By Eugene Robinson
WASHINGTON—Well, that was weird.
Let’s see: The Arab world is in tumult, with worrying signs that a Libya-style descent into civil war may be happening in Syria, where the stakes are unimaginably higher. Nearby, the warring Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, may be forming a united front. Closer to home, new leaders are being tapped for the Pentagon and the CIA. The government is fast approaching its legal debt ceiling. Painfully high gasoline prices have put the nation in a sour mood. Tornadoes are wreaking death and destruction across the South.
So the leader of the free world summons the media for an important announcement—but not about war, peace or the economy. It’s about his birth certificate.
This just in: President Obama has proved, yet again, that he is a natural-born citizen of the United States. Which we already knew—“we” meaning those of us who believe there is such a thing as objective reality.
I include in this reality-based group at least some of the “carnival barkers,” as Obama called them, who have led the gullible and the paranoid down the rabbit hole of “birther” conspiracy theory. Did Donald Trump ever really believe there was a question about Obama’s birthplace? Of course not; look how quickly he moved on to the next bogus “mystery,” which apparently involves Obama’s stellar academic record—a little too stellar, perhaps? A bit too perfect?
Two ugly forces had to combine to produce the birth certificate sideshow, which can only be described as a national disgrace. One is a calculated attempt by Obama’s political opponents to delegitimize his presidency.
It seems obvious to me that this campaign to paint the president as some sort of usurper—this insistence that despite winning the popular vote by a healthy margin and the electoral vote by a landslide, he wasn’t really elected—has everything to do with race.
Does anyone disagree? Well, just imagine what the birthers would be saying if Obama—like his Republican opponent in 2008, John McCain—had been born in the Panama Canal Zone. Or think of the uproar if Obama—like George W. Bush in 2000—had lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College.
Look, I’m not surprised that the first black president faces unprecedented scrutiny about his origins, and I hope Obama’s not surprised, either. This sort of thing comes with being a historical “first,” and there’s no way around it. To those deniers who can’t come to terms with the fact of the Obama presidency, I have nothing to offer but this: Yes, he’s smarter, richer, luckier and better looking than you, and he’s your president. Yours, mine and ours. And he’s black. Get over it.
But race alone couldn’t have generated the whole birther phenomenon. Also required was an increasing tendency for facts to be treated as personal accoutrements, as easily adopted or discarded as the newest-model smart phone.
If a fact is inconvenient, just ignore it. Put it aside. Surely there’s someone out there who’s selling a counterfeit version that might be more to your liking.
The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s adage that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts” seems so last century. I’m not talking about competing worldviews, I’m talking about a lack of agreement on what is provably, objectively true and what is not. Political polarization is old hat. Empirical polarization—a rejection of this nation’s founding Enlightenment principles—is something new.
The birther lunacy is an extreme case. The short-form birth certificate that Obama released in June 2008 was the official document, according to Hawaii officials. They should know, right? Wrong, said the deniers, we need the long-form certificate, even though it’s not considered official. Obama produced it Wednesday, and that settles the question, right? No sooner had the president finished speaking than a birther email landed in my inbox, headlined “Case closed? Not so fast.”
But there are other examples, some much more consequential. The vast majority of scientists look dispassionately at the data and conclude that atmospheric warming and climate change are real. Deniers don’t produce data of their own, they just say no, no, no—and attack the scientists’ political views, rather than their research.
Rodney King famously asked, “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?” If we decide there’s no difference between fact and opinion, then surely the sad answer is no.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
(c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group