I hadn’t been paying much attention to the Birthers. Of course, I knew of the movement and its assertions, but I saw little coverage. It seemed that Camille Paglia was correct when she wrote last fall: "Thanks to their own blathering, fanatical overkill, of course, the right-wing challenges to the birth certificate never gained traction."
But in fact they have. In recent weeks, I’ve seen increased mainstream coverage of the Birthers. Some of it may be for entertainment value — Orly Taitz’s ranting on MSNBC, for example — and some of it may be pundits hedging their bets, in spite of refutations by non-partisan sites such as PolitiFact.com and FactCheck.org.
The Birthers’ web site, in spite of the dozens of outbound links to articles, documents, photos and videos that are cited as proof of the movement’s claims, doesn’t inspire confidence. It’s starkly partisan, often melodramatic in its dire predictions, and the copy desperately needs a good editor.
Orly Taitz, self-appointed spokesperson for the Birthers, is similarly difficult to take seriously. Her appearance on MSNBC was a disaster, and she seemed genuinely unaware that Stephen Colbert was mocking her on his show. I attempted to check out her blog and was greeted by a Google Safe Browsing diagnostic page that advised "malicious software" was "downloaded and installed without user consent." Taitz could also benefit from a good copy editor.
If the movement wanted to be taken seriously, hysterical fear-mongering was not the way to go.
The tone of the Birthers’ web site and its spokesperson aside, how can any reasonable person believe that Obama is an illegitimate president? A Scientific American podcast cited Harvard-based research that indicates "part of what’s behind this seemingly irrational belief may lie in what’s called implicit social cognition — the deep-rooted assumptions we all carry around, and may act on without realizing it." That is, "white Americans inherently regard white Europeans as somehow more "American" than Asian- or African-Americans, which may help explain why so many people find it easy to believe that Obama is not really a citizen."
If there were any truth to the Birthers’ claims, wouldn’t they have garnered more attention from both sides of the aisle during the primaries? A March 2009 Politico piece notes that "belief in obscure, discredited theories is a constant in a country with a history of partisan division — a country in which, a recent survey showed, 34 percent of the public believes in UFOs and 24 percent believes in witches." Not surprising then that the Truthers emerged after 9/11 to paint that tragedy as government-sponsored, given the unprecedented struggle to determine exactly who was the legitimate president after the 2000 elections.
David Paul Kuhn, a columnist at RealClearPolitics, examined the breakdown along geographic and partisan lines between Truthers and Birthers:
"Consider that southerners are most likely to believe Obama was born abroad. Northeasterners are least likely. The former is the most conservative region, the latter is the most liberal. And it’s no coincidence that nearly all Democrats believe Obama was born in the United States and nearly all Republicans believe George W. Bush had no prior knowledge of the 9/11 attacks."
Personally, I don’t believe either theory. I also don’t believe that opponents of either Truthers or Birthers could produce enough satisfactory proof to change their minds. As Kuhn notes: "Most conspiracy theorists’ fidelity is to theory, not truth. They tend to uphold a belief despite the facts. The possible, however improbable, trumps the logical. And it’s futile to attempt to disprove their belief."
Given that Holocaust deniers still persist more than sixty years after the fact, it’s unfortunately possible that both Truthers’ and Birthers’ theories may survive as well.