St. Louis Oracle

St. Louis-based political forecasting plus commentary on politics and events from a grassroots veteran with a mature, progressive anti-establishment perspective.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Let's not be more irrational than 'birthers'

President Obama's place of birth is much more than the controversy that will not die. It is a matter that is driving both the political right and the political left to make fools of themselves. It's time to chill already.

Even before Obama's election, some conservatives and Republicans (though notably not defeated Republican Presidential nominee John McCain) became obsessed with the idea that their conqueror was ineligible to be president because he didn't meet the constitutional requirement that he be born in the United States. This in spite of the fact that McCain's own candidacy was a bit of a stretch, his having been born in the Canal Zone, at the time a territory of the United States but never a state. It is admitted by all that Obama was born to parents who were attending college in Hawaii, then already a state. But the “birthers,” as they came to be known, contend that Obama's Kansas-born mother foresook the health and safety of American medical facilities and traveled halfway around the world to Kenya, the homeland of Obama's namesake father, to deliver her child in third-world conditions. The absurdity of the necessary assumptions that attend this scenario help to make birthers seem unreasonable to everyone else.

For his part, the President has taken steps to feed the controversy. Promptly releasing (or authorizing Hawaiian officials to release) his actual birth certificate would have ended the controversy. Instead, Obama belatedly released a modern-day abstract or summary of the birth certificate, which birthers contend to be fabricated. Birthers ask why not release the document issued contemporaneously with his birth, complete with signatures of the certifying government officials. They charge that he can't release what doesn't exist. They liken his refusal to a politician caught in a sex scandal defiantly refusing to dignify the charges with a comment.

A conservative friend of mine recently emailed me a pdf file of what purports to be a photo of Obama's Certified Copy of Registration of Birth from a hospital in Mombasa, Kenya. Such a document is easily fabricated with technology widely available to anyone with a computer. But because of the passage of time, the production of the actual Hawaiian birth certificate now would be subject to the same suspicions.

So, why did the President let this controversy fester? He may be trying to protect his deceased parents from the release of embarrassing private personal information that his birth certificate may contain. Whether or not that is true, I believe that Obama has learned that his refusal is leading his opponents to make fools of themselves, and to deflect their efforts away from other issues that might have greater negative impact on his reelection. He is playing this controversy masterfully!

But other progressives are not so masterful, and are embarrassing themselves as much as the birthers. Progressives following Saul Alinski's playbook by ridiculing the birthers are now going a bridge too far. A Facebook page called Ostracizing Birthers was launched this past week, with the stated mission “to purge Birthers from our social networks, online and in person, refusing to interact with known Birthers, with the goal of making Birtherism as socially unacceptable as possible.”

Excuse me, but this is really stupid strategy. The popularity of Democrats in general and the President in particular has improved markedly in the aftermath of the tragic Arizona shooting and subsequent appeals to civility. While my previous post disagreed with a civility movement that sought to repress legitimate public debate, this whole ostracization business is entirely different. The information page for this political organization urges people specifically to “avoid engaging Birthers in arguments about Birtherism or other topics” (my emphasis added) because “anyone who still believes that Obama is not a US citizen is a fundamentally unreasonable person, and a waste of our time and energy.” In promoting the refusal to interact at all with persons holding these particular views, on this or any other topic, it is itself a strategy that represses the free and rational exchange of ideas and political thought.

Moreover, ostracization is a form of bullying, which has recently become the subject of extensive legitimate criticism. That's not the way a political movement wants to be perceived.

Ostracization is also potentially very disruptive to everyday business and even family relationships, not the least because of how relatively prevalent birther views are. The organization's Facebook page linked to a Public Policy Polling poll that disclosed that birthers comprise a majority of all Republican primary voters. In view of the huge generational divide opened by Obama's 2008 campaign, this strategy will necessarily pit Generation X and Millennial children against their Boomer and older parents in many cases. Disagreeing over the dinner table (or, more realistically, at the keyboard) is healthy; ostracizing family members is not.

Progressives need to be smart, stop trying to suppress opponents who are defeating themselves, and avoid being even more unreasonable than those they oppose.