“It was a likely story. But then, all of his stories were likely.” – Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad
In a somewhat pointless exchange on Facebook recently (but aren’t they all, usually?) a friend-of-a-friend, struggling to defend against a criticism of current US President Donald Trump, trotted out the “birther” trope: the assertion that Barack Obama was actually born in Africa.
Her conviction is supported by a widely-circulated image of an alleged birth certificate labeled “The Republic of Kenya” and dated August, 1961. The simple historical fact that the Republic of Kenya only came into existence in December of 1964, three and half years after the date on the certificate, is not a deterrent to this woman’s belief in the absolute integrity of the document. She has harnessed her wagon to that particular mule; that the animal is dead and decaying bothers her not in the least. It’s her mule, and she plans to keep lashing away at it until the race has been run.
In a throwaway segment on “Good Morning America” a few days ago, television presenter Lara Spencer listed the activities in which Prince George, future King of England, would be participating as he began the new school year: one of those activities was ballet, a fact that Ms Spencer seemed to find amusing – amusing not in a “let’s be happy with this child” kind of way, but in a “let’s all make fun of this little sissy” kind of way.
Ms Spencer, whose credentials as a journalist include such highlights as a stint on “Antiques Roadshow”, and the host slot on “Flea Market Flip”, implied that the young Prince would lose his interest in dance very quickly, because people like her would be making fun of him for it.
We all have our own sacred cows, ideas that are so deeply embedded in our psyches that we are willing to go to any lengths, make any sacrifice, to defend them. Unlike concepts that are patently stupid, like Holocaust denial or trickle-down economics or Adam Sandler movies, these are so intrinsic to our worldview that they are usually invisible to us. Examining them objectively is like trying to see the back of one’s own head. When they cause us to do harm, it’s not because we mean to hurt anyone: Ms Spencer, in laughing at the young prince’s interests, did not intend malice toward the boy but rather was basing her comments on a stereotype, then using that same stereotype to justify her comments.
“We’re making fun of him for his interest in ballet because we are convinced that he won’t enjoy it because people will make fun of him for it.” Makes perfect sense, right?
It should be mentioned that, had Barack Obama in fact been born in the East Africa colony, he would not have been the only US President born under the British flag. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and William Henry Harrison were all born in the British Colony of Virginia; John Adams and John Quincy Adams were born in the Massachusetts Bay Colony; and Andrew Jackson was born in the Carolina Colony. The first President actually born in the United States of America was Number Nine, Martin Van Buren, born in New York in 1782.
For the birther, it’s obvious that Barack Obama did not belong in the White House. She believes this because her background, her socialization, her identity all tell her that a non-white person cannot be President of the United States; but phrasing the issue in that explicit way conflicts with her conscious self-image, which says that “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” – so she has to find a likely story that will mesh the very real revulsion she feels at the spectacle of a black man in a position of power with her view of herself as an educated and unbiased judge of persons and events. Toss in the (to her) unusual name, and the acknowledged fact that Mr Obama’s father came from the place that would eventually become the Republic of Kenya, and the solution is obvious: she can tell herself that her objection isn’t that Barack Obama isn’t white enough, it’s that he isn’t American enough.
“I don’t care whether the man is black or white; I’m just saying that the only way a black man could have been elected President is if there was a complex multinational conspiracy at all levels of government and society to put him there illegitimately. It has nothing to do with race.”
I like to consider myself pretty reasonable: my worldview is not based on animist superstition or the even more bizarre pronouncements of Jenny McCarthy or Franklin Graham, but on science and observation. This is what I want to believe about myself. This is my “likely story”.
When a paper wasp from the colony living above my front door lands on my arm, I don’t dance and scream and flail: I just stand there and wait for her to get bored and move on. Paper wasps (genus Polistes) have incredibly painful stings, so the visitor represents a very real threat, but I am sufficiently rational that I can remain calm and avoid confrontation. On the other hand, if one of the absolutely harmless camel crickets that infest my basement jumps onto my shoe, I go flying out the door and across the yard, hopping and squealing like a three-year-old at a pool party. I explain this behavior in a variety of ways: the creatures are close relatives of the cockroach; they are slimy to the touch; they feed on the kind of nasty detritus that one finds in a hundred-year-old dirt-floor basement; and so on. None of my “logical” explanations are at all convincing, but I have to try, because otherwise I’d have to accept that I’m behaving in a completely ridiculous, irrational way, out of unthinking fear, and that’s uncomfortable for me.
The genetic differences between a “black” American and a “white” American are often no greater than the distinctions between two people in a single family. Race is an artificial social construct that has no biological basis. The very definition of “black” or “white” is ambiguous: for many Americans a blue-eyed blond with one Nigerian grandparent can’t be considered white, while for others having a white mother meant that Barack Obama was about as black as Tilda Swinton. The terms of the argument are so deeply flawed that the argument itself can’t be anything but meaningless – yet, here we are.
Likewise, the idea that Prince George deserves a certain amount of ridicule for enjoying ballet derives from two completely valueless premises: one, that people will assume that he is gay, and two, that being considered gay will justify his being ridiculed. Both of these assertions have weight only because the people using them to support their beliefs give them that weight.
“My argument is valid because it is based on premises that are valid because the argument I’m making that is based on those premises is valid …”
In the end, the birther lady on Facebook slunk away, outraged that nobody bothered to challenge her, to give her a forum to vent some spleen, but instead just treated her like a doddering relative appearing unwanted at the dinner table: “Bless her heart, she doesn’t know what she’s saying, poor old thing …” Lara Spencer, meanwhile, published a non-apology on Instagram, accompanied by a picture of a lovely, but quite empty, landscape: in a more prescient individual, one could interpret that as a bit of self-deprecating humor, but … well, it’s probably just the first picture she found that wasn’t a selfie.
Barack Obama continues to bask in very high popularity numbers, and presumably Prince George will have a good time learning his pliés and I wish him well in the struggle he will face to find an identity for himself in the goldfish bowl in which he and his family live their lives.
Me? I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve got. Camel crickets still give me the heebie-jeebies, and I’m still no better at examining the back of my own head than anybody else, but at least I try to remember that it’s there.