Barack Obama decisively won the 2008 presidential election last November, but that has not stopped a large contingent of Americans from insisting that the Hawaiian born President is not an American citizen. Perhaps this should come as no surprise given that during the campaign the Senator from Illinois faced persistent rumors and innuendos about his chosen faith. Despite his clear alignment with Christianity and regular worship at a Christian church in Chicago when he was a state legislator, conspiracy theorists flooded the airwaves and the Internet with every conceivable rumor suggesting that the candidate was a closet Muslim. The degree to which these sentiments are expressed also revealed the extent of religious persecution in the United States, and the tremendous work required to educate Americans about Islam. Now, it seems a hardcore contingent of doubters continue to insist that President Obama is not a citizen and is therefore holding office illegally.
Americans investment in conspiracy theories is nothing new as is evidenced by the number of people who still hold fast to them. These are the people who insist that NASA astronauts never landed on the moon, believe President Kennedy was murdered by multiple gunmen on that fateful day in Dallas in 1963, swear the government is hiding alien remains in Area 51, and that the United States orchestrated the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. What we know from those examples is that no amount of evidence will convince the “true believers” who will maintain the truthfulness of their beliefs even when shown that they are simply not true. The problem is that while some of these beliefs are harmless and often amusing, some represent a darker side of our nation that stands in the way of true progress.
The present campaign by so-called “birthers” to claim that President Obama is foreign born, and therefore holding office illegally, is part paranoia, part racist. Much of it is driven by misinformation and the smear campaign that is a carryover from the November election, but there is an element that is the function of deep-seated hatred of Black Americans and post-9/11 anti-Islamic sentiments. The two are a combustible mix that has many of these “true believers” frothing at the mouth. Playing into their irrational beliefs is the likes of television demagogue Lou Dobbs who has used the airwaves of CNN to fan the flames, careful enough not to make the accusation himself but suggesting that those who question the President’s place of birth have reason to be suspicious. The “Obama is not a citizen” brigade finds comfort in an electronic environment in which their paranoia is fed by one another to the point that it all rings true.
The current hysteria over President Obama’s place of birth reveals how deeply some Americans resent the fact that a Black American, a Black man no less, is now the leader of this nation. Combine that with the collective ignorance in our country toward Islam, and the stubborn belief that Mr. Obama is a Muslim, even though it should not matter if he were, and you begin to see the extent of racial animus that is festering just below the surface in America and ready to bubble up with a modicum of encouragement. What is perhaps most disturbing and telling about this movement is that a recent Google analysis of search engine inquiries revealed that many of the people who have jumped on the “birther” bandwagon live in the south. It is a continuation of the contradiction of the “New South,” at some level more progressive than other parts of the country while still harboring some of the racist sentiment of Dixie.
What is missing is thoughtful leadership, not a Democrat coming to the President’s defense but a conservative Republican of rank and stature who the right simply cannot ignore or shout down. It seems as though elders within the GOP have not taken into account the damage inflicted upon the nation’s standing when the world sees our citizens call the President a foreigner in a disparaging tone. Much of this rhetoric would likely cease if Republican leadership would call the rank and file of the party to task. It would be a moment of historic importance in our nation and send a message that we do not allow policy differences with our President to lead to baseless personal attacks. Elements of that leadership does exist within the GOP as is being put on display by some Senators who have go on record in support of Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor. What is missing from this “debate” are the voices of Republican leadership outside of the ranks of elected officials that has influence over the party’s base. Someone with sway over the GOP’s grassroots is needed to end this silliness once and for all. The longer this rumor is allowed to fester, the more encouragement is given to right-wing fringe groups in this country that have little respect for the law, and see President Obama as the enemy.