Culture Wars: The Birthers Are Back

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Well, they really never left, did they.  Much like anti-evolutionists of the mid-‘20s after the Scopes Trial [1], birthers simply retreated from the public eye after months of increasingly embarrassing reversals and on-camera representatives who often struck the general public, at least if online Comments sections are any indication, as “not born on this planet.” [2]  But anti-evolutionists have come out of their closet with a vengeance, as our increasingly science-free children attest.  Is it safe outside again for birthers, too?

It would seem so.  Just as Biblical literalists, who slunk away in humiliation and defeat after Scopes, now proudly and openly and defiantly flaunt that literalism even unto the Halls of Congress – even, they hope, into the White House – so birthers now again have a public champion in one of those White House hopefuls, Rick Perry.  But why would Perry now use Donald “The Donald” Trump – who had loudly proclaimed his personal triumph in forcing the President of the United States to finally disclose the truth by releasing that so-called “long form” birth certificate – to insinuate continuing doubt about Obama’s place of birth[3]?  Sure, Perry must be concerned, if not desperate, about his tumble in the polls and, sure, the Conventional Wisdom is that it will be pretty hard to survive the Republican primaries with other candidates ”to your right”, but a revival of birtherism?  Isn’t that – to use the currently too-popular tennis metaphor – another unforced error?

Unfortunately, no.  During the week of September 11 – 18 of this year, a poll [4] of registered voters taken by Winthrop University [5], located in Rock Hill, South Carolina, found that 36.0% of self-identified South Carolina Republicans and Independents Leaning Republican believed that President Obama was “Probably” or “Definitely” born in a country other than the United States.  This poll was taken 4½ months after Obama released the long-form birth certificate.  In an earlier Winthrop poll, taken in April of this year, shortly before the long form was released, the Probably-or-Definitely number was 41.2%.  Given the polls’ margin of error, +/- 4.01%, it appears that the now-exhaustively-demonstrated fact of Obama’s U.S. birth has had little effect on the birther beliefs of South Carolina Republicans.  Why would this be so?  Why does birtherism persist, in the face of evidence of Obama’s US birth beyond any reasonable doubt, and even in the yawning absence of any coherent foreign-birth story line?

It persists for the same reasons anti-evolutionism persists:  because these two subcultural effects – birtherism and creationism – are produced by the same human personality trait and fostered by the same changes in the wider culture.  They are mental constructs of faith, and like all articles of faith, they are timeless and factless.  Personalities that produce such faith-constructs live in that left-brain-biased world of absolutes, black and white, good and evil, simple truths, reward and punishment.  They see no shades of gray, no nuances, no qualifications, no conditional truths.  Bush the Younger, another citizen of that world, revealed that citizenship with his “for us or against us” speech.  Perry, a few days ago, tapped into that world with his “bold colors, no pastels” trope.  He knows that if you’re going to be the not-Romney choice, you’ve got to pick up the anti-Romney Republicans wherever they are.  And a lot of them are in Birther World.

As I’m writing this, Perry is already softening his birther stance.  But that’s an expected part of the “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” behavior of hungry politicians.  He has sent the requisite message to birthers.  They know he has to disavow his knowledge of the truth in order to get the votes of others who have been fooled by Obama’s elaborate pre-birth conspiracy to usurp the presidency and hand over the United States to the Muslims or the Martians or whoever.  Whatever Perry must later say, they now know he is one of them.

As the before-and-after Winthrop polls suggest, there is a substantial minority of voters whose beliefs are impervious to evidence; who do not test their existing beliefs against incoming data; who, in short, believe by faith.

But what is it about the wider culture that fosters such faith, that legitimizes such an absolutist way of seeing reality?  Put another way, why do so many people appear to think that Perry or Bachmann or Cain or Palin could actually function effectively as president of this nation?

“Appear” is the operative word.  As an earlier post, “The Religious Test for Public Office in 21st Century America,” argued, birthers and their ilk do not make their choice for President by assessing the demands of the office and then carefully reviewing the qualifications and performance of the available candidates to see who could best meet those demands.  No, they gravitate instead to the candidate[s] whose salient beliefs seem to best echo theirs.  And the belief felt most strongly by birthers is Obama Is Not One Of Us.  Just as “intelligent design” was a new anti-evolution bottle for the old wine of creationism, so Not Born In This Country – and thus not a US citizen and thus disqualified from the office of President – is a more politically correct alienizing label than the N-word, the new constitutional-rectitude bottle holding the old wine of racism.

That Winthrop poll holds other evidence of alienization as the (probably not conscious) motive force of birtherism.  Republicans and Leaners were asked if they “know” Obama’s religion.  Only 15.3% apparently didn’t.  33.8% know that he’s a Christian, while 29.5% know that he’s a Muslim.  But if you add to the Muslim knowers, those who know that he’s an adherent of another alien belief system – that he’s a Buddhist, Hindu, Atheist or Agnostic – you get a total of 33.5%, interestingly within the margin of error of the 36% who believe he’s not a U.S. citizen.  Without making too much of this similarity, it is true that assigning Obama to a “non-American” religion/belief system, contrary to his stated self-identification, is at least another way alienizing him.

So what is it about our culture that fosters such factually wrong beliefs as birtherism?  It is our continuing national journey toward the land of pure subjectivity, toward enshrinement of the stance that beliefs cannot be factually wrong, only morally wrong.  It is the cultural position that strongly held individual beliefs are more important than facts known by the world.  It is the strong and continuing educational deference to feelings and the consequent bias against critical thinking, against analysis.

As a nation, we now see the education of our children primarily as a way to protect local, family, beliefs instead of the opposite: the inculcation of general, national, or even species-wide truths.  This bias was vividly displayed in the last GOP debate.  One of the candidates wanted to “abolish the NEA” (National Education Association); another opined that “parents know best how their children should be educated.”  None suggested that a national curriculum could help bring us together, get us all on the same page, give us common ground upon which to argue out our differences.  They all seemed to agree that education is about comfort, for the parents and for the students.

Do you recall your reaction when you first saw a story about high school students being excused from that rite de passage into maturity, frog dissection?  Mine was disbelief.  In my little high school in a little town in little South Dakota, the first day of frog dissection was a big event, maybe not quite as momentous as the Junior Prom, but certainly planned for and studied for in much greater detail.  My recollection is that before the frog, we dissected an earthworm and afterwards, as a group, a fetal pig.  (Imagine that:  a “pre-born baby” pig, and we cut it up.  In South Dakota.)  Of course, some of the girls had to at least pretend to be squeamish – this was 1959 or 1960, after all – but that such squeamishness, in whatever terms you chose to couch it, could be used to excuse you from this activity?  Inconceivable.  At the very least, and aside from the educational value of the activity, frog dissection was a group experience, something to be shared with your peeps; and no one I knew ever wanted to be left out of the group.

As I recall, the reported reasons for dissection refusal were either New-Age fuzzy – all life is sacred – or PETA-driven, but they were functionally anti-analytic:  I do not want to know the guts of life; I do not want to see or feel the inner workings of that soft machine; I do not want that hands-on, up close and personal refutation of my belief that life is magic.  The argument in support of the refusers, that they can learn the same thing through books and/or computer models, is fatuous, like suggesting that you can experience sex by reading about it.  The actual frog innards and pictures or models of frog innards are powerfully different.  And the argument that I don’t need to do this because I’m going to be an accountant is backwards.  Anything that can give an accountant more in common with everyone else, including the morgue dissectionist, is good for the culture generally.

A small thing, high school frog dissection, but an emblem of the big problem.  If each family can decide how to limit what its children learn about the world, for the protection of the parents’ beliefs, our culture can only become more fragmented, and more hospitable to the propagation of falsehoods.  If we continue to nod and smile when knowledge of the world and analysis and critical thinking are derided and dismissed, self-indulgent, feel-good non sequiturs will continue to flourish, to the detriment of us all.  Birtherism is merely a current example of this cultural permissiveness.  The birthers of the current generation, in one form or another, will not go away.

The birthers of the next generation will fade or flourish with that generation’s educational focus.  Or lack thereof.

ARC – 10/28/11


[1] The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes; see also the appellate opinion Scopes v. State, 154 Tenn. 105 (1927).

[2] Remember Orly Taitz?

[5] Known as Winthrop College back in 1969 when I visited.

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