Sunday, May 1, 2011

Birthers, Racism and Conspiracy Theories.

Barack Obama may have called the birther controversy "silliness" and tried to treat it lightly, the fact is that  for the US president to have to produce a birth certificate to prove his citizenry (see video here) is a first in American history.

If nothing else it shows how powerful and successful the conspiracy theory regarding his birth has become in the United-States today. 

Conspiracy theories are nothing new of course and even though Americans are particular fond of them, they are not strictly Americans (the French call them "théories du complot" and have had had them since before the Revolution)
 They're also very common in modern politics - Bill Clinton had the Vince Foster "murder." and George W. Bush had 9/11 Truth but those were on the fringe and didn't make the headlines. 

This time may be different : not only has the conspiracy made the headlines, but if we are to believe the polls this is probably the most successful conspiracy theories of all :

The numbers are impressively scary  especially if you add those unsure with those who are certain he's a foreigner. (although, to put it into perspective, keep in mind that  34% Americans also claim to believe in UFOs and 24% in witches - Foxnews)

This conspiracy is also different because it implies that the president of the United-States is illegitimate - an idea naturally popular with Republicans :
Most of the birthers are indeed to be found among Republicans (45% of them - see the Chicago Tribune) and unsurprsignly in the South (here).  As Steve Chapman nicely puts it in the Chicago Tribune : "Birthers don't dislike Obama because they think he was born abroad. They think he was born abroad because they dislike him

But what makes this conspiracy theory more unique is that it questions the legitimacy of the first BLACK American. president, and so you can't help wondering if this is an "insidious new form of 21st-century racism", as Clarence B. Jones claims in the Hufftington Post.
Here's a good example : 
Now of course, all birthers may not be racist - let's hope not anyway - but the questioning of Obama's American identity has some troubling resonance for African Americans.
I find the whole notion of birtherism so ridiculous that I failed to see the significance of all this to African-Americans. That is until I saw this video from the site (via The Rachel Maddow Show) which really gives it all a different perspective.

Clearly, birtherism smacks of racism. Look at how Donal Trump, after claiming victory even though he was proved wrong, has now shifted from questioning Obama's citizenry to questioning his education :
"I heard he was a terrible student, terrible. How does a bad student go to Columbia and then to Harvard?" Trump said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I'm thinking about it, I'm certainly looking into it. Let him show his records." (NBC)

Some Europeans may not see the link with race but Trump's words imply that Obama was admitted to Ivy League Schools because he was black. In other words, it is a coded attack against affirmative action. (Trump's racism did not escape David Letterman  this week either). This is intended for those who think that certain people (African-Ameircas, women, etc...) can only succeed if they are helped.
Funny that Trump did not voice concern about G. W Bush who apparently did not enter Yale thanks to his SAT results or academic achievement but that was different  of course because Bush was Republican, white and wealthy. 
Trump's attack will play well with some Republicans. It has even been suggested that birtherism may have been an opportunity for some Republicans to start a "second Republican ‘Southern strategy."

In any case, conspiracy theories about Barack Obama are unlikely to die. First, because conspiracy theorists live in their own reality and there's no way to talk them out of it - anyone not supporting their views is either manipulated, or worse, part of the conspiracy. In the same way, facts that prove them wrong are fabricated. Then, because race is still a hot issue in the United-States. Last because the Internet is a conspiracy theorist game room, where all sorts of unverified information become viral within a few seconds, and according to some anthropologists, "evidence suggests that a broad cross section of Americans today…gives credence to at least some conspiracy theories".
Unfortunately, it looks like we should be ready for more of the same paranoia. (see other suggestion

 It is most certainly something to be aware of and not to treat too lightly if we are to believe Karl Popper who argued that totalitarianism was founded on "conspiracy theories" which drew on imaginary plots driven by paranoid scenarios predicated on tribalism, chauvinism, or racism. (see here)

1 comment:

Montana said...

Our president had already showed his US birth Certificate to;

1. Get a US Passport;

2. Become a US Senator;

I feel sorry for all the little Birthers, It’s not their fault; it’s your families’ fault that taught you that you were better than other people based on race, creed ethnicity, color, nationality or sex, in short they engrained in you their hate (what a legacy).

But you know at some point you need to grow up and act like an adult and think for yourself and distinguish what is true and what is BS.

But there is where the little Birthers find yourself because we all know it was never about a birth certificate or grades, because we all know you want to go around wearing white sheets, burn crosses and hang people who are not like you, we know that your growth is stunted in your hate, and hate is what this is all about, you will never win anymore, and I feel sorry for all of you.

I can only imagine when our President is re-elected what you phonies will lie about next. Oh, and just know, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and sounds like a duck, it’s a duck, the little Birthers are a bunch of racists!