Suddenly the birthers are back in the spotlight. A surprising remark from Donald Trump has reinvigorated the claim that Barack Obama was not born in the US.
Birthers demand to see a birth certificate. Would it help? I don’t think so.
I have a professional interest in this bit of racist politics. My life as a historian revolves around looking for documents, checking their authenticity, deciphering their many meanings, and explaining to others how I interpret them. So I have given the public words of birthers unusual attention.
Many birthers are just like Trump. He had never indicated any doubt about President Obama’s birth in Hawaii until last month, as he leaped into the Republican race to be President. These opportunist birthers don’t believe in anything, except that they can promote conservative causes and their own public profile by doubting the facts. The most prominent political figure to ride the birther train thus far has been Orly Taitz, a wacky sue-everyone lawyer who got on the ballot for California Secretary of State and received one quarter of the votes in the Republican primary.
Another segment of the birther lobby, the true believers, is unlikely to be satisfied with a birth certificate. Obama has already produced his Certification of Live Birth, which had no effect on the birther movement. Mere pieces of paper mean nothing to those who have gleefully incorporated the “fact” that Obama was born in Africa into their world-view and daily life. There is no body of evidence, no official pronouncement or newspaper story that could dislodge their certainty. As with Holocaust deniers and creationists, about very different subjects but with the same mindset, evidence makes no difference. The goals that are achieved by promoting these ideas, in this case the illegitimacy of Democratic politics and of the first black President, are too important to be sacrificed to evidence or logic. As in Holocaust denial, racism plays a large role, but not the only role, in the minds of the true birther believers.
Is there a significant third group among those who publicly question Obama’s birth, the skeptics, who will be convinced when the state of Hawaii produces a document? I might think so, if any birther would talk about another document in this case, the report of Obama’s birth in the two Honolulu newspapers in August 1961. How did it get there? Really doubting Obama’s birth, rather than jumping on a circus wagon to share in the attention, means explaining how and why that document was created.
No birther has done that. The true believers have their theory, involving wide and broad conspiracies across the decades. But they don’t talk about it much, because they know the rest of us would think they are even crazier. The worldwide conspiracy that could insert a false birth notice in the “Honolulu Advertiser” years ago and then make that African boy the President of the United States would have no trouble creating an authentic looking birth certificate.
So I don’t believe that new evidence will make a difference to many birthers. Those opportunists who simply use any handy weapon to gain something for themselves, without regard for truth or consequences, will find another and another, seamlessly moving on without ever addressing their hypocrisy. Many, like Trump, have been enormously successful in attracting constant public attention that way. Trump said, “People love this issue, especially in the Republican Party”. And he’s right: in February, a Public Policy Polling survey found that more than half of likely GOP primary voters believe that Obama was not born in the US. More recently, in another PPP poll, one quarter of Republicans said they would only vote for a birther candidate.
In an age where people devote their lives to proving that the moon landing was faked, and that the Bush administration attacked the Twin Towers pretending to be Arabs, the birthers might even seem rational.
So I don’t think producing a birth certificate will make any difference to birthers. But I hope Obama allows Hawaiian officials to release his birth certificate. I’d like to see it. I love to see how important documents affect people’s understanding of the past. That’s why I’m a historian.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 19, 2011