The "birthers" as classic conspiracy theorists.

I’ve been hearing a lot about the “birthers” lately, and it’s kind of driving me nuts for a variety of reasons. If you’ve been living under a rock (yay, rocks!), “birthers” are people who believe that President Obama is not actually a natural-born citizen of the United States. They think he was born in Kenya, and that his taking office as president is part of a conspiracy to allow a foreign national to be in that office.

Here’s a classic example of the birther theories laid out. Expect to be critted by a wall of text, but at least it’s black text on a white background?

In all honesty, I’m not interested in debunking the birther claims. Snopes has a short and sweet page about it that covers all of the important points.

The Birthers seem to be the Truthers for the new presidency. We still get Truthers in downtown Denver on occasion, normally two or three people, holding their signs and looking a little pathetic because they’re so totally ignored by everyone around them. While the Truthers live on, their conspiracy theory has lost a lot of its power and interest because of the simple fact that Bush is no longer president. I have a feeling that the Birthers are going to be with us and just as loud and annoying – up until the end of the Obama presidency.

What puts the Birthers in line with the 9/11 Truthers (other than similar short names for the theorists) and the people who think we didn’t land on the moon? The UK Skeptics have a very good, quick summary of the characteristics of paranoid conspiracies:
– Assumption that they are right
– Their theories cannot be refuted (also known as: evidence against the conspiracy is actually evidence for the conspiracy)
– Acceptance of supporting evidence and offhand dismissal of non-supporting evidence

All of these factors are very much in evidence for the Birthers. For example, the existence of birth announcements in the Hawaii newspapers or the scan of the president’s certificate of live birth are either dismissed out of hand or elaborately debunked. (If you surf around a bit in the site I linked to, you’ll find an… impressive “debunking” of the certificate of live birth scan, which reminded me of nothing so much as the loving dissertations on physics that the Truthers used to purportedly show that the towers fell faster than gravity would allow.) Any attempts to ward off the conspiracy theory have been taken as proof that the theory is right. Obama’s compaign provided the scan of his birth certificate, which was immediately leapt upon as a forgery and further proof. That, or the evidence is simply ignored since it does not fit the conspiracy. The latest round of news reporting about the Birthers was inspired by a woman at a Delaware town hall meeting standing up and demanding to know where the birth certificate is. Well, it’s as much in evidence as it has always been – there are the scans that prove it, and the Hawaiian government confirms it. But that’s either completely ignored or dismissed out of hand.

Another beautiful example of this is the Supreme Court deciding not to hear the birth certificate case in 2008.

Quote from the Examiner:

Before Barack was inaugurated, a New Jersey man named Leo Donofrio bravely created an emergency appeal regarding Obama’s qualification to be an American president and sent it to the Supreme Court to be reviewed. Without explaining why, the Supreme Court turned down the emergency appeal and soon after the media completely hushed about the dilemma.[4] Since then, a slew of other lawyers across the country have also attempted lawsuits without making any real progress.

If you’re at all aware of the process by which the Supreme Court hears cases, them turning down the case is absolutely not surprise. The Supreme Court actually elects to not hear most of the cases appealed to them. Normally, this is because they agree with the lower court opinion and wish to let it stand, or because the case is simply not within the purview of the court or of interest to them. It’s pretty obvious why the Supreme Court wouldn’t consider this appeal worth their time and effort, and it really isn’t big news that the Supreme Court has decided not to hear a case. But rather than taking that as support of the validity of Obama’s presidency, it’s taken as support of the conspiracy. SCOTUS refuses to hear the case and won’t say why, and then it’s hushed up by the media.

Okay, and I have to take one last cheap shot at the Examiner:

If Barack is truly a natural born U.S. citizen, why hasn’t his campaign effectively disproved the claims that he isn’t?

Holy crap, they haven’t effectively disproved that he’s a reptoid either!

Underlying this all, of course, is the assumption that the conspiracy is true, which is what makes it very easy for the theorists to dismiss any evidence presented to them, or interpret it in such a way that it supports their theory. At this point, the Birthers are mentally and emotionally invested in their conspiracy theory, and no amount of arguing is going to convince them otherwise.

Science News just recently published an article about conspiracy theorists, which definitely has bearing here. While the article is more particularly about British 9/11 Truthers, it’s an interesting read.

Goertzel says the new study provides an intriguing but partial look at the inner workings of conspiracy thinking. Such convictions critically depend on what he calls “selective skepticism.” Conspiracy believers are highly doubtful about information from the government or other sources they consider suspect. But, without criticism, believers accept any source that supports their preconceived views, he says.

Any “official” confirmation of President Obama as a US citizen is not going to make a dent in this conspiracy theory. Any websites or people coming out in defense of the president’s legitimacy are attacked as part of the conspiracy, or accused of being blind to the deception. (I haven’t heard the term “sheeple” thrown around yet, but that could be because I’m just not looking hard enough.) Sites like Worldnetdaily, which I’ve often heard lovingly called Worldnutdaily (yes, I admit, sometimes I can’t let an opportunity to poison the well slip by) support the conspiracy theory and are read and supported by the believes. Sites such as DailyKos or other more mainstream news sites don’t support the theory and are criticized for being part of the conspiracy or simply dupes.

“Arguments advanced by conspiracy theorists tell you more about the believer than about the event,” Goertzel says.

This is really what I find most interesting about this. What do the arguments tell us about the conspiracy theorists? In the case of the 9/11 Truthers, the conspiracy theory betrayed a hatred of President Bush so absolute that nothing could put a dent in it, and an absolute distrust of the government. I think the Birthers certainly show the same distrust of the government (though I suppose in this case it’s a liberal rather than conservative government) but the arguments are very focused on Obama’s supposed status as a foreign national – particularly a Kenyan. Maybe it’s xenophobia, or possibly racism. To me it really seems to denote a fear that “foreigners” are in some way taking over the United States. Considering the shifting demographics of our country at the moment, it’s not all that surprising. And the US (like many countries) certainly has a history of xenophobia, for all that our lofty stated goal is to be an all-inclusive melting pot.

And now for a slight rant on my part:

At this point, what I really wish is that the news programs would just drop this. This entry was, in fact, inspired by listening to Countdown from last night. The host (someone filling in for Keith Olbermann) was arguing with his guest about how it was somehow Liz Cheney’s responsibility to distance herself from the Birthers. Frankly, I disagreed with that a lot (She was sticking to her talking points, and basically ignoring the Birthers. So what?) and the guest kept trying to make the point that the publicity that the Birthers are currently being given is what’s giving the movement more steam. It’s not the internets or the politicians, really, it’s the news programs treating the Birthers as if there might actually be some sort of real controversy that’s getting them attention.

I couldn’t agree more. We’ve seen the same thing, over and over and over and OVER with the moon conspiracy nuts. It makes sexy news programming to act as if the theorists are anything other than cranks and treat their claims with even a whiff of validity. Giving them television time with that attitude causes an outbreak of conspiracy maundering, and in the case of the moon landing conspiracy, causes a single tear to roll down the cheek of Phil Plait as he stares nobly off into the distance. I’m sure that it is news that the Birthers are gathering enough steam that their proponents are shouting at politicians in town hall meetings (the Truthers certainly had their day in that arena as well). But if people in the news want to find a villain to blame for the growing popularity of the movement, they ought to be pointing the fingers at themselves, not at the Liz Cheneys of the world.

Yes, it’s news when a nut tries to sue regarding his deployment in Afghanistan (which he volunteered for) because he thinks the President isn’t really the President because of this conspiracy theory. And I admit, it’s even better news when his attorney has the utterly hilarious first name of “Orly” and looks like she wants to be Tammy Fay Baker. So fine. Report on that and move on. Don’t extend an already ridiculous story by making it news that – as shocking as it might be – conservative pundits would rather use their air time to get out their talking points than attack a movement that they either don’t care about or don’t want to directly alienate because its part of their base.

You want someone to dismissively say these people are nut cases and then drop the matter? Start by doing it yourselves. So far, Jon Stewart has dealt with the explosion of Birther news the best out of everyone, and he’s quick to remind us that he’s not actually a journalist.


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