Saturday, April 30, 2011

Sideshows and Carnival Barkers (on the Birther issue, Donald Trump and others)


by Douglas Messerli

The United States, in its history of political campaigns, has surely had its share of outrageous behavior, hypocrisy, and outright lies. There's something particularly about running for president that brings out the worst in some of the men and women who seek that elusive and, to my way of thinking, undesirable job. Thank heaven there are still megalomaniac men and women who want to run our country. And occasionally one argues persuasively that he or she has the best interest of the US citizens at heart—whether or not that turns out to be a fact.

I feel Obama, despite all of his failures (which, after all, are complicated by the failures of our legislative government) has convinced me that he is less interested in his own voice than in reforming government policies. However, his necessary commitment to the center has defeated his own best attempts at accomplishing anything. But I am not going to attempt here a deconstruction of how the President and the Congress together have failed an often uninformed and sometimes a near-idiot public. We are undergoing one of the most difficult times, with regard to the federal and even state governments, that we have ever faced as a country. Trust in public office seems to be at a new low, and those outside of government seem to be increasingly ignorant of what politics is about. The trouble with playing the center, as Obama has attempted to do, is that there may no longer be a center in American culture, which makes the President's position an extremely lonely one. If his approval ratings continue to decline as they have, I think we can chalk it up to the fact that there is no longer any way for a leader to appeal to both the left and the right, in part because both sides have too often let their extremist voices speak for them.

What concerns me most is that while we face dire issues of health care, global politics (particularly with regard to the new north African and Arab populist challenges), ongoing participation in warfare in Afghanistan, and financial debt which may collapse everything we have worked for, we are evidently unable to focus on these dilemmas, while we are transfixed by peripheral and quite meaningless issues. One of the most egregious of these, it seems to me is the "birther" issue, long-festering since Obama's election, in extreme right and religious groups, and more recently whipped up by potential presidential candidate Donald Trump. At the beginning of this week a USA Today and Gallup poll found that, among Republicans 43% felt that Obama was not born in the United States; and even among the general electorate, 15% say he was "probably" born abroad, with another 9% saying that he was definitely born on foreign soil. Perhaps one should not take these polls too seriously, since, as an article in the Los Angeles Times this morning mentioned, about 45% of those polled questioned the American birth of Donald Trump.

However, that this stubborn perception of Obama still persists after Hawaiian officials, both Democratic and Republican, have stated over and over that Obama was born in their state, along with biographical evidence that his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, an American citizen, lived, at the time of Obama's birth, August 4, 1961, in Hawaii, is shocking.

As Janny Scott, in a fascinating essay, "The Young Mother Abroad" (The New York Times Magazine, April 24, 2011) reports:

She dropped out of school (the University of Hawaii), married him (Barack
Hussein Obama) and give birth shortly before their union ended. In the
aftermath, she met Lolo Soetoro, an amiable, easy-going, tennis-player
from the Indonesian island of Java.

Dunham and her son moved to Seattle, where she enrolled at the University of Washington from September 1961 to June 1962, moving back to Hawaii, where she resumed her education at the University of Hawaii. Soetoro and Dunham married in 1964, and in 1967 Ann Dunham and her son, Barack, joined Soetoro in Indonesia, to where had been called home the previous year because of political events. The future president was 6 years of age. So what's the problem?

Of course there are numerous conspiracy theories, suggesting that Dunham somehow faked the Hawaiian birth, although why an unknown young mother would want to illegally register her son as a native-born American seems a rather odd supposition to me. How she might have accomplished this is even more perplexing. Could she have even imagined a young boy with a Black Nigerian father might someday be president?*

But then the very idea of the need to be born in the US in order to run for president, from my point of view, seems equally absurd. I suppose the early founders must have feared that a man born in another country might have conflicts of interest and influences from that other country which might stand in the way of US interests. Of course, many of us are very much influenced by the homeland of our forbearers, and, since we are a country of immigrants, one might suggest that anyone but a Native American would have no possible influences from abroad.

When I was 16, I lived for a year in Norway, and over the years, I have found some of the most pleasurable moments of my life in France. Might I not be, if I were to run for president, described as having special interests in these countries? It all seems rather tribal to me. I have always felt that just being citizen ought to be enough.

Accordingly, I basically ignored the "birthers'" concerns, seeing those who supported the question primarily as crackpots. When an aunt of mine, a fundamentalist, born-again Christian, e-mailed me bigoted texts that argued for Obama's illegality, I simply deleted them, until one day, after receiving several of these unwanted epistles, I wrote her, asking to be taken off her mailing list. Good Christian that she is, she replied that she would never talk to me again. And she was kept her word.

Despite my disdain for the whole issue, however, I realize that it is the current law that the President must have been born in the US, and the problem is that for some apparently illogical souls—a great number of them actually—Obama must be excised from his American heritage. Many intelligent observers have suggested, and I strongly agree, that this position is supported by strong racial animosity and outright xenophobia.

Why, accordingly, when Trump began talking about this issue—and others equally disturbing ("We need to seize Iraq's oil. " "The Chinese are our enemies!")—didn't some of the few sober Republicans speak out? Of course, some may have, their voices drowned out by an equally crass media, who allowed Trump to capture the stage, where he claimed, at first, that the President's birth may have happened in Africa, and later, on March 17th, "The reason I have a little doubt, just a little, is because he grew up and nobody knew him." I gather that Trump had never heard of or refused to believe in Hawaii Governor Neils Abercombrie's memories of Obama's mother and his celebration with them of Obama's birth.

A few days later Trump described hiring his own private investigators who, "at a certain point in time," will reveal some "interesting things."

Finally, Trump told CNN interviewer Ali Velshi, "When I started, two months ago, I thought he (Obama) was (born in Hawaii). Every day that goes by, I think less and less that he was born in the United States."

Whatever information Trump was privy to, we never discovered. It is clear to me that it was simply another "trump," a play of the cards to keep the public focused on his confused and obscure political positions. In any event, the tactic paid off as far as he was concerned, if only because it forced the President to finally lay the question to rest by producing his own birth certificate, which indeed states his birth to be on August 4, 1961 in Honolulu.

One might have imagined that finally this piece of dirty folklore could be laid to rest. But Trump, turning everything inside out, claimed that he was "honored" to have helped get the certificate's release. He was "proud of himself" for having had a role in settling this matter finally so that we can move on to other issues. Repeating himself, Trump declared and he was "really proud" and "really honored," before suggesting that the document had to be looked at carefully, as if to hint at new doubts.

In truth, Trump's major role was precisely what the President spoke of that morning, namely that of playing a part in the sideshow as a carnival barker with the pretense of saying something important about American politics. It was he, not the president, who had stirred up new doubts for an issue that might have been laid to rest years ago, given the statements from the State of Hawaii, released early on as Obama announced that he would run for president.

Obviously, the issue will not disappear. As Hendrig Hertzberg righteously suggested in The New Yorker of May 2, 2011.

The dismaying truth is that birtherism is part of a larger pattern
of rejection of reality that has taken hold of intimidating segments
of one of two political parties that alternate in power in our
governing institutions. It is akin to the view that global warming
is a hoax, or that the budget can be balanced through spending
cuts alone, or that contraception causes abortion, on a par with the
theory that the earth is six thousand years old...."

Hertzberg goes on to suggest that as Trump has proclaimed, "the world laughs at us."
What Trump doesn't comprehend, however, is that if the world is laughing it is at his own, and others like him, buffoonery. The sad commedia repeated by the thousands of so-called leaders and individuals in our country who cannot deal with the realities that Hertzberg suggests and other truths such as the fact that the US is one of the few civilized and wealthy countries that provides no health care for vast numbers of its citizens, and is apparently determined to take away even the insufficient benefits provided by Medicare and Medicaid; or the tragic-comic fact that public education in our country is in shambles, with states and cities less and less able to provide high quality teaching.

As if this recent circus had not been enough, a couple of days later Republican Committee Chairman, Reince Preibus, like a flying trapeze artist, turned everything on its head once more:

We're borrowing four and half billion dollars a day and this
president is more worried about birth certificates, Oprah Winfrey
and fundraisers at the Waldorf Astoria. It's maddening and I just
wish the president would engage in the real issues that are
affecting America.

When asked why, then, he hadn't suggested to Trump that he should alter his rhetoric, Preibus argued that his role was not to serve as censor. Yet Preibus would clearly censor the President for even responding. The most maddeningly thing of all is not the President's inability to engage in real issues, but the Republican inability to even comprehend what any "real" issues might possibly be or how to communicate them within the political forum, which would mean to do precisely what Preibus refuses to do, to sit down with his constituency to determine a sane beginning to a dialogue.

More recently, Trump has publically mused, why hasn't Obama released his grades from his Freshman year at Occidental College in Los Angeles—as if one of the best-educated and intelligent of Presidents in decades needed to prove something.

Before I could even revise this essay, that wonderful political spokesman, Donald Trump, again attacked the Chinese: "Listen you mother fuckers, we're going to tax you 25%!" Even a suicide bomber might be reminded that the Chinese own $755.4 billion of the US Treasury securities against American debt. Do the Republicans—so determined, as they insist, on balancing the budget—really want to risk this mad rhetoric on a complete and total financial collapse, all in the name of Trump's entertaining, family unfriendly, expletives? La Commedia รจ finita! And I haven't even mentioned Sarah Palin!

Los Angeles, April 29 and April 30, 2011

*Janny does report, amazingly, that Ann Dunham did think that her son, as he got older, could even become President of the United States. What a wonderfully determined mother she must have been.

Copyright (c) 2011 by Douglas Messerli

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