Business Times - 18 Aug 2009
'Birthers', 'deathers' and the fear of change
Obama has a tough job winning over many middle-aged-to-elderly white men and women
By LEON HADAR
WE FIRST witnessed the birth of the Obama 'birther' story. You couldn't surf the Web or switch on cable television news channels without being bombarded with 'reports' that Barack Hussein Obama - the emphasis being on 'Hussein' - was not born in the US but in Kenya (or perhaps in Indonesia).
And since he was not a natural-born citizen, he was therefore not eligible for the presidency. So, Obama the Kenyan is illegally occupying the White House; he isn't really the president.
The 'Obama-is-Kenyan' story was first circulated on some of the more radical right-wing blogs during the 2008 presidential campaign - the same blogs that also informed us that Mr Obama was educated in a Muslim madrasah, and/or was an Al-Qaeda mole, and/or that he was the, well, anti-Christ . . .
And then as it was becoming clear to most Americans that Mr Obama did win the presidential election and was residing in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington - and, yes, after he provided his original copy of his birth certificate for all to see - the blogs and the TV news shows were once again flooded with updated 'birther' stories.
And its peddlers have even 'discovered' Mr Obama's 'real' birth certificate - not the 'forgery' provided by the White House - which was apparently issued by the 'Republic of Kenya' and signed by registrar EF Lavender, which is the name of a dishwasher detergent (Earth Friendly Lavender).
Some of those who studied the document noted that it seemed to be an alteration of the 'certified copy of registration of birth' from Australia signed by a GF Lavender.
So what's the big deal here? Just another bunch of nutty conspiracy theorists? After all, there are still many Americans who subscribe to the notion that we have been visited by green men in UFOs or that Elvis is still alive or that the landing on the moon didn't really take place (it was staged in a Hollywood studio).
But then you'd be surprised to learn that 46 per cent of voters in North Carolina - and 76 per cent of the Republicans in the state - do not think or aren't sure that Mr Obama was really born in the US. Indeed, opinion polls suggest that the 'birther' myth is either endorsed or not rejected by a large number of Republicans around the country - and a smaller number of Americans - and that it is most prevalent in the South.
Moreover, many Republican lawmakers and conservative pundits have refrained from refuting the 'birther' story, responding to inquiries about whether President Obama was born in the US by claiming that they were 'studying' the issue or that they didn't have enough information to make a 'judgment' about it or that there were 'two sides to the debate'.
That means that these leading members of the political and intellectual right were not sure whether Mr Obama has a legitimate claim on the US presidency, even now.
And then we have the 'deathers'. This colourful group includes some of the opponents of Mr Obama's healthcare reform efforts who claim that the proposed package includes measures that could lead to healthcare rationing and eventually to euthanasia. In fact, the bill doesn't include such a euthanasia provision. It does have a measure, however - proposed by a Republican lawmaker from Georgia - which would require coverage of the option of a living will, allowing patients to leave instructions specifying what action should be taken for their health in the event that they are not able to make decisions due to their illness.
But, hey, why permit the facts to ruin a great conspiracy theory proposing that the illegitimate 'President' Obama was promoting a scheme to kill old people? And, indeed, the accusation that Mr Obama was secretly planning to kill your grandma has been raised by the angry opponents of the healthcare plan during recent televised town hall meetings. It degenerated into shouting and name-calling as lawmakers met their constituents to discuss the healthcare proposals.
Again, leading Republican figures, backed by the insurance companies (that are opposed to many of the provisions of the healthcare bill) have been doing their best to promote this conspiracy. Hence former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin blasted Mr Obama's alleged 'death panels' on her Facebook page - although she and other 'Obama-promotes-euthanasia' leaders, including former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich, had supported the idea of encouraging Americans to prepare living wills in the past!
But for Ms Palin, Mr Gingrich and other Republican presidential hopefuls, jumping on the anti-Obama healthcare plan bandwagon has become the politically smart thing to do - especially if you want to win the electoral backing of the Republican 'base'.
And if you've been watching the coverage of the town hall meetings on television and on YouTube, this shrinking 'base' consists mostly of middle-aged- to-elderly white men and women, members of the Christian Right for whom President Obama and his healthcare plan have come to symbolise the 'end of the kind of America that we grew up in and loved'.
Other protesters showing up at these town meetings with effigies of Mr Obama and other Democrats have accused him of wanting to turn America into a 'socialist country like Russia or China' and some have even compared him to Hitler.
In some places, Mr Obama and Democratic lawmakers have been hanged in effigy, and racist slurs and death threats have been shouted at them. While some critics of the proposed healthcare plan have raised legitimate concerns about its cost and long-term impact on America's healthcare system, the 'deathers', 'birthers' and the other enraged anti-Obama protesters seem to represent a powerful reactionary force, particularly from the southern states of the old confederacy.
These people believe that 'their America' is being robbed from them by an African-American president who has just nominated a Hispanic woman to the Supreme Court and who, together with a cabal of secular multiculturalists and radical socialists, is going to 'de-Christianise' America; force white Americans out of their jobs; provide reparations to American-Africans to compensate them for slavery; nationalise the entire economy under the control of bureaucrats in Washington; and open the country's gates to millions of Latin immigrants who are bound to demand that California and Texas be returned to Mexico.
While this End-of-Old-America scenario has nothing to do with reality, its popularity among the 'birthers', 'deathers' and the Republican Party's electoral base exposes genuine fears among those who find it difficult to adjust to the new political realities that are driven in part by dramatic demographic changes, including a growing non-white and non- Christian population and a more tolerant and secular generation of young Americans.
At times, it seems as though some of these 'birthers' and 'deathers' are hoping that, very soon, they will wake up from their six-month-long nightmare in which they had observed such an implausible sight: a black man occupying the White House. Now, isn't that really far-fetched?
Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.