John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The birthers' allergy to fact

I have in my files a birth certificate, some kind of ancient thermal copy with the seal of the Commonwealth of Kentucky impressed in it. I also possess a passport indicating that I am a citizen of the United States. Both of these documents could well be clever forgeries, produced by some sinister cabal whose designs were to infiltrate me into my former high position in the Eastern Liberal Media Establishment.*

If you believe that, you can believe anything. If you can believe anything, you join a growing constituency.

The “birther” movement, fueled by the Internet and figures like Shouting Lou Dobbs on CNN, clamors that Barack Obama was not born in Hawaii in 1961, is not a U.S. citizen, is disqualified to be president of the United States.

These claims have been exploded by public officials in Hawaii, by, and by a lengthy article by McClatchy Newspapers that casts an instructive light on some of the foremost proponents of the birther allegations. Bill Pascoe, who had the unenviable task of managing Alan Keyes’s senatorial campaign against Obama in 2004, goes so far as to suggest in an article at CQ Politics that the mainstream media are pumping up coverage of birthers to discredit conservatives and prop up the president’s poll numbers.

Never mind. A poll commissioned by Daily Kos finds that Southerners and Republicans are disproportionately receptive to the idea that the president is not a citizen. And if you go to the McClatchy article, you’ll find any number of angry, frequently incoherent comments contesting the facts.

Conspiracy theories always appeal to the credulous in unsettled times, and the left is as prone to them as the right — I recall the rumors sweeping campus in 1972 that Richard Nixon was going to cancel the presidential election to fend of the challenge from George McGovern. (You’re permitted to chuckle here.) The birther fantasy feeds readily into Embattled White Guys hysteria — Pat Buchanan and Glen Beck proclaiming that the president hates white people and white culture — that political and cultural dominance is going to be taken away from those who think it belongs to them.

Refutation, which must be done by responsible media for the record, doesn’t work. Fact does not penetrate the birther mind set. The sane man or woman is left to take the Menckenian position that the whole spectacle is to be considered a burlesque for the entertainment of the intelligent.

Just sit back and watch the spittle fly.

*“He talks funny, like somebody from up North.” “He dresses funny, wears a damn bow tie.” “He reads books and uses big words to show off.” “He sent his children to lib’ral Eastern private colleges.” “What kind of Kentuckian does he think he is?”


  1. I'm reading a book that examines why people like the birthers are so hardheaded even when they know they're wrong. It's called "Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)."

    I'm not very far in, but it talks about problems with cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias and the desperation to cling to any technicality to make them feel they are still right. Pretty good read if you haven't picked it up before.

  2. In The Sun (the always totally ad-free magazine from NC, and my favorite), I read an excerpt from Seth Speaks: The Eternal Validity of the Soul just yesterday that made me think of the birthers right away: "The ego is a jealous god, and it wants its interests served. It does not want to admit the reality of any dimensions except those within which it feels comfortable and can understand...If you have a limited conception of the nature of reality, then your ego will do its best to keep you in the small, enclosed area of your accepted reality."

    A more fun quotation from their Sunbeams section this month was from Steven Wright: "If God dropped acid, would he see people?"

  3. Some of these birthers are friends of mine and you are correct, no amount of reasoning or evidence will appease them. They also believe global warming is a conspiracy and that the government is tracking their movements. In don't know whether to laugh at them or cry for them?

  4. Among the many,many things that bother me about the birther movement is the claim that, when presented with hard evidence, the documents are forgeries. This is the same claim made by Holocaust denial superstars such as David Irving and Ernst Zündel when they are confronted with, literally, tons of physical evidence and first-hand testimony from the perpetrators.

    Corollary to that is the mistaken notion that someone just wakes up and decides one day to run for President. Do these people not think that among the massive amounts of paperwork that must be filed is evidence of eligibility for the job?

    (By the way, John, I haven't visited in several weeks and am delighted to see a new photo of you. Although you may have mentioned this in a prior post, I'm guessing you were at Crêpe du Jour when it was taken. Am I right?)

  5. The photograph as taken a couple of years ago at a restaurant in Italy, in the town of Cagli where I spent a few days editing copy as part of a Loyola-sponsored summer program.

  6. I hate to play the race card, but one wonders if this movement would even have gotten off the ground had the President's father been a foreign national from, say, Ireland or Germany or Denmark.

  7. Different tack. How many commonwealths are there in the United States? Name them.

    My academic friends in Australia expressed surprise and amazement to learn that I came from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania since they lived in the Australia, a member of the British commonwealth.

    Are you a member? they wanted to know.

  8. Like so many on the hard core right, the "birthers" seem to have been baptized in the same acidic waters as the rest of their faith-based brethern. With their minds tightly snapped shut, fundamentalists of every stripe -- gun nuts, conspiracy freaks, anti-evolutionists, the so-called pro life movement and these lunatic birthers -- have all the "facts" they need, and are thus impervious to reason or logic.

    The rising tide of such brain-dead idiocy around the world (fueled largely by ignorance and emotion, I suspect) does not bode well for our collective future. Then again, not much in the news these days does...

    This is a wonderful blog.

  9. Paul Soucy, commenting on Facebook:

    I like the suggestion that his family knew *when he was born* that they had to cover up the facts of his birth in order to make him president. Because back in 1961, if you wanted to pick a newborn to groom for the presidency, you would have picked a half-black kid with an African name who was born in Hawaii.

  10. I am deeply concerned with the ability of people to delude themselves and believe anything that will make them feel more righteous and/or secure. If you read about how the Nazis seized power, partly by telling lie after lie in propaganda that people wanted to believe, it becomes really, really scary. Thanks for writing this.

  11. The problem with conspiracy theorists is that evidence that disproves their POV is just further evidence of the coverup. On the plus side, the convoluted explanations required to sustain the belief are often quite imaginative. :-)

    PS Some of my seemingly rational friends belong to the 9/11-was-an-inside-job sect. A corollary of this was that the Pentagon was actually attacked with a cruise missle, not a jet. "Evidence" was that the government wouldn't release security-camera tapes of the attack. But then the government DID release the tapes. So at least we don't have to listen to this claptrap any more, altho this hasn't otherwise dented their conviction on the overall conspiracy.

  12. The Birthers got that label because their conspiracy theory comes from the same kind of fever that produces the 9/11 "Truthers." (They called themselves the 9/11 Truth Movement, and it was used against them.) Just as all scandals are now -gate, I wonder if all conspiracy theories will now be -thers.

    I also notice that many people mock the time machine aspect of the Birthers' claims, that the plot began decades ago because the family somehow knew the newborn Obama would run for president someday. The Birthers' explanation on this is less ludicrous: They say that, given a way to do so, it's not unreasonable that the family would angle for a way to have the newborn declared a citizen of the United States, just for a better chance at life. No need for time travel. There are holes in this story, too, although they're mostly circumstantial.

    This polarized world needs more critical thinking, which can be done by good editors in the right jobs or concerned-citizens, and probably both.

  13. And when has it ever been different? People have always lashed out at those people and ideas that threatened them and their way of life, whether God given or earned. Remember the Luddites and Saboteurs of the early Industrial Revolution? The Know-Nothings of the mid-Nineteenth Century? The Klu Klux Klan, Jim Crow Laws, "Separate But Equal," Holocaust Deniers? The list goes on. People believe Neil Armstrong did not set foot on the moon forty years ago. They believe that the world is flat. And a surprising number KNOW that theirs is the only True Religion and that everyone else must be converted to it, forceably if necessary, or be consigned to the nether regions. So the "birthers" are really just the continuation of a long line of people who "know" the Truth and won't let any facts stand in their way.

    Retired in Elkridge

  14. And when has it ever been different? People have always lashed out at those people and ideas that threatened them and their way of life, whether God given or earned.

    RiE nailed it. There are many folks down here who take a narrow view of the world's events and sometimes, it scares me. Like an ex co-worker who decided to raise chickens on his land for his family's sustenance and also bought a shotgun. The weapon is for when everyone is starving and will raid his house for food. The guy has a very large stockpile of canned goods too.

  15. Patricia the TerseAugust 3, 2009 at 12:30 AM

    What the devil is a 'birther?' And please don't tell me that it's a legitimate English word. I still won't use "incentivize" and the rest of the academic-political argot. I'd rather be understood by people who use standard English.The new photograph is good, although I miss the presence of uno capello della Americano.

  16. Would you start a talk radio program? I need to hear this conversation on the air. It's so refreshing.

    C Wade

  17. Talk radio? I'm available for just about anything that would pay me wages, but it's doubtful that there's an audience out there panting to hear me.

  18. I'd listen to your talk show. Could it be about copy editing and language? How about a podcast?

  19. "You have a vision of moral order in the universe and there isn't any. Those stars twinkle in a void, dear boy, and the two-legged creature schemes and dreams beneath them, all in vain...Men will believe anything, the more preposterous the better. Whales speak French at the bottom of the sea. The horses of Arabia have silver wings. Pygmies mate with elephants in darkest Africa. I have sold all those propositions."
    --Allardyce T Meriweather, from "Little Big Man" by Thomas Berger

  20. Patricia the TerseAugust 8, 2009 at 2:13 AM

    There is a kind of looney-tunes talk radio program - I don't know its name, but it's on AM radio all night, every night. Most of the people who call are conspiracy wackos of one stripe or another, but the favorite topic is UFOs and related hallucinations. They are the people who believe everything they see on the X-Files, including a couple who named their son "Fox."