reporting ("Is Gordon Brown an extraterrestrial? Tonight we bring you two views...") I have no nostalgia for the days when the center could write off civic outrage as "extremist" and keep it out of bounds entirely. That was the way the centrist consensus protected itself -- not just against that bizarre (and partly Scientology-fueled) theory about concentration camps in Alaska, but against legitimate criticisms of disastrous programs ranging from urban renewal to the Vietnam War. Such critics weren't just marginalized: They were demonized, in a process that itself resembles the paranoia that Perlstein is decrying.

That process is alive today, even if the media landscape has changed. When defenders of the Democratic health care plans can't make their case without constantly linking their opponents to birthers and fascists, something far more disturbing than heckling is at work.

Elsewhere in Reason: I interviewed Perlstein last year. Glenn Garvin reviewed his book about the Goldwater movement in 2002.

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  • 24AheadDotCom||

    Here's something "crazy" for Perlstein. Just recently, both CNN and the NYT strongly implied that Linda Lingle had verified that Obama was born in her state.

    Just one problem: that never happened. In fact, as you can see at the link, Lingle sends out boilerplate noting that it would be illegal for her to verify whether he was born there. While she's referenced him being born there, that was just on the campaign trail, she said it in passing, and she said it only in order to downgrade his links to her state. Pretending that that's a verification is extremely deceptive.

    No matter whether you're a BHO fan or not and no matter your position on the other aspects of this issue, it's extremely unhealthy to have the news media just make things up.

    And, Jesse Walker has no interest in busting the MSM for their outrageous deception concerning this matter. If he did, all he has to do is get on the phone right now and get the answers in the FAX I sent them (at the link above). He won't do that, and not just because he doesn't understand the value of discrediting the MSM.

  • ||

    Shut the Fuck Up Lonewhacko. No more Birther Threads!!

  • 24AheadDotCom||

    My totalitarian friend is wrong.My comment wasn't a "Birther" comment.

    It was a "the leaders of the supposed opposition to BHO are so incompetent that they don't realize that one could use this issue to discredit the MSM without having to engage in any 'birther theories'" comment.

    What people like Walker can't wrap their minds around is that you can disavow all "birther theories" at the same time as you pointed out that the MSM has continually lied about the basic facts of this matter. (How much more could I dumb down that sentence so people like Walker could understand it?)

    Once again: it's extremely dangerous to have the MSM just making things up. The fact that I have to say that indicates just how incompetent the leaders of the supposed opposition to BHO are.

  • ||

    Here's something "crazy" for Perlstein. Just recently, both CNN and the NYT strongly implied that Linda Lingle had verified that Lonewacko had escaped from a mental institution in her state.

    Just one problem: that never happened. In fact, as you can see at the link, Lingle sends out boilerplate noting that it would be illegal for her to verify whether he was in a mental institution there. While she's referenced him having paranoid delusions of being eaten by giant Mexican cockroaches, that was just on the campaign trail, she said it in passing, and she said it only in order to downgrade his links to her state. (Can you blame her?) Pretending that that's a verification is extremely deceptive.

    No matter whether you're a Lonewacko fan or not and no matter your position on the other aspects of this issue, it's extremely unhealthy to have the news media just make things up.

    And, Jesse Walker has no interest in busting the MSM for their outrageous deception concerning this matter. If he did, all he has to do is get on the phone right now and get the answers in the FAX I sent them (at the link above). He won't do that, and not just because he doesn't understand the value of discrediting the MSM.

  • ||

    Classic Tulpa.

  • ||

    I'll agree that the "crazy tree" has many roots among the Right, but doesn't the Left have quite a few nutjobs of their own? Start with the Assasination Conspiracy wackos, go on to the drugs/AIDS/pollution were introduced into minority communities in order to destroy and/or exploit the downtrodden bunches.... and keep counting.

    `Course, the whole Marxist-Leninist interpretation of history is a crazy tree of its own.

    Kevin

  • ||

    Spike Lee claimed that Bush blew up the levies in New Orleans to kill black people. I wonder if Perstein considers him part of the crazy tree?

  • hmm||

    You read more into that article than I did. It looked like a slightly more intellectual attempt at the same shrill MSM, "OMG RIGHT WING EXTREMISTS" bullshit. The last hyperbolic line is great. It almost lets out shilling partisan hack out of the bag.

    I gots me a crazy tree on my back. I am after all a treehugger of sorts.

  • Ozzy||

    I'm cuttin off the roots of the crazy tree!

  • ||

    LoneWacko's ancestors during must've been a hoot during the Chester A. Arthur administration.

    Point: Chester A. Arthur was born in Canada!
    Counterpoint: Shut yer damn yap LoneWacko!

  • ||

    I find the Democrats reaction to all this hilarious. Their entire defensive posture is based around how people will hysterically reject any proposed change to social security, medicare, or any other entitlement program regardless of whether the system needs to be changed or could be improved.

    Then they get all shocked and outraged when people hysterically reject any proposed change to health care. Duh, good sirs, duh.

  • ||

    John,
    Link? I believe Spike Lee said Bush screwed up and his administration's incompetence led to the tragedy. I don't think he said that the planted explosives and blew up the levees. The first is normal and most Americans agree with that point. The second is Orly Taitz crazy.

  • ||

    toxic,
    Unfortunately, Medicare as currently constructed will be with us for a long time. The Republicans have been building the case against ObamaCare on the foundation of "We'll never let them touch your Medicare!" It's bi-partisan asshattery.

  • hmm||

  • ||

    Remember in the nineties when the lefties were absolutely convinced that welfare reform would kill swaths of poor people? And how it was all part of the right wing's war on non-white folk?

    Huh. It's almost as if reforming things riles folks up.

  • hmm||

    Ozzy | August 17, 2009, 4:21pm | #
    I'm cuttin off the roots of the crazy tree!


    That would be root pruning the crazy tree. Are you planning to relocate it? Are you going to ball and burlap it? I'd suggest moving it when it is more dormant.

  • 24AheadDotCom||

    Here's my extensive coverage of Katrina: over 1000 posts and over 400 tags. The aftermath helped reveal that our entire establishment is completely corrupt.

  • T||

    I'd suggest moving it when it is more dormant.

    So, never is your suggestion? It ain't gonna get dormant again.

    In any event, it's all part of the classic meme from the left. Those you disfavor are either stupid, crazy, or evil. Anyone who is rational and considered the matter carefully would come to the same conclusions they have. So if you oppose them, you're either dumb, irrational, or mendacious. Same old, same old.

  • ||

    You wouldn't know what crazy was if Charles Manson was eatin' Fruit Loops on your front porch.

  • Xeones||

    The first rule of the crazy tree is: you don't talk about the crazy tree.

    The second rule of the crazy tree is: you do not talk about the crazy tree.

  • Mike Laursen||

    That's so awesome! A post about the "crazy tree" and LoneWacko is the first commenter! Admit it, Jesse, you are LoneWacko.

  • T||

    You wouldn't know what crazy was if Charles Manson was eatin' Fruit Loops on your front porch.

    You can't bring me down, sage.

  • ||

    So why you tryin' to bring me?

  • T||

    I speak more truth than you wanna hear.

  • hmm||

    So, never is your suggestion? It ain't gonna get dormant again.

    You twisted my arborcultural advice into hateful political rhetoric. I don't like you.

  • T||

    I don't like you.

    Careful, hmm. You might hurt my feeling.

  • hmm||

    You only have one?

  • T||

    According to my wife, yes.

  • Craig||

    We live in a world where the crank legal theories of the "sovereign citizen" movement...

    What, you thought that governments derive their powers from the consent of the governed, and that the people are sovereign, rather than a king or a ruling overclass of government officials? What kind of crank legal theory is that? You must be crazy! Or racist! Or both!

  • Craig||

    "Town hall hecklers"? Don't they just mean "people who disagree with Obama" or "citizens concerned about another government boondoggle with assuredly underestimated long-term costs"?

  • ecolibertarian||

    Arborculturally speaking, you don't cut the roots off the crazy tree, you girdle the sucker. Maybe paint the cambium with some full-strength glyphosate too.

  • hmm||

    I kind of like the crazy tree. No need to kill it. It's not like its Ailanthus or anything.

  • ||

    John McCain is known to have been born in Central America. So if Obama wasn't born in Hawaii, that means the highest vote-getter among candidates born in the US was Ralph Nader. How bout them apples, birthers?

  • Paul||

    Did anyone hear Warren Olney's segue today with the healthcare town hall debates?

    "Militia groups are on the rise and angry protest at healtchare town halls...all that and more on To The Point".

    NPR, always priceless.

  • ||

    The first rule of the crazy tree is: you don't talk about the crazy tree.

    The second rule of the crazy tree is: you do not talk about the crazy tree.



    And if this is your first night in the crazy tree, you have to go crazy.

  • Mike Laursen||

    "Town hall hecklers"? Don't they just mean "people who disagree with Obama" or "citizens concerned about another government boondoggle with assuredly underestimated long-term costs"?

    To be fair, some of there is some actual heckling going on. Of course, big boys and girls should be able to handle a little heckling without crying.

  • ||

    Tulpa-

    Granny Smith says she's tempted to ram her Corvair right up your rectum.

  • ||

    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.

    Yeah? and?

  • Jesse Walker||

    Craig: I'm talking about the guys who are obsessed with the fringes on the flag and similar obscure points of alleged law.

  • ||

    Libertymike,

    Sorry, I'm racist when it comes to apples. Granny Smiths belong with the pears.

    I'm sure a Confederate sympathizer such as yourself will understand.

  • ||

    Tulpa-

    Green beats both blue and grey.

  • ||

    Tulpa-

    What? You don't love Josey Wales?

  • ||

    "Dyin ain't much of a livin boy"

    "Buzzards gotta eat same as the worms"

    "Hows it work on stains?"

  • ||

    Fascinating how you can write "laws of the crazy tree" without doing any research to find out whether they're true or not. Just stuff you pulled out of your butt. Nice job.

    These are lawlike assertions to the same extent that creationism is a science.

    Deal with the actual claims of the liberals. Don't dismiss them by purely making stuff up.

    Too much to ask? Yeah, I know.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Deal with the actual claims of the liberals.

    What claim did I not deal with to your satisfaction? Be specific.

  • hmm||

  • hmm||

    What claim did I not deal with to your satisfaction? Be specific.

    Whoa you are the one who is supposed to be specific. Don't try and turn this around!

    * attempt two. The aliens, CIA web crawler, boogieman ate the last post.

  • anonymous||

    My totalitarian friend is wrong.My comment wasn't a "Birther" comment.

    It was a "the leaders of the supposed opposition to BHO are so incompetent that they don't realize that one could use this issue to discredit the MSM without having to engage in any 'birther theories'" comment.

    What people like Walker can't wrap their minds around is that you can disavow all "birther theories" at the same time as you pointed out that the MSM has continually lied about the basic facts of this matter."

    Birther!

    Oh, I guess it didn't work, sorry.

  • ||

    I hope to have time to respond to Jesse's thoughtful (as usual) piece...way behind on correspondence, though, this piece has received more response than anything I've written since I broke the story of the doomsday Christians meeting with top Bush officials about Israel policy.

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