It was an instantaneous truism to say that both the original "birther" claim and its debunking are a waste of journalistic breath, a distraction from issues that actually matter. And that's true, to a point: the "evidence" of Obama's supposed birth in Kenya or Indonesia was so patently false, and the political deviousness of the meme's promoters so obvious, that only an idiot could actually have believed the story. And, of course, the location of Obama's mother's womb vis-a-vis some arbitrary geopolitical boundary on the day he was born is irrelevant to his actual ability to govern.
But while the Birther conspiracy theory itself was nonsense, the mindset that embraced it is still with us; and while it will be good if we can put this particular story behind us, it is important that we not ignore its ramifications. There is a deeper truth to be found here, if we dig. The Birther movement illumined two perennial weaknesses of the modern conservative mind: its preference for faith over empiricism (there still are Birthers convinced that even the "long form" birth certificate is false), and its inescapable, but largely misunderstood, racism. It is the racism of Birthers and other Regressive conservatives that concerns me here: not the avaricious, self-serving racism of the slaveholder, but a superficially more benign, Kiplingesque form of racism, a racism dating back to the pre-Progressive era that modern conservatives long so fervently to return to.
Nearly all conservatives are offended by the suggestion that they are racist -- and their umbrage, generally, is sincere. Stephen Colbert's recurring joke about literally being colorblind aside, most Americans, conservative and liberal alike, still see and judge people by their color; as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in "Blink," troubling but incontrovertible studies have demonstrated that blacks and whites alike seem neurologically incapable of setting aside their longstanding, socially-programmed biases no matter how sincerely they want to. The real test of racism, among the majority of us who were raised in a racially-differentiated society and cannot shake its effects, is not whether we "are" racist but how we react -- whether we embrace it or reject it -- when we discover it in ourselves. By that test, most conservatives, like most liberals, are not "racist": conservatives and liberals alike generally dislike the Ku Klux Klan, are nauseated by the Holocaust, recoil at the old images of water hoses and police dogs being turned on peaceful protesters in Selma. For that reason, most Birthers do not consider themselves racist.
But while few whites on either end of the spectrum are still racist in the familiar, post-Civil Rights era, Archie Bunker sense, there nevertheless are subtler forms of racism at work in the American psyche. It is an older form of American racism, founded in our country's disastrous experiments with imperialism in the early part of the last century, that has resurfaced in the Birther movement.
In his great and terrible 1899 poem "The White Man's Burden", Rudyard Kipling portrayed white imperialists as selfless servants doing their utmost to improve the lives of the ungrateful non-white races. Kipling didn't deny that non-whites could be shepherded "toward the light," "brought... from bondage"; he didn't deny that someday non-whites might mature and be sufficient unto themselves; he wasn't "racist" in the sense of saying that whites have the right to enslave or take advantage of the "mongrel races." To the contrary, he was urging whites to serve those he considered less fortunate. His thrust was that white duty should replace white privilege, and if Kipling lived today, he likely would, like most Birthers, have denied being a "racist" in any negative sense.
What Kipling wrote was not so much that whites were better or more beloved in God's eyes than non-whites, but that whites and non-whites were different -- and that those difference should be taken into account in deciding who, properly, should govern the world. And that racism -- that world-weary sense that "we would rather it not be this way, but the reality is that blacks just don't have 'the necessities' to be baseball managers (or Presidents)" -- is still with us.
That Birtherism was a manifestation of this old-school, British-imperial form of racism, based not on the greed of the slaveholder but on the superiority of the eugenicist, becomes starkly obvious if you compare the ways conservatives treated the circumstances of Barack Obama's and John McCain's births.
Most Birthers will assert that they are merely concerned with the letter of the law, with adherence to Constitutional principles. Article II, section 1 of the Constitution, they say, only allows "natural born" citizens to become President; and, white or black, they want the Constitution followed. But that claim of colorblindness is exploded by comparing conservatives' starkly different responses to the circumstances of Barack Obama's and John McCain's births.
Obama, according to Birthers, was the child of an American citizen who happened to be born outside the U.S. and therefore was not a "natural-born" citizen eligible to be President. (For complicated reasons, "born to an American citizen" is not itself sufficient in either Obama's or McCain's case; see here.) But John McCain, whom most conservatives supported in the 2008 general election, unquestionably was born outside the U.S.; he was born in the Panama Canal Zone. Yet Birthers did not squawk about McCain's not being "natural born."
Birthers would counter that McCain's birth was different; that the Panama Canal Zone was the functional equivalent of U.S. territory. But that, as a matter of law, simply is not true. Even if the Founders had been able to conceive of America owning territories outside its own borders (one of the kinds of "entanglement" that Washington and others warned against), the truth is that the place John McCain was born, at the time he was born, was not considered "American soil."
This is more than a mere technicality. As every terrorist-hating conservative knows and agrees, "the Constitution does not necessarily follow the flag," which is precisely why President George W. Bush ordered that terrorist suspects be interrogated at Guantanamo Bay: Gitmo exists precisely because conservatives believe there are places under U.S. control that are not subject to U.S. laws. That rule was announced between 1901 and 1905 in the so-called "Insular Cases", in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that U.S. territories are not "America" for purposes of the Constitution, and people born in those territories are, most emphatically, not American citizens.
Birthers would counter, weakly, that the Panama Canal Zone is different, because a statute confers citizenship on the children of Americans born there. That's a nice try -- but McCain was born in 1936, and the statute conferring U.S. citizenship on Zone-born children like McCain was not passed until 1937, when McCain was eleven months old. John McCain -- unlike, as we now know, Barack Obama -- is a naturalized citizen, not a "natural born" one.
In other words, even if Birthers' version of events was correct, John McCain was no more "born in the U.S.A." than Barack Obama supposedly was. Law professor Gabriel Chin's comprehensive, painstakingly-researched law review article on this topic can be read here.
Note: I'm not saying that John McCain was Constitutionally ineligible to be President. I am saying that he suffered the exact same disability -- being born outside the United States, and before any law was passed saying otherwise -- that Birthers fervently claimed Barack Obama suffered. My question is: why did reactionary conservatives ignore, in John McCain, the exact same ineligibility they found intolerable in Barack Obama?
This brings us back to Rudyard Kipling.
Kipling, a British subject who witnessed with sadness the demise of the British Empire, wrote "The White Man's Burden" (subtitled "The United States and the Philippine Islands") to encourage America to take up Britain's imperialistic responsibilities, especially in the Philippines and other territories conquered in the Spanish-American War, Philippine-American War (last century's Iraq), and various less violent annexations. The Constitutional rights of people born in such territories -- including both Panamanian territory (McCain's birthplace) and Hawai'i (Obama's birthplace) -- is precisely what was addressed in the Insular Cases.
In his paper Injustice According to Law: The Insular Cases and Other Oddities, the Constitutionalist and former Puerto Rico Supreme Court Chief Justice José Trías Monge has pointed out that Kipling's sentiments, those wars and annexations, and the Insular Cases decisions are all one fabric: one of white superiority, the moral imperative of imperialism, and white fear of dark people's power. And this gets us to the nature of Birthers' racism: not the greedy exploitative racism of the American slaveholder, which most Birthers decry, but the fearful, expansionist racism of the American "Manifest Destiny" crowd and of the British imperialists before them.
It is no coincidence that most Birthers consider Guantanamo to be beyond the reach of U.S. courts; Iraq and Afghanistan to be appropriate uses of American military power; America to be an "exceptional" nation; "anchor babies" to not be deserving of citizenship; the Gilded Age to be truer to the American vision than the Progressive Era; and John McCain to be a "real American" while Barack Obama supposedly was not. They all are faces of the same issue: U.S. conservatives' Regressive, and racially-driven, sense of white American exceptionalism.
In Birthers' minds, both McCain and Obama were born outside the United States. In Birthers' legal analysis, both McCain and Obama were Constitutionally disqualified from serving as President. But conservatives did not rally and protest against McCain's candidacy as they did against Obama's candidacy (and, later, Presidency). The reason is not, precisely, that McCain is white and Obama is black. It is, more subtly, that McCain was born overseas in the service of American imperialism over a lesser nation and a lesser race, whereas Obama, himself a "mongrel race" (Kipling's term), was the son of a Kenyan -- and Kenyan, at the time of Obama's birth, was still a British colony. McCain, in short, is one of "us" -- one of the white men carrying the burden -- while Obama is one of "them" -- the burden to be carried. McCain is one of those charged by God with the burden of ruling; Obama is one of the childish savages who, with God's blessing, will benefit under the white man's rule. (McCain himself even slips sometimes and reveals that he sees himself, and America, this way.)
Birtherism may not have been the result of the open, self-serving bigotry of antebellum slaveholders or violent Bull Connors. Rather, it was a manifestation of the more genteel, Edwardian racism of the "exceptional nation" imperialist. But it is racism nevertheless, and it is why the "Birther" story, itself nonsense, should continue to inform our political discussion.