Releasing his long form birth certificate: Obama caving to the birthers or putting the conspiracy theory to rest?

Among the most bizarre and risible conspiracy theories currently going around, rising to the top (or near the top) has to be notion that President Obama was not actually born in the United States and therefore is not a U.S. citizen and not eligible to be President of the United States. Indeed, ever since the heat of the 2008 election, this particular unsinkable rubber duck of a conspiracy theory keeps getting slapped down by reason and evidence, only to rise to the surface again and again and again. It’s truly a wingnut paradise, because, quite frankly, the people who passionately believe it either don’t realize or don’t care how ridiculous they look. Unfortunately, “birthers” (the slang term for what believers in this particular conspiracy theory are often called) have become a fairly potent force in American politics, thus proving that no idea can be so stupid that it can’t possibly gain a sizable following among Americans.

Although the birther phenomeon is an annoyance for the President and Democrats, it’s probably also a guilty pleasure for them to watch Republicans making fools of themselves. Indeed, the birther phenomenon has posed a major problem for conservatives, the Tea Party movement, and, most of all, for the Republican leadership. After all, how do you present your party or political movement as a reasonable, rational group when it contains a large percentage of people (as high as 40%, according to some polls) who give credence to an idea that is, at best fantasy, and at worst batshit insane? After all, even if President Obama were not born in the U.S., his mother was still a U.S. citizen, which makes him a “natural-born” U.S. citizen, just as, for example, John McCain is a natural-born U.S. citizen, even though he wasn’t born in the U.S. The result has been some rather–shall we say?–uncomfortable moments for the more mainstream Republican candidates, who for obvious reasons don’t want to be seen as buying into a loony conspiracy theory but who also for equally obvious reasons don’t want to risk alienating a large segment of their base. Some Republicans, like Donald Trump, cynically use the birther issue for self-aggrandizement, but the more sober conservatives recognize it as a problem.

Given this background and given the well-known immunity to science, logic, evidence, and reason inherent in conspiracy theories like the moon hoax, Holocaust denial, the Roswell incident, Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories, and the “9/11 Truth” movement, for example, all of which resist even the most compelling evidence against them, I’m puzzled why now, of all times, President Obama has decided finally to release a photocopy of his “long form” birth certificate from Hawaii. He even personally held a press conference about it:


His justification:

The President believed the distraction over his birth certificate wasn’t good for the country. It may have been good politics and good TV, but it was bad for the American people and distracting from the many challenges we face as a country. Therefore, the President directed his counsel to review the legal authority for seeking access to the long form certificate and to request on that basis that the Hawaii State Department of Health make an exception to release a copy of his long form birth certificate. They granted that exception in part because of the tremendous volume of requests they had been getting.

At a time of great consequence for this country – when we should be debating how we win the future, reduce our deficit, deal with high gas prices, and bring stability to the Middle East, Washington, DC, was once again distracted by a fake issue. The President’s hope is that with this step, we can move on to debating the bigger issues that matter to the American people and the future of the country.

All of which is true but irrelevant. As P.Z. Myers pointed out, this is a game Obama cannot win. Conspiracy theories do not go away when evidence refuting them is presented. Rather, they incorporate that new evidence into the conspiracy theory and keep going, using that evidence to claim an even bigger and more complex conspiracy. That’s what makes them conspiracy theories rather than reasonable questions about the accepted understanding of an event! The only reason JFK assassination conspiracy theories have faded is the tincture of time. It has been, after all, nearly 50 years. On the other hand, some conspiracy theories grow with time. The idea that an alien spacecraft landed at Roswell and the government recovered the wreckage and alien corpses was only believed by a tiny number of people until it was publicized in the late 1970s when various witnesses started telling the story. That was thirty years after the actual event. Since then, multiple reports have been released that refute the claim of the Roswell believers, but the belief that the government hid evidence of alien visitations during the late 1940s remains stubbornly immune to reason. It remains to be seen whether 9/11 Truther conspiracy theories will grow or fade with time, but I suspect they probably will probably fade as the pain of the memory diminishes with time, much as Pearl Harbor conspiracy theories did.

Worse, arguably Obama took care of this in the worst possible way. He held a press conference personally, thus putting the imprimatur of the Office of the Presidency on the issue. I can understand that there might be reasons that the White House would decide to try to put this to bed by releasing his long form birth certificate. I can understand that Obama has come to see this as a distraction that he can no longer afford to wink at. Or, as Obama put it in his announcement, “We do not have time for this silliness.” But the way to do this would have been to have the press secretary (or better yet, a low level flack) release the document with a brief press release and then say nothing more. Yes, I know, conspiracy theorists, being conspiracy theorists, would probably have argued that the “secretive” release of the document is slam-dunk evidence that there must be something wrong with it, that Obama’s hiding something, but those same people are already claiming that this doesn’t put the issue to rest because, well, they are conspiracy theorists. Among the comments, some being voted on some simply comments in the discussion forum, we find:

  • “I’m with Trump in calling for the rest of Obama’s vital documents that he’s been concealing for years.”
  • “I suspect the image released by Obama is a forgery.”
  • “I know the image of the document is a fake, just like Obama.”
  • “If the document is so innocuous, why did Obama take so long and spend a fortune on attorneys preventing its release?”
  • “The release is opening up a can of worms and is creating more questions than answers.”
  • “Obama blinked. I can’t wait to see what happens next.”
  • “If he’s eligible, so is every kid from illegal ‘wetbacks’ that drop a kid in the USA.”
  • “If this document is legitimate and he truly believes he is eligible, why did he suppress it for so long? Why did he allow an Army officer to be tried and sent to prison for his belief that he was ineligible if he had proof to the contrary?”

As one commenter at Pharyngula said mockingly:

Why doesn’t Obama meet every birther in person to show them the original of the Birth Certificate, if he has nothing to hide?

Why doesn’t Obama give Donald Trump a time machine so that he can personally witness his birth, if he has nothing to hide?

I’m sure my readers can think of their own amusing questions about the issue. In any case, while birthers are predictably trying to cast doubt on the authenticity of Obama’s birth certificate and trying to argue that the pen used to sign Obama’s long form birth certificate didn’t exist in 1961 (I kid you not), my favorite from the WND conspiracy loon forum was this one:

Even if the Birth Cert is Real – his Dad was not a Citizen, so he’s not eligible to be President (although he DOES qualify to be eligible to be President of Kenya by their new Soros Constitution).

Which is utter nonsense. Obama’s mother was a U.S. citizen, which means that if the birth certificate was real, Obama was born in the United States. That alone makes the fact that his father was not a citizen completely irrelevant.

Conspiracy theories are at their heart irrational in their rationality. They take on the patina of reason by appearing to use the tools of science, skepticism, and reason in order to attack the consensus understanding of an event. The key word is “appearing.” In reality, conspiracy theories are profoundly unscientific and unskeptical, because they do not allow for any possibility that the conspiracy theory might be wrong. 9/11 Truthers, moon hoaxers, Holocaust deniers, JFK assassination conspiracy theorists, believers in alien abductions, they all share this common trait of cherry picking evidence to support the conspiracy. When it can’t do that, a conspiracy theory will absorb all evidence thrown against it, incorporating it into itself much as the Blob incorporated anything it engulfed into itself to make itself bigger and stronger. If fear Obama has badly miscalculated.

ADDENDUM: Politico nails it:

Lurid conspiracy theories have followed presidents for as long as the office has existed. Yet even Obama’s most recent predecessors benefited from a widespread consensus that some types of personal allegations had no place in public debate unless or until they received some imprimatur of legitimacy — from an official investigation, for instance, or from a detailed report by a major news organization.

And:

It’s hard to imagine Bill Clinton coming out to the White House briefing room to present evidence showing why people who thought he helped plot the murder of aide Vincent Foster– never mind official rulings of suicide — were wrong. George W. Bush, likewise, was never tempted to take to the Rose Garden to deny allegations from voices on the liberal fringe who believed that he knew about the Sept. 11 attacks ahead of time and chose to let them happen.

Leading to:

He did so, senior Obama advisers say, because of the radical reordering of the political-media universe over the past 15 years, or so. The decline of traditional media and the rise of viral emails and partisan Web and cable TV platforms has meant the near-collapse of common facts, believed across the political spectrum.