Saturday, July 31, 2010

Reflections on the Birther Movement

I myself tend to hear about “birther” grumblings primarily from bumper stickers and talk radio rants. If the grumblings were limited to those two contexts, perhaps this non-issue wouldn’t be so troubling to me.

However, a few people have taken the time and incurred the expense to file lawsuits challenging President Obama’s “natural born” citizenship qualifications to hold our nation’s highest office. The lawsuits have not gone anywhere and have been held by the courts to be baseless. Unfortunately, these results probably fuel paranoid conspiracy theories and defensiveness that the plaintiffs did not get a fair consideration of their gripes.

Astonishingly, earlier this year an army officer refused to deploy to Afghanistan based on birther claims. He did so with the full knowledge that the refusal would jeopardize his long military career. In that it was President Obama’s predecessor who initiated the war in Afghanistan, I’m particularly baffled by this gentleman’s refusal to deploy. The links below provide background on his refusal.

By way of contrast, the following are a few links on the other side of this controversy:

To me, the whole birther movement is troubling for a number of reasons. First, I find it tragic that some are so desperate to overturn the will of their fellow citizens that they are grasping at straws to discredit the collective decision of American voters. It seems to me that desperation is emblematic of deep feelings of alienation from the mainstream, which is disturbing in itself.

Moreover, I find it particularly troubling that these birther rants are coming at this particular time in history. Barack Obama is our nation’s first president whose ancestry is not entirely European. As far as I am aware, he is also the first sitting president to have his eligibility as a “natural born” citizen questioned seriously (despite the contra evidence of his qualifications). I myself am not convinced these facts are unrelated.

If both of Barack Obama’s parents were of European ancestry, I doubt the birther movement would have come into being. In this day and age, most people are ashamed to admit to lingering racist resentments. Even those, who are not ashamed, know that such views are not acceptable within the mainstream of modern American values, and their complaints will appeal to only a small fringe within our country if they are explicitly racist. As a result, I believe the “birther” attacks are a proxy for explicitly attacking the propriety of an African American sitting in the Oval Office. I explained in my prior post that the legal concerns over Senator McCain’s “natural born” citizenship were actually much more substantial than President Obama’s. Nonetheless, I am confident that if Senator McCain had won the presidential election in November 2008, the folks in the current birther movement would not be declaring his presidency illegitimate.

Ironically, the birther attacks themselves are a form of xenophobic bigotry, if not racism. As noted in my prior post, even before Barack Obama landed on the national stage, the “natural born” citizenship requirement was panned as racist because most recent immigrants to our country come from Latin America and Asia. Thus, the “natural born” citizenship requirement today applies largely to exclude Latinos and Asian Americans from being elected to the presidency. It is interesting that the birther attacks come at the same time in our nation’s history as the scapegoating of illegal immigrants in our political sphere. My own sense is that the motivations of both are related.

Exodus 23:1-2 (New King James Version)

You shall not circulate a false report. Do not put your hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness. You shall not follow a crowd to do evil; nor shall you testify in a dispute so as to turn aside after many to pervert justice.

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