Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

The price of paranoia

The lies about the Census, and the unhinged who believe the lies

In the kingdom of ignorance, this story reigns:

Anti-government conservatives - apparently clueless about the history of the country they want to "take back," and willfully believing the Pinocchio whoppers circulated via spam mail, talk radio, and YouTube - are currently engaged in a fascinating form of protest. Millions are refusing to fill out their 2010 Census forms.

The boycott statistics are incomplete at this point, but, to cite just one example, early returns from the most conservative Texas counties indicate that anti-Census paranoia is all the rage on the right. While roughly 52 percent of all Americans thus far have participated - answering all 10 questions - the rate of compliance in those conservative counties is 20 or 30 points lower than the national figure.

The trend is so alarming that one Republican congressman, Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, felt compelled yesterday to plead with his right-wing brethren to fill out the forms; as he wrote on, the popular conservative site, "If we do not respond, we will not be counted, and if we are not counted, then we effectively will not exist."

Most notably, he urged his readers not to believe "the blatant misinformation" that has been circulated by "otherwise well-meaning conservatives." Which was a polite way of saying, "Don't listen to the liars."

The liars have been marketing ignorance for nearly a year now, painting the Census (or, more specifically, the Obama-era Census) as a manifestation of Big Brother tyranny - and insisting (despite the rigors of factual reality) that most Census questions are "unconstitutional," and that a boycott is legally permissible.

It's hard to know when the bull began, but Minnesota congresswoman Michelle Bachmann gets much of the credit. Last June, she claimed (again, contrary to factual reality) that the Census information could be grist for the government to arrest Americans en masse and put them in prison camps; accordingly, she said she intended to answer only one question - how many people in the household? - because, in her fact-challenged view, "the Constitution doesn't require any information beyond that."

Various talk-radio hosts ran with that one. Glenn Beck said he was considering not filling out his own form. Rose Tennent, on Clear Channel's The War Room, said, "It just scares me to think that these (Census) thugs are getting this information from us." Neal Boortz, on his show, fumed, "It's nobody's business but to how many flush toilets I have in my house. Nobody's business. And the Census bureau? They just - hey, in my household? Two adults. That's it. You need any more information? Ask my neighbors."

Texas congressman Ron Paul chimed in, complaining about "the invasive nature of the current Census," as evidenced by the government's plans to ask people about their race. He lamented how the government "consistently encourages citizens to think of themselves in terms of groups."

Fast forward to March, 2010. The hottest item among fevered conservatives is a YouTube video - by mid-March, more than 1.6 million viewings - created by a California TV camera operator named Jerry Day. He contends that citizens don't have to respond to Census questions or even talk to Census workers ("you don't even have to open the door for them"). Day's certitudes are seconded by the spam e-mails which insist that, under the Constitution, "they can only ask how many people live in the house...nothing else."

Wow. Where to begin...

Perhaps GOP congressman McHenry, who sits on the House committee that oversees the Census, said it best yesterday, during his bid to knock some sense into the heads of his conservative friends: "Anyone who tells you that this year's census is unconstitutional, and that you are not required to fill out the form completely, is flat out wrong...That argument doesn't stand up to either history or the Constitution's text."

He got that right. The U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 2) requires that Congress oversee the Census "in such Manner as they shall by Law direct," which means that Congress is empowered to decide how the Census is conducted and what questions are asked. Failure to fill out the form, or complete the entire form, is a violation of Title 13, U.S. Code. These are the rules of the road, as repeatedly upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, dating back to 1870.

What's most laughable is the delusional claim that the Census can ask only for the number of household members. Apparently there are denizens of the right who think that asking anything else is a new scheme hatched by Obama's socialist cadre. Well, here's a quick cure for the paranoia:

Census-takers were asking questions about people's 1820.

Census-takers started asking people about their the first Census, in 1790.

In other words, as McHenry pointed out as well, "Every Census in U.S. history has asked for more information than a simple count," and the race question has been a fixture in every Census since the first.

And as for Boortz' umbrage about being asked to enumerate his "flush toilets," here's some news: the Census has been asking that question, off and on, as a poverty measure, since 1940.

And as for Bachmann's pinwheel-hat assertion that the Census might be used to enumerate Americans for the purpose of shipping them off to internment camps, Title 13 of the U.S. Code bars the use of such information "for any purpose in any action, suit, or other judicial or administrative proceeding."

Nevertheless, the litany of lies has apparently curbed or slowed the compliance among many credulous conservatives, and the thing is, they're only hurting themselves politically.

For instance, if Texas right-wingers persist in being refuseniks, they may well reduce their own power. The state has been tapped to be a big winner in the '10 Census, gaining four new congressional seats thanks to a burgeoning population; but if the Census count is down, the four seats may not materalize, and the predominantly conservative regions would have fewer House members than anticipated.

Apparently, only unhinged conservatives are freaked about filling out the Census; as a new CNN poll reports, 83 percent of Americans don't view the Census as an invasion of privacy. So if the right wants to cut its own clout, no doubt that gesture will be welcomed on the Democratic side.

As McHenry pleaded yesterday, "It would be a tragedy if some of our ill-informed friends handed Democrats a victory at the last minute." But perhaps that's the price to be paid for paranoia.