The idea, completely false from the very start, that President Obama was
not actually born in the United States – and therefore, is ineligible to
be president – has been out there on the fringes since early in last
year's campaign, but finally began to break through in the mainstream
media last week.
Why? Part of it was the continuing stream of lawsuits, almost always
immediately dismissed or otherwise ignored, by lawyers seeking to
challenge the constitutionality of Obama's election. (I thought the
right hated "frivolous lawsuits"?) Part of it is the rampantly dishonest
flogging of the issue by top radio and television hosts who, while not
embracing birtherism wholeheartedly, have at least kept the controversy
alive by asking Obama release further documentation. (I never thought
I'd say this, but I really thought Lou Dobbs knew better.)
But the biggest event that catapulted this "story" into the news was a
town hall, quickly spread over YouTube, in which a woman berated Rep.
Mike Castle (R-Del.) for ignoring the Obama birth certificate issue,
flatly declaring, "He is not an American!" Castle, to his credit, told
the audience that Obama is a citizen – and was, of course, booed for his
The birther phenomenon is not exactly unique in the history of America,
a nation that loves its conspiracy theories (I once even took a college
course on the subject, taught by Jacob Cohen at Brandeis University.)
But unlike some of the more outlandish theories about the JFK
assassination, Bill Clinton murdering people, 9/11 as an inside job,
etc., the birther idea has particularly caught fire, seemingly garnering
more attention the more it's debunked.
Spread by a veritable all-star team of far-right nuts, the birther
narrative is bad as politics, worse as history and perhaps the worst of
all when it comes to honesty. At its heart an attempt to call Obama, a
man with a uniquely American story, un-American, the entire thing has an
ugly, racist tinge that is frankly disgusting. But even worse, it's
utterly untruthful, a fact that should be stated at the outset every
time this story is discussed in a news context.
To buy into the birther theory requires both massive amounts of bad
faith and a complete and total willingness to disregard all physical and
historical evidence. And hate. Lots and lots of hate.
Put simply, it's all been debunked, again and again and again. A birth
certificate for the president exists, and Hawaii officials have
authenticated it, many many times. Obama's birth announcement, from
1961, was published in multiple newspapers. Obama at this point could
probably produce an actual videotape of his own birth, and the birthers
still wouldn't believe it.
Journalist David Weigel of the Washington Independent, who has
been all over this story since early in the campaign, said on MSNBC's
Rachel Maddow Show last week that "I don't know what they want
anymore, because every time Hawaii verifies something, or a reporter
verifies something, or a witness verifies something – that witness, that
state, that reporter is lying, and their evidence must be thrown aside."
The idea, I guess, is that Obama had a secret plan to run for president,
from a very young age, so decided to lie, and make everyone who knows
him lie, over a period of several decades. This conspiracy that would
require hundreds of people to lie, when they have no reason or motive
for doing so, and for none of those hundreds of people to ever turn on
him and reveal the truth.
(My other favorite theory is that the birth certificate was forged to
hide the fact that Obama's middle name is not Hussein but rather
"Muhammad." You'd think if he'd falsified it to de-Muslimify his name
he'd have picked "George" or "John" or something.)
The birthers claim to have "questions"; I have a few of my own. One, why
does the burden fall on Barack Obama to prove his birth certificate has
not been forged, when that standard doesn't appear to apply to any other
politician, or indeed any public figure at all, anywhere else in the
world? And two, if the birthers have "questions" about where Obama was
really born, tenuous as they may be, how do they then leap to the
conclusion that he must have been born in Kenya? Where's the evidence of
No, the vast majority of conservatives and Republicans are not birthers.
But I do see the birther phenomenon as part of a larger effort from the
right to pretend Obama is something he's not – that is, to battle with a
fantasy version of Obama that has little in common with the actual
president. Every time he's called a communist, a terrorist sympathizer,
an America-hater, or a Muslim, this is what's happening. The birthers
are only taking this to its logical extreme.
Like evolution, or the existence of the Holocaust, whether or not the
president of the United States is really an American citizen isn't
something that's a matter of opinion or debate. Obama's American
citizenship is a demonstrable fact that's been shown to be true again
and again and again. The people who deny it are nutters, liars, racists
and worse. Everyone associated with this should be absolutely ashamed of