Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Birthdays, "Birthers" and Facts

Yesterday, August 4th, was President Barack Obama's birthday. He was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on August 4, 1961. Hawaii joined the United States as the Fiftieth State on August 21, 1959, almost exactly two years previously. Thus, Obama is, indeed, a natural-born US citizen.

The facts of this case are so clear, and so readily verifiable, that one would have assumed that any controversy on this matter would be long gone, and no longer even an issue, especially now that the 2008 presidential election has long since been decided. Yet this is clearly not the case. Slacktivist commented on an incident that happened just barely over a month ago (on June 30th). NPR did a story on the "birther" movement less than a week ago. A recent poll suggests that 58 percent of Republicans are unwilling to take a clear stand and say "yes, Obama was born in America." Frankly, that's a huge number, and I'm a bit skeptical that so many Republicans are either so dense or so cowardly. It's so large that I have to assume that those behind the poll (or, perhaps, those reporting the poll's findings), have their own anti-Republican agenda, but even so, it amazes me that there are so many (however many there actually are) out there that seem unable to accept basic facts.

But, perhaps even more important, it's become clear that we find it increasingly difficult to determine what facts are these days. One of the reasons for this is that technology has advanced to the point of making forgeries more and more possible, a fact ironically (if definitely inadequately) supported by this pathetic attempt by the "birthers" themselves to forge a Kenyan birth certificate (warning: this video is clearly from a partisan point of view. You probably only need to watch the first three minutes):

However, I don't think the potential for "forged facts" is really the problem. And it's clearly not that one side (i.e., conservatives, in the example of the above video) is particularly susceptible to ignoring facts. This happens with people everywhere, of all kinds of ideologies. It's well established that people tend to form beliefs based more on ideology than on facts, rather than the other way around. To put it another way, if a set of facts challenges a pre-existing ideology, most folks assume that something must be wrong with the facts as they are presented, rather than take that as a reason to re-evaluate the ideology. This seems to be part of human nature, and thus is nothing new. Still, it seems to me that it's getting worse.

Clearly, there are many who are opposed to President Obama, for a whole variety of reasons, both valid and not. But until we can begin to more realistically separate argument from ideology, I see little hope of finding sufficient common ground to truly tackle the difficult problems that people on both sides of a given ideology can actually agree exist (say, the ailing economy, whether you're a fan of taxing the rich to give aid to the poor, or of providing financial incentives for those with the wealth to create jobs to do more of that).

We need to be better than the "birthers," insisting that readily provable facts simply aren't true. We need to acknowledge our prejudices, and learn to move (at least a little bit) beyond them. Then, perhaps, we can start to solve some of the problems before us.

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