On the many frustrations and stakes of the Birther “debate.”
In the analysis of Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father, his parents’ cross-cultural transformations, and his own status as the deeply representative and symbolic 21st-century American descendent of those transformations with which I conclude my second book, I wrote of the Birther movement (whose perspectives on Obama’s un-Americanness I try to contrast very explicitly with that sense of mine that his family history and identity makes him profoundly American as I hope to define the term) that it constitutes a “small but very vocal minority” of Americans. Yet in the last couple years I’ve been forced to reconsider that phrase very fully, as a significant and growing body of evidence—from Donald Trump’s meteoric rise in presidential polls based solely, it seemed, on his newfound Birtherism; to the Drudge-report hyped release of Jerome Corsi (he of the Swift Boat nonsense)’s new book entitled Where’s the Birth Certificate?; to the polls in which between 55 and 60% of registered Republicans consistently express doubt about Obama’s birthplace—makes it hard to see Birtherism as anything other than a widely shared and deeply entrenched national narrative.
Part of the problem here, to be sure, has been the mainstream media’s tolerance of Birther views as if they represent simply another political point of view, and one that deserves an equal hearing among all others. Reporter Amy Nelson, in an ESPN.com article on the Baltimore Orioles outfielder Luke Scott, who made headlines in the 2011-12 off-season with a rambling news conference in which he very fully endorsed Birtherism, writes of the response to Scott’s comments that “some bloggers” argued back that “the evidence Obama was born in Hawaii is overwhelming.” Unless Ms. Nelson is counting Hawaii’s Republican governor and the US Department of State (which treats the short-form birth certificate, the only one Hawaii normally releases or even allows to be photocopied, as entirely legal and grants passports based on it) and the two newspapers that published birth announcements in 1961 and etc. as “some bloggers,” she’s blatantly misrepresenting what that evidence entails and who has argued for its overwhelming and entirely incontrovertible nature. One of the potential downsides to a nuanced scholarly perspective is the fact that an emphasis on multiple narratives and perspectives can be bastardized in precisely this way; some American facts and events, past and present, are indeed outside of the realm of multiple interpretations, making the presence of competing ones a nonsensical and very revealing farce. [I first wrote this paragraph before Obama convinced Hawaii to release the long-form birth certificate, but sadly most if not all of it still rings just as true.]
Yet as frustrating as this continued Birtherism is, I would argue that the real conversation here needs to happen at a deeper level. I also discuss in that concluding chapter an October 2008 Time cover story about Obama entitled “Is Barack Obama American Enough?”; while I refuse to grant that Birtherism itself stems from anything other than the rankest ignorance and bigotry, I can certainly recognize that aspects of Obama’s actual biography (the Kenyan immigrant father whom he knew for only a couple of years, the years in Indonesia with him Mom and step-father, the Kenyan Muslim grandfather whose first-name became Obama’s middle name, and so on) seem to challenge many of our most implicit but most widely held narratives about what “American” is and is not, includes and excludes. While I tried in the book, and will continue to try throughout my career, to argue for the opposite—and not only by defining someone like Obama as profoundly American, but by arguing that even the most “heartland non-passport white Americans” (as Andrew Sullivan once called them in a post on Birtherism) share this heritage of cross-cultural transformation—I know that changing such narratives and definitions is far from simple, particularly for older generations whose versions of those narratives have been held and set for many decades (and who, I believe or perhaps I hope, constitute the core of Birthers).
Yet such change must come—not because of what it would mean for our contemporary politics or elections if it doesn’t, but because I do not believe that 21st-century America can truly survive, much less prosper, if we fall back on traditional and very exclusive definitions of who and what we are. It’s long past time to recognize that of all nations, America has always been the one most constituted out of the whole world, out of the combinations and transformations of peoples and cultures and nations and communities from Kenya to Kansas, Indonesia to Illinois. That’s not just Obama’s story, it’s all of ours—and the most disheartening effect of Birtherism will be if it allows so many Americans to turn their backs on this newest and most profound piece of evidence for that shared national heritage and identity. Next post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
11/7 Memory Day nominee: Herman Mankiewicz, in whose two best screenplays, for Citizen Kane and The Wizard of Oz, we have much of the darkest and the best in American identity.
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