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Cynthia Boaz Headshot

The "Birthers" and Our Ailing Political Culture

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I went back and forth with myself for awhile as to whether or not I should post my thoughts on the "birther" phenomenon -- the faction of Americans who insist that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and is therefore not qualified to be president. (By the way, I am told that the term "birther" is derogatory, so in fairness, if you have an equally accurate but less offensive word, send it over.) Although I understand the very compelling reasons for just ignoring the absurdity, my concerns about the cultural sickness that underlies the claims continues to gnaw at me. It's one thing for a handful of misguided conspiracy theorists with too much time on their hands to toss out bizarre claims about the president of the United States, but it's another for mainstream media to give those theories even a shred of credibility. And admittedly, this is at some level personal for me, because I have heard a few of my own family members somberly repeating the questions raised by the birthers in a way that sincerely hurts my heart. So for the record, let me say that I do not take the claims of these folks at all seriously, and if my acknowledgment of their claims lends them legitimacy, then mea culpa a thousand times over.

That said, we have got be frank about what is happening to us -- as a nation, a culture, and as human beings, and what this latest "movement" tells us about those things. These folks represent a small but vocal minority in this country who have somehow failed to grasp that American democracy is rooted in a set of principles, not a set of demographic characteristics.

The "birthers" -- who are being irresponsibly egged on by the likes of Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck -- appear to be immune to both reason and truth. That's nothing new -- every society has its fringe elements. However, what makes them dangerous is that their not-so-thinly-veiled racism (because let's be honest, would the perseverance of this kind of claim be even remotely fathomable if our president were not black?) is tied so overtly to an increasingly fanatical and shallow notion of what it means to be American. When "birthers" -- or those who enable them -- say things like "We have to take our country back," they are not talking about political party control of the branches of government, they are talking much more insidiously about a cultural vision (actually, delusion) of the United States as white, "Christian," and ethnologically monolithic. Everyone who does not fit neatly into the narrow demographic prerequisites of this shallow and amorphous concept of American patriotism (which -- I cannot state emphatically enough -- is pretty much everyone) is a potential scapegoat at best and a target for violence at worst.

When I watched the video of Rep. Castle's town hall meeting in Delaware a few weeks back, I was struck by the degree of fanaticism displayed by the scene-stealing "birther." That woman is angry. What is it about President Obama that causes her to react with so much rage? I can't help but wonder as I watch: Is there anything that would put this issue to rest for her? What evidence would convince her that Barack Obama is a citizen of the United States? Is there anything...anything at all that would calm her outrage? Would it alter her views to know, for example, that none of first seven presidents of the United States were born in the United States?

Woefully, it appears doubtful. An inflexible unwillingness to update one's beliefs in the face of logic or evidence is the very definition of fanaticism. And as the video demonstrates, that phenomenon is as alive and well in the United States as in any of the countries whose citizens have been systematically demonized by our government and media over the decades. Can you imagine how much satisfaction extremist Taliban leaders must get from displays like this? How gratifying it must be to watch citizens of the world's self-proclaimed beacon of democracy and civilization turning on each other in such vile, primitive ways?

The fact is that there are too many genuine divisions between people for us -- in the world's most advanced democracy -- to spend our time fabricating false ones. American civilization is at a crossroads. We have reached a pivotal historical moment where we are faced with nothing less than the decision to consciously evolve or not. Now is the time when we should be healing ourselves as a culture, not finding new ways to harm one another. It's a time when should be acknowledging our common humanity, not dehumanizing those we don't understand. Now is our opportunity to promote a vision of the future that is rooted in constructive optimism, rather than cynicism. We have the chance to genuinely elevate the well-being of others -- and by extension, ourselves -- rather than continuing to tear them down with indignities. But if we are to take the higher road, we must understand that being patriotic citizens on the one hand and decent human beings on the other are -- in a just and democratic society -- indistinguishable concepts.

Someone please tell the birthers.