I am not a Birther. Which is not to say that I think the question of Barack Obama’s US citizenship has in anyway been adequately answered, it has scarcely even been addressed other than through sneers and accusations of racism (and yes, a Certificate of Live Birth and several conflicting CNN statements…). Rather, I just don’t believe it in anyway likely that Mr. Obama wasn’t born in the country when two Hawaiian newspapers reported at the time that he was.
That said, I find the way that people who do believe that is a possibility are being treated by everyone – from the White House, to the media, to many even in the conservative blogosphere – to be completely unfair. Birthers are treated as kooks and extremists, banned from the comment sections of websites, and given less respect or voice in the media than those detached enough from basic reality to believe that passenger planes didn’t hit the World Trade Center on 9/11 despite, you know, the video of it happening and the missing passenger jets full of people. It begs the question – Is uncertainty about the citizenship of the President of the United States really so offensive? Certainly no one expressed this kind of outrage when John McCain’s eligibility was questioned due to his birth in the Panama Canal Zone. And I say rightly so. Here is why:
The list of qualifications for the presidency as spelled out by our founding fathers is remarkably short. As it turns out, almost anyone can be president, as long as they meet three, and only three, basic criteria. One, that they are a natural born citizen of the United States. Two, that they are at least 35 years old. And three, that they have maintained US residency for at least the last fourteen years. Citizenship, Age, and Residency, and that’s pretty much it. You don’t have to have any particular philosophy (which is good for Mr. Obama, considering he rejects the founding principles of the nation he now leads as “fundamentally flawed”), you don’t have to have any particular experience (which also serves Mr. Obama since his meteoric rise to fame seems to have skipped from local political agitator directly to elected government official without ever landing even for a moment on real-world employment), you don’t even have to like America itself, or Americans (those bitter folk who cling to their guns and their religion, or ‘stupidly’ behaved police officers for example). Amazing really. Our founders enumerated almost no restraints whatsoever on who might serve as president, and yet two of the three requirements they did write into the document that is America, citizenship and residency, make clear that they were very concerned that the president be, well, American. That tells me that a president’s citizenship is an important issue indeed.
Of course, the reason our founders cared about this issue so much is obvious. Citizenship is about identity. It’s about who a person is, and what values govern them. It is about loyalty to one nation over all others, which in the case of this new America wasn’t just about geographic-jingoism at all. To them, America was less a place than an it was an idea – An idea that men should be free from the tyranny and that that government serves best which serves least. Since the founders were trying to grow their new country out of a continent of colonies there-to-fore governed by an entirely different nation, and peopled by settlers from diverse nations around the world, the opportunity for competing interests and loyalties was pretty high. They didn’t want to give the keys to just anyone. No, the President of the United States was to be a citizen of this country, holding up this country’s values and ideals, and loyal to this country alone. The president was not to be a British Citizen, or a French Citizen, or a Global Citizen, but an American Citizen.
And that is what the Birther Movement is really all about. It’s about who we are as a people, and whether or not Barack Obama is one of us. And I am not using the term “us” here as some thoughtless code-word for race as undoubtedly those too infantile in their thinking to even have a discussion about race without shrieking accusation and ad hominem in the first place will bemoan, but to talk about Americans – those people of all ethnicities and backgrounds who are defined, not by the color of our skin, but by our common values and loyalty to the idea that is America. What the Birthers see in Barack Obama is a man whose values and loyalties seem to starkly contrast with those that have so long defined us as Americans, a man dedicated to ideas that are foreign to our own.
We see America as a melting-pot, where a singular culture is born out of many. E Pluribus Unum, we say. Barack Obama sees America as a multi-cultural balancing act where each person’s first loyalty is to those most like themselves in class or race or gender, and where those diverse groups can only co-exist with the guidance of government.
We see America, from the Pilgrims who signed the Mayflower Compact to the Biblical scholars (yes, even Jefferson and Franklin) who birthed the nation, to the spirit of sacrifice and charity that thrives to this very day, not as a nation of Christians (for that freedom is at the deepest core of our common philosophy) but as a Christian nation. A nation conceived in and dedicated to those Biblical principals (as directly expressed by our founders and philosophical forbearers all the way back to John Locke) of liberty, self-government, an independent judiciary, forgiveness of debt, mercy, and honor of history . Barack Obama says, “We are not a Christian nation, at least not anymore…,” and subscribes to a personal religious theology rooted not in grace and love and freedom, but in anger and conquest.
We see America, from our victory over British oppression, to the liberation of Europe from the national socialists and defense of her against the communists, to the defeat of the Taliban and toppling of Saddam Hussein, as a force for good in the world. Barack Obama travels the world apologizing for the very actions we have always called our national pride, always quick to point out what he sees as America’s meddling, but never mentioning the communist elements, oppressive regimes, or extremist agitators that typically drew our sons and daughters into those regions in the first place.
We view our progress, our innovation, our freedom as unparalleled on the stage of history because the system of government we have created empowers men to their own highest achievement rather that seeking to regulate them into conformity with the plans of others. Barack Obama speaks of world orders, more intrusive government, and sees America as merely one color in a vibrant tapestry of nations, no better than any other, and perhaps worse for our arrogance and greed. Instead of celebrating us, he decries us as in need of reform in the image of European governments that aren’t ashamed to call themselves socialist.
We see America as not without fault, but unparalleled in our goodness in all of human history. He sees America as flawed, though perhaps not beyond his own repair.
For all of these reasons and many, many more, Barack Obama seems to be, if not un-American, then at least not-American. Which brings us back to citizenship. The question the Birthers are really trying to ask isn’t ‘is Barack Obama one of us.’ He plainly is not one of us. The real question is ‘why not?’ The Birthers think the answer might be as simple as that he is not an actual citizen of this country. They think he must have been born somewhere else, like Kenya, to have the views and values he expresses. Others think that Mr. Obama was born here, but that perhaps his parents renounced his citizenship while he was living in Indonesia as a child, maybe to get him into certain schools or just because they thought at the time that they would live in Indonesia forever. Maybe that would explain how Mr. Obama paid from his Harvard education, through programs aimed at helping foreign nationals get American educations. Which might explain why none of his collegiate records or papers have ever been released. Which might further explain why there is just so much about his past that has been deliberately withheld from the public, or colorfully rewritten in his artificially sweetened autobiographies. I don’t happen to agree with the Birthers or their legal-citizenship cousins, but my question for the Birthers-haters is – When did it become incumbent on citizens asking reasonable questions about their president’s life, experiences, and even his eligibility to be president, to simply accept the that president at his word? Is it not reasonable to expect an elected official, especially one who has promised unprecedented transparency, to simply reveal the documents relevant to answering the biggest questions about his life? Are we supposed to take all of our government officials at face value now, or just this one? Why does the media, whose job it is to hold the government accountable deride the Birthers and not demand the president simply remove the cloak he has so effectively hidden himself behind? Agree with them or not, the Birthers are just trying to answer the perfectly legitimate questions created by the patent dishonesty about and obscuration of most every aspect of Barack Obama’s life. Who can blame them?
As for those of us who don’t subscribe to the conclusion of the Birthers, the truth is that even worse questions remain for us. After all, if the answer isn’t that Mr. Obama is not a legal American citizen, then the question that remains is how is it that a young man who was born here, was raised here, is from among us could be so foreign in his views of who we are as a people? What weakness in our system has allowed to fester on our own streets beliefs, loyalties, and sensibilities so antithetical to the ones that have so long defined, propelled, and strengthened us? And perhaps even more troubling – If the President of the United States really has nothing at all to hide in the past he has so sought to conceal, then why has he concealed it at all? Is it simply distrust of his fellow citizens, or dislike? Does he think himself so far above the rabble that he is simply beyond having to expose himself to our judgments? Or is it that Barack Obama simply wants to be left alone to define his own life, to continue writing his own narrative unencumbered by fact or evidence or inquiry, leaving history to believe about him whatever he himself conceives or constructs? Is he a leader whose legacy is his own declaration? If so, he may be even less American than the Birthers themselves fear.