Sunday, July 26, 2009

What Is It Like To Be A Birther?

I got an email today. It began:
THIS MAIL WAS SENT TO ALL THE FOX NEWS REPORTERS. I GOT YOUR E-MAIL ADDRESS ON YOUR SITE FOR WORTHLESS SAXBY CHAMBLISS. THIS IS A SIGNIFICANT E-MAIL.
I'm glad he told me it was a significant e-mail -- I might not have gathered from the capitalization and bold text.

What followed was a bunch of stuff on how Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh, and a bunch of other right-wing celebrities have questioned whether Obama was born in America, so more people on Fox should do so as well. Plus a bunch of links to Birther websites, including one about "an Army Major who filed suit regarding his deployment to Afghanistan on the grounds that Obama was not America’s legitimate Commander-In Chief."

During the last election, I thought that Birthers were just driven by desperation -- they saw that they were on track to lose the election by conventional means, so they decided that disqualifying Obama on grounds of not being born in America was their only hope. In retrospect I see that there was much more going on than that. Beliefs formed merely out of desperate electoral tactics fade, or lose some of their salience, when you've lost the election. You find something new to be crazy about. But this Birther stuff has only gotten stronger.

I was thinking about that as I read Paul Rosenberg's thing on the lady in Delaware who tried to press Rep. Mike Castle on the birth certificate stuff. From Paul's transcription of her:
Thank you. Congressman Castle. I want to know-I have a birth certificate here from the United States of America saying I am an American citizen with a seal on it, signed by doctors, with the hospital administrator's name, my parents, my date of birth, and the time, the date. I want to go back to January 20th, and I want to know, why are you people ignoring his birth certificate?

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

He is not an American citizen. He is a citizen of Kenya. I am American. My father worked - fought in World War II with the greatest generation in the Pacific Theater for this country, and I don't want this flag to change. I want my country back.

It's a strange performance. The fact that she has her own birth certificate really doesn't add anything whatsoever to her case, but it's really important to her and it moved her to bring the thing along with her so she'd have it as a prop. And then there's the bit about her father. I didn't think that Paul's post needed all the technical apparatus that he brought to bear, but I thought this part was exactly right:
What rational difference does it make whether or not she has her birth certificate? Clearly, none at all... This is ritually establishing her claim to be an American-and by implication denying that President Obama is an American.
One of the happy things about America over the last several decades is that the good guys basically won the public debate about whether it was okay to be racist. Of course, this doesn't mean that people aren't racist. But it means that you can't go around and say "I think that Obama shouldn't be permitted to be President, because that would mean a black person would be ruling white people, and that's wrong!" Even if that's what you feel like saying, you can't be taken seriously if you say that, and you know it. Similarly, you can't say "His father was an immigrant! So there's no way he should be allowed to rule over native-born Americans like me!"

You can't say these things, but there's no law that can stop you from feeling them. And when people feel things and aren't allowed to say them, they still do things driven by their feelings. Like obsessing over the cross-hatching on Obama's birth certificate to prove it's a forgery. Or spamming people about how "THIS USURPER IS HIDING SOMETHING." Or waving around their birth certificate and talking about their family history to express their horror and outrage that the son of a black man from Africa sits in the White House.
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