Conspiracy Theories

Ending the Birther Debate

Why Obama should have ignored the conspiracy theorists


As far as anyone can tell, the United States is still at war in Libya, though the important news this week concerned a former Miss America palpitated by the TSA, the wedding of a balding British kid called "Wills," and the release of Barack Obama's birth certificate, which confirmed that he was still eligible to be an unpopular president.

Obama is often accused of being too clever for the rubes he governs, as recently evidenced by this column from the chronically unfunny and uninteresting Dana Milbank (which also manages to accuse Winston Churchill of being a "simple thinker," and Neville Chamberlain a "complex" one) and an NPR interview with British historian Simon Schama. Every move America's president makes is judicious and thoughtful—if only his constituents were Scandinavian.

But one has to wonder about the president's political instincts when, for no good reason, he decides to produce a copy of his "long form" birth certificate, thus laying to rest one of the dumbest political controversies in recent memory. Here is the logic for releasing the document, according to the administration: The "birther" debate, which posited that Obama was the son of Mark Rudd and Rosa Luxemborg (or some such nonsense), was slithering into the mainstream, threatening to subsume more substantive policy debates.

Flip on a major network and one would find Donald Trump wagging his finger about the unknown history of a politician who managed two memoirs before his 50th birthday; Founder fetishist (who couldn't keep track of which Concord was the interesting one) Michelle Bachmann giving succor to the "issue" by saying that she would provide her birth certificate at the first 2012 presidential debate; the increasingly absurd Sarah Palin's consistently flirting with the issue, like when she recently told an interviewer that she "appreciates" Trump raising a long-ago resolved issue. And now the increasingly paranoid Matt Drudge, a frequent linker to 9/11 "truther" and mind control-investigator Alex Jones, is championing a book by conspiracy kook Jerome Corsi, with the elegant title Where's the Birth Certificate? Soon thereafter, the book climbed to number one on the bestseller list (even after the release of the birth certificate, the book is steady at number 49).

Because of the mainstreaming of this exceptionally boring conspiracy theory, an increasing number of Americans were willing to believe that President Obama might have been born in Kenya, or that his book was actually written by a not-particularly-clever ex-member of the Weather Underground (something Sarah Palin also intimated in recent interviews). But was it enough of a groundswell to matter; to effect Obama's chances at serving a second term? Well, no. And if it were, why not wait until election time, drawing more and more mainstream Republicans into the patently idiotic Kenyan conspiracy, and then dropping the "long form" certificate when it would have a bigger political impact?

It was, Obama said, time to end this "nonsense" and focus on issues that will surely hurt him with voters: an aimless war in Libya, a rudderless campaign in Afghanistan, ballooning deficits, stubborn unemployment figures. For this, serious Republican politicians (if any still exist) are surely grateful, provided their most prominent media figures don't shift instead to the ever-pressing issues of the president's college transcripts or the inevitable imposition of Sharia law in Oklahoma.

The lesson, though, is that those who want to disqualify a president on such an issue—rather than persuading voters that he should be rejected for his schizophrenic policies—will not be satisfied by the "long form" release, as the proliferation of blog posts "analyzing" the authenticity and "layers" of the released document quickly demonstrated. Indeed, many Americans have little time for the tedious realities and complexities of politics, preferring digestible conspiracy theories that explain the awfulness surrounding us in a 10 minute YouTube video. (Though many of the conspiracy mongers, rather than the casual consumers, offer needless complex connections between George Soros, the Koch brothers, Bechtel, the Carlyle Group, and the Federal Reserve.)

And the evidence-free claims that "racism" motivates all of the anti-Obama conspiracists, rather than plain old dumb partisanship, can't explain the existence of another book competing with Jerome Corsi on the bestseller list: Jesse Ventura's 63 Documents the Government Doesn't Want You to Read, currently in Amazon's top 100 bestsellers. Or a video making the rounds on MTV from Chicago-based rapper Lupe Fiasco—a semi-literate song about the "war on terror" and speculation about who blew up the World Trade Center. Fiasco is just the latest "conscious rapper," after KRS-One, Immortal Technique, and Mos Def, to argue on behalf of a conspiracy that almost makes birtherism look reasonable. As Politico's Ben Smith observed last week, it isn't very difficult to track down a "neutral" poll showing that "More than half of Democrats…said they believed Bush was complicit in the 9/11 terror attacks."

In other words, half the American people—liberal or conservative—can be convinced of something so implausible, so easily disproved that attempts by the executive to prevent stupid debate are a fool's errand. Instead of wasting time on mindless conspiracies, let's get back to having misinformed debates about issues that matter.

Michael C. Moynihan is a senior editor of Reason magazine.