why facts just can’t kill a conspiracy theory

April 30, 2011

So apparently, President Obama has given in and decided that the birther issue has leaked enough toxic goo in the media world that he had to release his long form birth certificate to prove for the millionth time that yes, he was born in Hawaii and yes, he’s eligible to occupy his office. You can thank the various airheads who had so much time invested in the issue, whether it was on the far right fringe which collapses into a maelstrom of rage and fury when its views aren’t accepted as the divine truth, or the political strategists and pundits on the left who wanted to exploit the issue to show how crazy the opposition must be. Funny enough, after all the years of indulging birtherism, Republicans now blame Obama for not being focused enough on the economy and wasting time on spurious nonsense rather than fixing the nation. Hypocrisy, thy name is the GOP. But all predictable partisan sliming aside, does this now mean that we’re done with this birther thing? Like finished, beyond it, done for good? Not a chance. Conspiracy theories are like zombies without heads; invulnerable.

You see, there’s a reason why even years of growing and ever more vocal skeptical movements haven’t yet brought down egregious alt med crankery, New Age woo abusing physics with unholy fervor, and pockets of terrified, paranoid anti-vaccinationism in society. We’re arguing with people for whom reality and facts are optional at best or a sign to change the goalposts and challenge us to meet the impossible goal of proving a lack of existence for something. And that’s if we’re lucky. Often, conspiracy theorists will use negative evidence to bolster their case, arguing that because we can’t find proof of alien saucers on Air Force bases or that alien cabals are culling the human population with toxic vaccines, we must either be part of that globe-spanning and nefarious New World Order merely repeating what our handlers told us to say, or showed just how great the Freemasons/Fourth Reich Nazis/Illuminati/Reptoids are at covering up their trail. Whatever you present, a conspiracy theorist will find a way to either rationalize it away or mangle it as supposed proof that she was on the mark all along. And how can you possibly participate in a debate with no rules and prove a point when you are essentially arguing against those who can simply change the topic on a random whim?

So was it really a surprise that the instant the birth certificate hit the web, hordes of birthers descended on it to find a reason to reject it? Was anyone actually shocked that they started complaining that “African” should not have been the recorded ethnicity for his father, that they were suspicious of “mysterious layers” in PDFs, that it must have been a hoax by the CIA or the NSA covering up for the president, and that it must have taken him so long to release it because he was covering his bases to release a fake. But the problem is that even if Obama released the long form birth certificate the minute he was asked for it, the conspiracy theories would not have abated, just like 9/11 Truthers and Moon hoaxers are still going strong. How many people asked for Clinton’s birth certificate? How many people are wondering if John McCain’s citizenship is not legit because he wasn’t born in the United States but to U.S. citizens overseas? Clearly there’s a very specific motivation to believe that Obama is not a legitimate president and when you have the predispositions to accept the notion that the FEC didn’t care to properly screen the paperwork of someone who could well be the commander-in-chief of one of the world’s biggest and best armed militaries, no amount of proof will be sufficient to dissuade you.

Just consider that anyone who applies to any post requiring security clearances has to fill out a huge form full of questions about almost every job he’s had and virtually every place he lived, provide a birth certificate, social security card, a passport, and depending on the clearance level, also account for his overseas travel. And that applies not only to scientists or researchers working in defense, but also to fresh out of high school would-be soldiers before they can depart to boot camp. And herein lies my biggest problem with any birther argument. If teenagers go through such scrutiny, how and why would the “Powers That Be” just slip up and forget to do the same thing for a senator and then a presidential candidate whose decisions would shape military policies? It would be in their interests to do everything they can to make sure he wouldn’t be a threat and I’m supposed to simply accept that the same people who will ask to sign your full, complete name with a middle initial so they can formally approve all of the twenty forms filled out that afternoon, will just throw a folder with a lawmaker’s or a presidential frontrunner’s file in an box and say “forget it?” But I suppose if you let partisan loathing take precedence over what should be Civics 101, you can buy pretty much anything that paints your object of hate in the most negative possible light. And that’s because birtherism is about ideology first and foremost, just like a whole lot of conspiracy theories which envision subterfuge and villainy on a national, if not global, scale…

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  • Russ Toelke

    Heh. I kinda wondered what you thought of this. No, the Birthers won’t be satisfied in the least. Like you said, they’ll just move the goalposts. Now it’ll be all about “forgery” or “why did he wait so long” or some such.

    In a way I’m kinda disappointed in him for producing the certificate. I had respect for him for letting Birthers stick their own feet in their mouths.

    I dunno, did he step down to their level in acknowledging their concerns? Did he just help enable a Pandora’s box of hokey accusations not only for him, but for any candidate who ever runs for the office in the future?

  • Paul

    McCain’s citizenship was challenged during the 2000 GOP primary. (Along with a bunch of other dirty tricks by Bush’s campaign team, such as rumours of a “Lovechild” resulting from an affair, etc.) I think it actually took a special Senate ruling to quash it. Afterwards, McCain hired many of Bush’s team and started reinventing himself as an ultra-conservative for the 2008 campaign.

    Re: Clearance.

    I don’t think there is a security clearance for an elected official. Democracy supersedes all. Otherwise it allows those controlling government to decide who can run for President/etc, on a purely arbitrary basis. (Your point remains, modern US politics is brutal. Something that obvious would have been aired earlier in Obama’s career, and paraded by every media outlet looking for a scoop.)

    “Clearly there’s a very specific motivation to believe that Obama is not a legitimate president”

    Why beat around the bush? It’s just racism. Or at least, racism-in-denial, where you get inexplicably angry seeing any black person, and have to find a reason to justify it.

    (In the same way that many/most angry homophobes are gay-in-denial. I remember the British study that showed prisoners who committed violence against gays, even through they self-identified as straight, responded (ahem, “responded”) to same-sex erotica more than baseline violent/non-violent prisoners. I presume a similar test would show Birthers showed more anger-arousal at black faces than a control group.)

  • Greg Fish

    “I don’t think there is a security clearance for an elected official.”

    Yes and no. It gets really complicated because once you get into that world, clearances become a very nebulous thing. The big point is that before having to reveal every secret operation, black project, and other crucial military information, there’s no way that a big committee of very high rankling civilian and military officials wouldn’t at least confirm a basic thing like whether the person about to command them and be briefed in the kind of information that anyone less than a three star general can’t even lay eyes on, is even eligible to be in that position, much less receive that briefing.

  • Clint Hansen

    While this kind of irrelevant, the UN actually considered Hawaii a hostile held territory of the US until 1976. The legitimacy of Hawaii actually being part of the US has always been a point of contention for the natives (for good reason) even though it has been a state for over 50 years. Then again hostel take overs are fairly common in the forging of the US. At least we have a bill of sale for Alaska…