Birtherism—the belief that President Obama was not born in the United States, as he claims and as official records attest—will not die. Despite its apparent implausibility, it has lived on for years even after Obama was elected to the presidency. He no doubt hoped to lay it to rest by releasing his long-form birth certificate from Hawaii, but stubborn birthers simply responded to this revelation by doubting or denying the authenticity of the document. Now birtherism will receive a new boost from news reports that young Barack Obama’s literary agent put out a biographical statement on him claiming he had been born in Kenya.
Why does this preoccupation with the president’s supposed foreign origins persist?
To some extent, of course, it has been fueled by the president’s own miscalculations and carelessness. He delayed releasing the original birth record for a long time, which allowed birthers to speculate that it did not really exist. Now we find that he evidently did not review, or did not take the time to correct, the biography his literary agency used in its booklet promoting him and its other clients.
Nevertheless, none of this explains why birtherism exists in the first place. For the president to mishandle questions about his origins, those questions had to be there to begin with.
Liberals are pleased to attribute birtherism to the paranoid xenophobia of the American right. Although this explanation is somewhat self-serving, it would be wrong to dismiss it completely. Sometimes even one’s enemies’ attacks contain an element of truth. The left’s portrayal of the right is exaggerated, but it is nevertheless true that there are paranoid xenophobes among people on the right. Any mass movement in a country the size of America will inevitably include people with strange views.
Still, an inherent irrationality of the right cannot entirely explain birtherism’s deathlessness. Birtherism’s persistence, I would suggest, is indirectly the doing of American liberals themselves. It arises from an omission in our public debate that is itself caused by liberals’ overly censorious guardianship of our public discourse. That is, birtherism can be understood as an unreasonable surrogate for a reasonable discussion that contemporary liberalism will not permit.
When voters decide whether to support a fellow citizen for public office, they naturally want to be reassured not only that the person is competent, but also that he shares their values and outlook. This is a reasonable expectation, since those who hold public office are entrusted with the common good over a period of time and will have to confront issues that had not arisen at the time they were elected. Accordingly, voters want to be able to trust their leaders to react the way they would react to unforeseen future events. This is especially important in a candidate for the presidency, since the president wields such enormous power.
In light of these considerations, it is understandable that some Americans in 2008 would have doubts about Barack Obama as a president of the United States. They would wonder whether his sense of America was the same as theirs, whether he fully shared their values, because his formative experiences were different from those of most Americans. His father was a Kenyan leftist. His mother came straight out of middle America, but, like many of her generation, ended up somewhat estranged from it. Thus she chose to live and raise her son for a considerable period of time outside the United States. As a result of these decisions, young Obama had an Indonesian stepfather and was raised for a number of years in Indonesia.
The American left cannot consistently deny the relevance of such concerns on the part of such voters. If, for example, the American-born but Australian-raised Mel Gibson were to run for public office—if he had not wrecked his public reputation through his disreputable behavior and unhinged rants—it is absolutely certain that liberal commentators would raise concerns about his formative experiences and how they shaped his political thinking. They would contend, with a genuine and understandable fear, that his father was a hardline right-winger and reactionary religious fanatic who chose to live in Australia. On this basis, they would raise questions about whether Gibson’s deepest convictions were consistent with mainstream American values.
We need not, however, recur to hypotheticals to demonstrate that liberals understand the legitimacy of these kinds of questions. It is a constant theme of liberal and mainstream political commentary that Mitt Romney’s background—as a Mormon, as the son of a wealthy businessman, governor, and presidential candidate—might render him “out of touch” with ordinary Americans. Moreover, liberals are champions of affirmative action in higher education, defending it on the grounds that it creates an intellectual diversity that enhances the educational experience. This argument, however, presupposes that people’s perspectives are significantly influenced by their social backgrounds.
Concerns about how a presidential candidate’s background affects his values, then, have to be admitted as relevant from any political point of view. None of this is to say, of course, that Obama’s origins and early experiences would properly disqualify him from the presidency. Being able to look at America from the outside can be a significant strength in a leader, especially one charged with the execution of foreign policy. Moreover, being more steeped in non-American cultures might give one a more mature appreciation of the American virtues and strengths that typical American voters tend to cherish and wish to see preserved. Bringing such points forward in Obama’s defense, however, would require a full-fledged public discussion about such issues, including what some voters might regard as the possible drawbacks of a personal history like Obama’s: insufficient immersion in or attachment to American principles and interests.
This discussion did not, indeed could not, take place in 2008, and therefore persuasive reassurances could not be given, because of the iron curtain of political correctness that American liberals maintain around any discourse that even hints at a denigration of what is alien or foreign. So committed are our liberal elites to their dogmatic cosmopolitanism that, to them, to describe a person as a “foreigner” is somehow insulting or intolerant, even if it is a perfectly accurate description and is intended inoffensively as a mere description. For them the idea that “diversity is strength” is not a reasoned judgment—although in truth it might be rationally defensible when understood in a properly qualified way—but an article of faith that does not permit critical discussion. Who can doubt that anyone who in 2008 had tried to raise concerns about Obama’s background would have been met not with reasoned arguments pointing out the benefits of his background, but with denunciation as a xenophobe and a hater?
Because this discussion is so strictly forbidden, then, some Americans have sought out a surrogate for it in birtherism. Since the mainstream liberal custodians of our public discourse will not allow a conversation about whether Barack Obama’s formative experiences were sufficiently “American,” those who would have desired such a conversation have sought out a legalistic substitute in the claim, tenaciously held despite official evidence to the contrary, that Obama was not born in the United States, is not a “natural born citizen” in the meaning of the Constitution, and therefore is not formally qualified to occupy the presidency.
If there is truth in this explanation, then birtherism is an example of the kind of political distortions that arise from liberal utopianism. In the words of the poet Horace, “You can throw nature out with a pitchfork, but it always comes running back.” We might add that it often comes back in a more unruly and unreasonable form than it was before it was thrown out. As I have argued before at Public Discourse, human beings naturally experience a deep attachment to what is familiar—what the ancient political thinkers called the “love of one’s own”—and, we may add in this context, a corresponding hesitation in the face of what is unfamiliar and apparently alien. Hence, again, the desire to be reassured about the values of a presidential candidate whose background appears to impede an automatic and complete embrace of him as “one’s own.” This reaction liberalism condemns as “xenophobia,” but the characterization is unjust. There is a difference between an irrational fear and hatred of what is foreign and an understandable and natural caution about what is foreign. And being allowed to ask questions about it—and then having those questions respectfully answered—is one way in which people can come to love even what at first appears to be other than “one’s own.”
Liberal complaints about xenophobia are not only unjust, they are unrealistic. They are based on the assumption that human beings are by nature cosmopolitans, that they are capable of an indiscriminate attachment to the world at large. That is, liberals assume that the partiality and narrow attachments that humans display are not rooted in human nature, that they arise from outmoded social arrangements and therefore can and will be definitively superseded. This is the liberal intellectual equivalent of birtherism: a conviction held not only without evidence, but in the face of all the evidence we have. For everything we know from human history indicates that human beings are deeply attached to what they perceive as their own and that they cannot be hectored out of such attachments.
From birtherism contemporary liberals should learn the following lesson: denouncing and suppressing the love of one’s own only succeeds in driving it underground, where it manifests itself more unreasonably than it would have done otherwise. Instead, it should be accepted, acknowledged, and moderated through a reasonable engagement that, by conceding the instinct’s just claims, can also instruct it in its limits.