Obama, Elvis and America’s birthers
— Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own. —
Nobody ever landed on the moon, the televised images are a hoax. John F. Kennedy was murdered in a complex plot involving the Mafia and the CIA. Elvis Presley lives. Barack Obama was born outside the United States and therefore is ineligible to be president.
All these claims stem from conspiracy theories and myths born in the U.S. and they throw a question mark over the long-held view of experts that such ideas flourish most in societies where news is controlled, access to information difficult and barriers to independent inquiry difficult to overcome.
This kind of restrictive environment applies to many Third World countries – conspiracy theories are particularly abundant in the Middle East and Africa — but not to the technologically and economically advanced United States. Yet there is a parallel universe inhabited by millions and millions of Americans immune to facts, logic and common sense.
Some of the myths are harmless, such as the notion that rock-and-roll king Elvis Presley did not die in 1977 and instead went into hiding. (The reasons vary depending on who tells the tale).
There have been thousands of supposed Elvis sightings and a 2005 book says there’s DNA evidence that he is still alive. While the Elvis-in-hiding theory appears to fading (though it is far from dead), the hoaxed moon landing continues to run long enough to prompt a Newsweek magazine article that debunked the story on the 40th anniversary of the Apollo mission to the moon in July. Perhaps not surprisingly, early skepticism about the moon landing came from the Flat Earth Society, based in California.
The Flat Earthers have their own website, unlike the latest addition to America’s wide variety of conspiracy cults, the “birthers.”
They insist that President Barrack Obama was born in Kenya and that the certificate attesting to his birth in Hawaii is a forgery. Unlike the Flat Earthers, the birthers managed to find Congressional sponsors, all Republicans, to introduce a bill meant to block non-eligible Americans from becoming president in future.
H.R. 1503, introduced by Florida Republican Bill Posey, wants to “To amend the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 to require the principal campaign committee of a candidate for election to the office of President to include with the committee’s statement of organization a copy of the candidate’s birth certificate, together with such other documentation as may be necessary to establish that the candidate meets the qualifications for eligibility to the Office of President under the Constitution.”
TALK RADIO BOOSTS BIRTHERS
Weighty language for a weighty cause. First voiced during the presidential election campaign (when Obama opponents also aired suspicions that he is a Muslim), the birther conspiracy gained currency when a right-wing talk radio host, Rush Limbaugh, expounded on it and entertained his audience with the following line: “What do Obama and God have in common? Neither has a birth certificate. How do they differ? God does not think he’s Obama. And there’s another difference between God and Obama, and that is that liberals love Obama.”
This from a man with a reputation as the loudest and perhaps most influential conservative voice in American politics. Asked a few weeks ago whom he would chose as a political leader if the choice were between Limbaugh and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, former Vice President Dick Cheney opted for Limbaugh.
A conservative cable TV show host, Lou Dobbs of CNN, also boosted the birth certificate tale, inviting proponents of the theory on his program and raising questions over the authenticity of the certificate Obama’s campaign team produced before the elections.
Air time for the birthers, whose natural habitat is the Internet, clearly helped spread their claims. There are no reliable statistics on the number of American Flat Earthers, Moon Walk deniers or Elvis spotters but a poll in late July showed considerable Republican support for the birthers’ assertions and their conclusion that Obama is an illegitimate president.
According to the survey, by the polling institute Research 2000, there is a huge gap between Republicans and Democrats on the issue: 93 percent of Democrats believed that Obama was born in the U.S. while only 42 percent of Republicans thought so. Of the rest, 28 percent thought he wasn’t born in the U.S. and 30 percent were not sure.
“Far from being an isolated, on the edge movement, the birthers have planted deep a paranoid conspiracy seed about Obama’s legitimate right to sit in the White House among a wide body of Americans,” lamented Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a political analyst.
The debate, he says, has bestowed a kind of perverse legitimacy on the birthers. “They won’t quietly go away.”
Probably not. Conspiracy theories come in many forms but they have one thing in common: they survive against overwhelming factual evidence.