The “birther” controversy is newly in the headlines, but its umbilical cord stretches deep into our history.
It has been more than a year since President Obama produced a copy of his long-form birth certificate from Hawaii—and nearly 50 years since the historian Richard Hofstadter first coined the phrase “the paranoid style in American politics.” But the continuing “birther” circus in Arizona demonstrates that this is one non-issue—and one national character flaw—that is never going to go away.
Every time the question of Obama’s birthplace seems to be resolved once and for all—as it surely did last year when he appeared in the White House briefing room to announce he’d release the certificate—it pops up all over again. It did so most recently via the unearthing of a 20-odd-year-old error in a promotional flyer from Obama’s former literary agent that described him as having been born in Kenya, and in the insistence by Arizona’s secretary of state that Hawaii officials verify Obama’s birthplace if he were to remain on the Arizona ballot in the presidential election this fall.
That last wrinkle has now been ironed out, with an announcement from Attorney General Ken Bennett that Hawaii officials had finally produced information that satisfied him. Bennett had insisted that he was not a conspiracy theorist but was merely responding to the concerns of Arizonans. “I’m happy that we got what we asked for and that’s what I was expecting all along,” Bennett said late Tuesday.
But fear not! Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Arizona’s hard-nosed gift to vigilante crackpots everywhere, is keeping the issue alive, having dispatched his own investigators to Honolulu in a continuing quest for the truth. “We feel that that document is a forgery,” Arpaio announced. “We’re trying to figure out who did it. That’s good police work.”
This would all be funny, if it weren’t so sad—and more than a little bit scary. Fittingly enough, Hofstadter’s analysis had its origins in another Arizonan, Barry Goldwater, whose campaign for the G.O.P. nomination is what inspired Hofstadter’s lecture at Oxford University in 1963 and his essay in Harper’s magazine the following year. Hofstadter acknowledged that he was borrowing the term “paranoid” from psychiatry and that it was pejorative. But the phenomenon he described was anything but new, and not necessarily limited to right-wingers. Irrational venom had variously been turned against Freemasons, Jesuits, Progressives, and—perhaps most famously, with McCarthyism—against Communists.
“The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms,” Hofstadter wrote. “He traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values.” He is “always manning the barricades of civilization” and “does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician.”
“Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil,” he added, “what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish.”
Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the most recent go-round on this matter is that Arizona’s Attorney General Bennett went out of his way to insist that he himself was not a “ birther” but was simply trying to satisfy the concerns of his alarmed constituents. That’s either a painful reflection of the political fear the question generates or a remarkably disingenuous and self-serving statement. Whenever someone says, “It’s not about the money,” it’s about the money.
By the end of his life, of course, Barry Goldwater’s instinctual Western libertarianism had mellowed into a live-and-let-live attitude on many questions, including allowing homosexuals to serve openly in the military. He didn’t care, he once famously declared, if a soldier was straight, so long as he could shoot straight. He developed a mutually respectful acquaintance with as prominent a sinner as Bill Clinton, who took pains to call on him when visiting the state. It’s too bad that there’s no one on the ground in Arizona like Goldwater right now to stand up for Obama on this issue, and to remind us that “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”