Friday, April 29, 2011

Of birth certificates and conspiracy theories

I've hesitated to write about the Obama birth certificate story; but since I get fewer readers on Fridays I think it's safe--at least, I won't unwittingly offend too many people.

I tend to enjoy reading about conspiracy theories. It's fun to take each theoretical position seriously and look at the story, whatever it is, from first one angle and then another. It's also interesting to ponder how a fiction writer would deal with the issues around which conspiracies swirl; truth is stranger than fiction, but fiction is saner than conspiracy, a lot of the time. Similar past times of mine include actual dabbling in fiction writing, and solving the occasional puzzle game (but not those puzzles which tell you that four girls are picnicking in a park, that each is allergic to a different food, that each is wearing a dress in her favorite color but that no two girls have the same favorite color, that only one of the girls' names does not begin with a consonant--and then ask you: if the girl in the purple dress who is allergic to strawberries is named Jill, what is the name of the park in which they are picnicking? I hate those).

But I try very hard not to get swept up in conspiracy theories. The only down side of having spent most of my life on the more traditional side of Catholicism is that there is no shortage of conspiracy theories about religious matters, and diving into any of them tends to lead one out a rabbit hole and far from Rome. Whether the theory involves a false pope secretly replacing a true one, or a plot to keep there from being any true popes at all, or a secret scam involving Fatima, a fake Sister Lucia, and a handful of assorted and nutty apocalyptic "prophecies," these kinds of conspiracies abound. Perhaps the liberal Catholics have their own versions of these conspiracies--well, we know they do, because Dan Brown writes them as pulp novels which get swallowed as gospel truth by the liberal side.

The point is that while conspiracy theories can be anything from intriguing to annoying to frustrating to entertaining, they shouldn't ever be taken seriously. If, by some bizarre chance, they end up being true, they will stop being "conspiracy theories" or become either "news" or "history." While it can also be dangerous to think of either news or history books as sources of completely accurate and unbiased information, it is less dangerous to assume that items of news or history are wacky inventions than that conspiracy theories are, because nearly all of the time, that is exactly what they are.

With all of that said as a too-wordy preamble, there is just one thing that bothers me about this whole matter. Why, after years of insisting that the short-form Certification of Live Birth released during Obama's presidential campaign was totally and completely sufficient for identification verification purposes (even though ordinary citizens have to show the long form to do such things as get a passport) and that nobody needed to see the long form--why release it now, to satisfy the whim of the wealthy host of a reality TV show?

The president stated his reason simply: "We do not have time for this kind of silliness." At which point he promptly left town to appear on Oprah--an iconic moment in political history if ever there was one.

We can only speculate as to why the president didn't simply release the long form in place of the short form, or why he didn't at least release the long form long ago when its prolonged absence started fostering conspiracy theories. After all, presidents usually don't expect to remain private figures, and other recent presidents have released dull personal documents in droves, including not only birth records but school records, academic achievements (or the lack of such) medical records, and the like. So it does seem strange that President Obama would for so long stubbornly refuse to release such an innocuous and non-harmful document--especially when examples of his horrific student-days poetry have been out there for a long time.

I think the answer may not be much of a conspiracy theory at all. I suspect that in President Obama's mind, he has already done as much if not more than most politicians ever do to talk about their families and their pasts. After all, he wrote an autobiography--before even running for President! He bares all of his secrets there, so why does anyone need anything else--and how dare ordinary, common people, not chosen to be the One to bring peace and heal the planet be so incessant in their demands for more?

The birth certificate, like everything else we know about the president's past, tells virtually the same story he tells in Dreams from My Father. Virtually--because it is romanticized, of course. The real story that Obama speaks of so euphemistically is that his mother was a jet-setting socialist and his father a habitually-intoxicated wife-beating polygamist who was gone from the young Barack's life long before the young boy was two; it's possible, given this sort of thing, that Barack Sr. and Stanley Ann never lived together as husband and wife at all.

And none of that is even remotely President Obama's fault. But having gone to so much trouble to construct with care a romanticized and mythopoeic start fitting of our cherry-tree chopping, log cabin living, up from their own bootstraps figures who have occupied the White House in days gone by, Obama may possibly be annoyed at the stark reminders of the reality, as exemplified by such coldly mundane documents as birth certificates.

The alternative is that he is simply too removed from the common man to realize that the rest of us have to be willing to show all sorts of past documents relating to ourselves with very short notice, and that birth certificates, social security numbers, academic records etc. are so much a part of our lives that we can't relate to someone who spends two years, via his political team, telling us that it's simply not possible for him to release his long-form birth certificate. But that option makes me uneasy; I'd rather believe that President Obama wants to be remembered in concert with his roseate autobiography than that he just doesn't know or remember what it's like to be a member of the common throng.


Anonymous said...

I think it was largely strategic. It's like questioning his gender. Seriously ...? He could definitively answer the question by dropping his pants, but to do so would be bowing to the ridiculous. Better to keep that option in his back pocket and let the nuts build their theories so he could alwys drop his pants (so to speak) at an opportune moment, when to do so would underscore radical right wing focus on non-issues. I say: kudos!

Anonymous said...

I just think it's dumb that it hasn't been put to bed - on one hand, cough it up, Chief, the rest of us have to, and on the other, what's anyone going to do about it anyway, based on the non-evidence of nothing? The SCOTUS won't touch it, he was certified by Illinois when he became Senator - they're certainly not going to vacate that decision, and even if they had a mind to, it would have to work it's way through Illinois via a legitimacy complaint lodged there, as best I can figure.

As far as conspiracy theories, I think he was better off before releasing the most recent document...the tin foil hatters are out in full force, and ask Dan Rather, sometimes they're right.

John E. said...

Red, simpler explanation:

When your political opponents are making fools out of themselves by openly participating in conspiracy theories - and when that action has no political costs to you - don't interrupt them.

Consider - when the Birther claim was the province of late-night radio show hosts and immigrant dentist/lawyers, there was little cost for President Obama in letting the theories run wild.

The sort of people who would listen to the folks propagating the theories weren't going to vote for Obama anyway.

It also left the mainstream Republican politicians in the position of having to take a stand on whether or not they believed the holder of the office of the President of the United States was legitimate or a foreign-born usurper.

Forcing that stand is an advantage for the Democrats because it generates infighting between mainstream Republicans and the upstart Tea-Party types.

Now, enter Trump. A non-trivial number of Independent voters are likely to be attracted to a multi-millionaire candidate on the theory that someone who is rich must, therefore, also be a good choice for political office. See also: Ross Perot.

In a theoretical race between President Obama and Donald Trump, the percentage of folks who might be impressed by wealth and bluster might be enough to tip the balance.

And, of course, Trump was openly inviting the support of the Tea-Party crowd with his Birther claims.

By playing the "Oh, did you mean this long-form birth certificate?" card, Obama has neutralized the only issue on which Trump had gained media traction.

It also leaves Trump in the position of being unable to explain what were the "big surprises" that he had claimed his private investigators in Hawaii turned up.

Alice said...

You left out the most logical explanation: Mr. Obama, like many other citizens of the United States (including my husband and me) simply does not feel that his official birth certificate is for public consumption. My official birth certificate is for official eyes only and I've only needed it maybe 3 times in the last 27 years. If it's not required that I show it by law, I don't. If people do not believe the officials that have seen it, why would they think the official thing is anything but a forgery?

I suspect that Mr. Obama's release of his birth certificate is a campaign move. If you make it look like the Republicans are conspiracy nuts, you can win elections. Whether or not Obama was born in the US was the big issue in our mayoral election recently! (You'd think we'd have more important things to vote about.)

Anonymous said...

He's already had most of his four years, so little point on beating this horse. 2012 he is entirely beatable. But never underestimate the GOP's ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. If they offer up the usual sleepwalker candidate, run him on a platform of nothing more than, "He's not Obama!", get a third-party to split the ticket, and get his supporters to threaten, "If you don't vote for Our Guy, you are killing babies!" and guess what? Four more years of Captain Chaos.

Anonymous said...

My understanding is that the short form from Hawaii IS the legal form in that state, and the old one he just released is no longer considered legal for, among other things, getting a passport. States get to make the rules about official documents.

And yes, it has served him well politically to stretch this out, because it makes the birther movement and its so-called Tea Party (named for an act of early colonial illegal mob "act of terrorism") adherents, look like the fools they are.

Nice touch with the "jet setting socialist" comment. Why do you take such pleasure in sneering descriptions?

She was an academic who studied women's crafts and cottage industries in poor rural Indonesian villages. She started microcredit programs while working for such socialist agencies as the United States government, the Ford Foundation and that most socialist of all institutions, the Asian Development Bank. Her observations led her to conclude that access to capital was needed for the poor to lift themselves out of poverty through their work. How is helping people get the loans they need for business "socialist?" Please explain.


JohnE. said...

Another clue about the timing of the birth certificate release - so that Donald Trump and the whole BC controversy could be the subject of jokes at the White House Correspondents Dinner...

Red Cardigan said...

You're probably right, John E. Because jokes about being the first Nobel Peace Prize winner to bomb Libya were probably not what our CIC wanted to hear...

Anonymous said...

I went to my county website to see what documents require us to present a birth certificate. Other than a US passport, there are none. No one need show a birth certificate in Minnesota to get a marriage license, driver's license or State ID (equivalent for non-drivers)or to register to vote.

How often are you required to show your birth certificate to acquire a piece of identification or to exercise a right of citizenship - or to anyone passerby who expresses doubts about your right to be here - in Texas?

Another note. Look up "jet set." It was a 50s/early 60s reference to wealthy socialites who could afford the high plane prices at the time, to go to Paris for a weekend or to follow the ski season. It does not describe academics who study outside the USA, or consultants for USAID or the Ford Foundation who happen to travel by air.

Red, you seem to go to the edges to presume you understand other people's motivations, whether you know them or not. And if they live differently than you do, or make choices other than those you approve of, you exercise a sense of freedom to presume the worst and express it with an unbecoming, haughty sneer.

This is disappointing because you are a better writer than that, and I presume (from the happiness that comes through your daughters' occasional posts) a much better person. You showed so much talent when you stood in for Rod on his blogging breaks. You are at your most powerful when you let go of the low-hanging fruit that some of the readership here will give you a pass on. And you know from a personal exchange that you had a profound impact on me because of that.


Red Cardigan said...

Elizabeth, I really don't understand your anger over this. Stanley Ann Dunham attended a left-leaning high school on Mercer Island in Washington State, an area I am familiar with; some of her teachers, described as influential, were strongly in favor of socialism or communism. Her communist sympathies were well-known to her friends and family, who describe them indulgently and sympathetically in dozens of interviews.

Microfinance itself can be an enterprise of a capitalist or a socialist system; the founder of microfinance appears to believe that for-profit microlending is no different from exploitation of the poor via usury (which, to be fair, it probably is). But non-profit microlending also may charge usurious rates of interest, may rely too heavily on donors who corrupt the system, and ultimately depends on government funding to survive in many cases. The whole topic is too complex for a combox posting--but there's no truth to the notion that Stanley Ann Dunham's support of microlending proves she had no socialist views--it's just not that simple.

The "jet-set" thing was tongue-in-cheek. Let's face it, in the 60s and 70s (particularly the latter) it was probably as socially popular to fly to third-world countries and work for USAID or the Peace Corps or some other liberal organization as the ski-trip and vacation crowd had been a decade earlier.

Again, though, I don't understand your anger on this; I certainly wasn't intending to sneer at anybody, just describe them accurately from my perspective as a conservative instead of through the halo of liberal approval.

Red Cardigan said...

Oh, and the birth certificate: I've had to present a certified copy of my birth certificate to get my marriage license (in another state), as part of my I-9 employee eligibility documents (although there is a whole list to choose from, and one may be able to use different documents), and on at least one other occasion that I know of. In each instance I needed a certified copy of the long form Certificate of Live Birth; a short form Certification of Live Birth would not have been accepted.

Sure, in many circumstances you can substitute a valid US passport for the birth certificate--but you have to have the birth certificate to get the passport. And anyone who has children knows that the children's birth certificates can be demanded on all sorts of occasions--I once had to provide copies of our girls' birth certificates to a third-party agency that was administering some health-care related things for my husband's employer--and I wasn't thrilled about that at all, but the choice was to submit the paperwork or lose coverage.

So, again, I find it hard to relate to a president who kept his certificate private for no other reason than that he could. We, the people, don't get to make that choice for ourselves.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

You could have come across with a lot more dignity if you had simply noted that this conspiracy theory, like most conspiracy theories, has no substance to it. There is really nothing more worth saying.

I'm not sure what a "long form" birth certificate is, but I recently obtained from my mother the birth certificate used to get my passport at age 9, which I will use again if I need a passport in the near future. It fits on a 5 x 8 sheet of paper.

The health department of Hawaii had filled so many requests for the president's birth certificate (it is a matter of public record, after all, he doesn't have to authorize its release) that they had to go to court to get an order authorizing them not to bother with any more, because it was interfering with getting any other work done.

There is nothing to this big hyped soap bubble at all -- and on a better day, I have confidence you would have said so.

Geoff G. said...

The theory I've heard that makes the most sense is that while this was an Internet rumor, it was convenient to keep it floating around out there because it made Republicans look like lunatics (especially when elected officials were seen to kow-tow to the lunatic birther fringe).

But there was recently a push in Arizona to actually enshrine some of this birther stuff into state law as far as requirements for getting on the ballot go. And elections, even federal ones, are regulated by the states. The fear was that a partisan Secretary of State might even use these laws to make getting on the ballot much harder or more expensive (tying up a campaign in legal battles over the kind of trivia birthers have been bandying about) or even keep a candidate off the ballot altogether.

I think this is an attempt to head Arizona and states considering similar laws off at the pass.

Anonymous said...

I actually enjoyed and liked the whole birther brouhaha all the while.

Born in the Alaska Territory shortly before statehood, I was curious if I was one of the last dozen born in the Territory, and inquired of the Alaska State Bureau of Vital Statistics. Their reply was that information would not be available to the public for 50 years. Over the years I'd been asked innumerable times whether I am an American or ? Russian, were my parents Eskimos, whether I lived in igloo, and if I know Joe Blow that lived somewhere in Alaska 20 years ago. Hawaiians born shortly after me, I imagine, would have been asked the same type of questions, no doubt.

To me the question of 'birthers' speaks volumes to the quintessential inanity of ignoramuses dickering over trivialities, when the real question they want to ask is, 'I don't want to be led by a leader chosen by the majority, so under what guise can his authority be legally undermined?'


c matt said...

I don't want to be led by a leader chosen by the majority, so under what guise can his authority be legally undermined?

That's what the court system is for.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

c matt, court systems are for reasoned application of legal principles to facts of record. The birthers have no facts, and their silly antics are contradicted by the record.

The court system is not for anyone with a gripe to enunciate it over and over and over after it has been thoroughly disposed of. In fact, there was an appellate case of a woman whose "birther" allegations had been thrown out of a lower court. The ruling explicitly stated that she had every right to proclaim whatever she wished, but not to take up the valuable time of the courts as a platform.