Julian Sanchez has a piece well worth reading about the birthers and what he calls "symbolic beliefs." Money quote:
"The classic case of a “symbolic belief” is what Orwell dubbed “doublethink”: propositions you profess publicly, maybe even sincerely believe you believe, even while, on another level, there’s some part of you that knows better, so that the false belief doesn’t actually get you into practical trouble. Pseudobeliefs may serve any number of functions; I’m using the phrase “symbolic belief” for the ones that either work as a public expression of some associated attitude, or play some role in defining the holder’s self-conception. In a post from last week, a commenter pointed out that there really are vegetarians and vegans, especially in certain punk scenes, who purport to believe that animals are not only morally equal to, but perhaps even morally superior to human beings. As he also pointed out, though, none of them really act as though they believe anything of the sort. Now, you might say that we already have a word for this: Hypocrisy. But I think it’s worth preserving a separate term here, because we usually use that term for people who specifically promote standards of behavior that they either consciously don’t really hold or do hold but are just incapable of adhering to (from weakness of will or whatever), and conceal this inability out of shame or fear. Symbolic beliefs, as I’m conceiving of them, are “sincere”—in that the person holding them probably isn’t consciously or reflexively aware that they’re false, but also shallow, insofar as a subconscious lack of commitment to the truth of the belief renders it behaviorally inert. For those who aren’t hardcore birthers, I’d hazard that the real meaning of professing either uncertainty or positive disbelief in the claim that he was born in the U.S. is something like: “I consider Obama phony, dishonest, and un-American.” It’s not, I hasten to say, that they really believe, deep-down, that Obama was born in Hawaii. It’s more that—as with H.G. Frankfurt’s definition of “bullshit”—the literal truth or falsity of the proposition is a matter of indifference; it’s not really the point."
While this is all very interesting and brings out some thought provoking points, I think there is much more to this that needs to be fleshed out. Particularly its racial component which he doesn't being up. The chart he discusses is showing in that it finds that the birther debate is much more intense in Southern states and I don't think I need to argue too much that the South has deep unresolved issues with racial equality. As Josh Marshall insightfully commented, "...the best way to understand the 'birther' craze is as a proxy for people who don't want to accept a black man with a Arabic-derived first name as President of the United States. Really as simple as that." That is the real heart of what Sanchez calls the birthers belief that Obama is "phony, dishonest, and un-American." If that is the case then is it a "symbolic belief" whose "lack of belief renders is behavorially inert?" The 9/11 truthers I believe may be more of a case of Sanchez's "symbolic belief" simply because their premise doesn't have the underline historic strength of racism. Although I grant the foundation of the truthers might be a general fear of government, but that seems, in our country, more fuzzy and vague--less actionable on an individual or small group level--than racism. If a person has a hatred of government they can do less to hurt government than a person who hates a particular race can hurt a person of a particular race. I think a true "symbolic belief" makes it more unlikely that they would act on it, in proportion to how preventively taxing the action could be.