Son of the Return of the Revenge of the Birthers from Planet X – the Endless Series

Like an interplanetary blob that keeps managing to resurrect itself for B-movie sequel after B-movie sequel no matter what the heroes do to squelch it, birtherism just will not die. Birthers absolutely live to hate President Obama; and unwilling or unable to challenge him cogently on the issues, they instead resort to ad hominem attacks and the malicious rumor mill:  he’s a “socialist” and/ or a NAZI who “pals around with terrorists” and “can’t speak without a teleprompter”; he’s the most secretive and power-mad and corrupt president in history; and furthermore, he ain’t even Amurrcan. (But of course it has nothing to do with racism, so don’t you even suggest such a thing.) And proving them wrong only encourages them.

They have indeed been proven wrong, soundly and repeatedly. As we previously observed, the president posted an official copy of his birth certificate on the White House website; and it holds up to the inevitable charges that it’s a forgery. For what it’s worth, I even know of a medical professional who was acquainted with the doctor who delivered Obama. And it didn’t happen in Kenya.

But what do facts matter when you have an ideology to push and an Obama to hate? In several states, certain fringe elements (to put it as kindly as possible) have even filed lawsuits to try to establish, despite the insurmountable proof, that the president is not a U.S. citizen. Some states (notably Arizona, which seems to be trying to corner the market on kooky legislation) are pondering “birther bills” that would require the President to prove his citizenship (again!) before his name can be placed on the ballot there.  And a few days ago, the following headline began to spread like an oil slick across the Internet:

Obama Lawyer Admits Birth Certificate Is Forgery

Now you might think that a headline like that would raise an army of red flags among even the most acute sufferers from Obama Derangement Syndrome. You’d be mistaken. It appears that none of them questioned it. Instead, they just passed it on as gospel. Indeed, this non-story quickly attained what I call Search Engine Overload Bias– meaning that the Internet became so saturated with it that any story refuting it (if in fact anyone connected to the administration bothered to respond to it at all) was pushed so far down the ranking of web pages as to be invisible. (Likewise, it’s all but impossible to dig up an honest appraisal of measures regulating firearms, because the gun lobby has co-opted the term “gun control” and transformed it into a pejorative, and has absolutely deluged the Internet with claims that it’s ineffective and downright counterproductive. But that’s another story.)

Try doing a search for “Obama Lawyer Admits Forgery” and see how many hits you get, all parroting a single source: that hallowed bastion of impeccable journalism,   The Tea Party Tribune, which was in turn quoting The Daily Pen. Yep, this earth-shattering “news” story is brought to you by the same crowd that previously proclaimed Obama had hiked their taxes and outlawed fishing; that “Obamacare” is “socialized medicine” that establishes “death panels”; that the United Nations owns the National Parks; that ACORN stole the 2008 election; and that  global warming is a “scam”.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. And it would be most extraordinary indeed if a president admitted that an official document posted on the White House website was fraudulent. So where is the proof from these folks who keep saying “show me the proof”? Well, um er… It turns out that while The Daily Pen is the original source of this story, its own source – like the source of so many Obama rumors – was someone’s ass.

The article does not include a quotation, even a fabricated one, from Obama legal representative Alexandra Hill admitting that the birth certificate is a forgery, and for a very good reason: it isn’t. But it does contain, like any yarn from a spinner of tall tales, embellishment upon embellishment. For instance, there’s this:

“Hill went on to contort reasoning by implying that Obama needs only invoke his political popularity, not legal qualifications, in order to be a candidate.”

It certainly would “contort reasoning” to suggest that she said any such thing. But nothing is more contorted than saying that

“arguments from an Obama eligibility lawyer during a recent New Jersey ballot challenge hearing reveals the image was not only a fabrication, but that it was likely part of a contrived plot by counterfeiters to endow Obama with mere political support while simultaneously making the image intentionally appear absurd and, therefore, invalid as evidence toward proving Obama’s ineligibility in a court of law.”

Huh?????

As evidence that the certificate is a not only a forgery but a deliberately absurd forgery, the Pen reproduces an enlarged section of it with a couple of “suspicious” details highlighted:

First, the word “the” appears to be misspelled, and heaven knows there were never any typos in those days of manual typewriters. Second, the first letter in the registrar’s signature includes a couple of erratic marks which are clearly intended to depict … are you ready for this… a SMILEY FACE! I’m not making this up. Never mind that smiley faces are always very distinct frontal images, and these stray marks would make a very indistinct smiley profile. Clearly, it’s proof the whole document is a sham.

In a perfect world, I might be asking whether anyone really believed The Daily Pen’s story. Instead, I find myself asking -rhetorically at least -whether there’s anyone who didn’t believe it. But I also find myself asking just who benefits from a story like this. And as I see it, there’s only one person who might even conceivably benefit: President Obama himself.

The guy surely has his shortcomings – he’s only human. (He also has his strengths, which don’t receive nearly the attention they deserve.) Wouldn’t it do the public a better service to focus on evaluating those actual weaknesses, thus pressuring him to address them? But legitimate criticism of his performance on the job tends to get brushed aside in the frenzy over the tin hat stuff, such as this obsession with his birth certificate. If he really does have even a fraction of the evil about him that the Obama haters claim, he must be howling with fiendish delight right about now.

Trayvon Martin; and the “Double Standard” Standard (Part 2)

My wife likes to joke that her special superpower is an extraordinary ability to state the obvious. That’s actually a very handy skill to have, since so many people have an extraordinary capacity for ignoring the obvious. This has become quite clear in the public discourse about the death of Trayvon Martin. The degree of outrage it’s provoked, and the subsequent amount of media attention, have been attributed to such things as media bias and nefarious “liberal” subversiveness. The real explanation is much  more conspicuous: the burden of history.

A Brief History Refresher, for Those Who Really Need It

There was a time when blacks could be shot, lynched, set on fire or beaten for any reason or no reason. This was not called hate crime. It was called wholesome entertainment.  And forget about anything resembling a fair trial if they were the victim of, or the suspect in, a crime.  All in the distant past, you say? Not nearly so distant as we’d like to believe.

Many Americans are alive today who can remember when a 14-year-old black boy named Emmet Till (pictured) was tortured and killed because he allegedly committed the grave offense of flirting with/ speaking to a white woman. (One report was that he simply whistled at her; but he frequently whistled, at no one in particular, to curb his stuttering habit.) His murderers were acquitted, then freely admitted the killing. And some can remember when African-Americans were gunned down for the crime of trying to vote, and the police would declare it to be a traffic accident. (This was before the development of more sophisticated means of eliminating the “wrong” voters.)

More recently (1964), five civil rights workers (three black, two white) were brutally murdered in two incidents in Mississippi –with the assistance of local law enforcement personnel! The two whites who had the audacity to support racial equality were just lynched; the blacks were savagely beaten before being dispatched. This is by no means an exhaustive list. Is it really so surprising that the police pummeling of Rodney King or the shooting of Trayvon Martin should spark such an uproar?

The other side of the coin is that blacks are far more likely than whites to be accused of, convicted of, and even executed for crimes than whites – particularly when their alleged victims are white. Furthermore, there is a much greater tendency to extrapolate generalities from an incident involving an ethnic minority. When a Caucasian goes on a shooting spree and kills a dozen people, you never hear anyone say, “Well, that’s just like a whitey”. But if a black person commits an assault of just one person, you’re likely to hear a number of people say, “that’s just like a (fill in epithet of your choice)”.

So given all of this, would it really be surprising if indeed some journalists were reluctant to play up offenses or alleged offenses committed by blacks against whites? If there really is a discrepancy in how those offenses are reported versus how extensively offenses are reported by whites against blacks (and I don’t know that there is), it could well be inadvertent, and if anything is surely a correction of an anti-black bias rather than an indication of “anti-white” bias.

We have to wonder what would have happened had the shooter been black instead of white. Well, maybe we don’t have to wonder; we already have the example of John McNeil. He fatally shot a man in Georgia, which has a “Stand Your Ground Law” similar to Florida’s. But McNeil is currently serving a life sentence. Did we mention that he’s black? Double standards, anyone?

Okay, okay. We’ve already made the observation that apparent instances of double standards usually entail some striking differences. So let’s look at the differences here. McNeil did not shoot the man on the streets. It happened on McNeil’s own property. He didn’t start the altercation the way George Zimmerman did,  and he wasn’t following the man; the man was aggressively pursuing him – and indeed had been prone to threatening behavior toward other people, even to the point of stalking.  He was not unarmed like Trayvon Martin, but was carrying a knife. And unlike Martin, there’s no doubt that he was posing a threat – he even pointed a knife at McNeil’s son. But John McNeil is serving a life sentence. Did we mention the guy he killed was white?

Turning the Tables

But now let’s move from the obvious to questions that are perhaps not so obvious: Why the reaction to the reaction? Why the state of denial that racism still exists? Why the claims of “double standards” and “media bias”?  Why the intensive campaign to vindicate the killer and vilify the victim?

It’s surely no coincidence that most – well okay, approximately exactly all of this reactionism is being perpetrated by radical “conservatives”.  Some right-wing websites have even circulated an unflattering photo  falsely identified as Martin. Are these folks just being racist? Not necessarily, though it wouldn’t be wise to rule it out. Although “conservatives” will often vehemently, even indignantly deny it, racism is an implicit building block of modern faux-conservatism. But please, don’t take my word for that. I’ll gladly defer to the ultimate authority on the topic: the most revered Founding Father  of the movement, the late great William F. “Billy Bob” Buckley.

Still, there are other factors besides racism that might explain why right-wingers like to pretend that everything is peachy-keen as far as race relations go.  For example, they generally oppose policies designed to remedy racial inequality – e.g. affirmative action. Of course, they will maintain that their reason for doing so is that such programs are ineffective; and sometimes they might even have a valid point. But I really suspect that this is not so much a motivation as is a fundamental resistance to addressing social problems in any form. Accordingly, such individuals are often in obstinate denial that racism exists – except among blacks!

The G Factor

But most significant of all, perhaps, is the fact that Trayvon Martin was killed with a g-u-n. And neo-“conservatism” is quite cozy with the gun culture, which tends to regard gunpowder as the ultimate panacea. After every school shooting du jour, they will pipe up in thunderous chorus to insist that guns were not in the least to blame, and those 27 people just as easily could have been killed by a pencil, and this kind of thing would never happen if only we had more guns in our schools. No, that’s not an exaggeration. People really say things like that.

So maybe, just maybe, they are attacking a dead kid and glorifying his killer because they want to defend the illusion that nobody ever gets killed with a gun except bad guys and the victims of bad guys – which ignores the nagging fact that one of the fastest ways to create a bad guy is to take a good guy and give him a gun. Maybe, just maybe, their real intent is to prevent people from reaching the “wrong” conclusion: namely, that a firearm is a lethal toy that never should end up in the hands of … well, a “fucking punk”.

Trayvon Martin, and the “Double Standard” Standard (Part 1)

Not long after the news broke about the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida, many people began circulating reports about another attack on a teen, a 13-year-old boy who was set on fire in Kansas City. What’s the connection? Well, none, really. But while Martin was black, the victim in Missouri was white and his attackers black. So, many people want to know, why hasn’t there been more coverage of the latter? Why the double standard? And surely this must reveal, somehow or other, something unsavory about “liberals” – we must never, ever waste an opportunity to politicize a tragedy.

Well, on one point these folk may be right: perhaps there should have been more coverage of the Kansas City attack. That is, if indeed there should be media coverage of such violent assaults at all, which is debatable. But contrary to what many people claim, there has by no means been a “blackout” in the media on the event – it was even covered by the New York Daily News, the nation’s fourth largest newspaper. And the fact that it also appeared in The Huffington Post. doesn’t lend a lot of credibility to theories about a left-wing conspiracy to suppress the story.

But let’s look more closely at the points of contention, shall we? They illustrate how readily people are often willing to discard facts, even glaringly obvious facts, when they don’t fit an ideological narrative.

Rush to Judgment

Was the killing triggered in part by racial factors? Some have concluded it probably was. But many are saying no way.  After all, Rush Limbaugh says it’s all baloney, and he wouldn’t say something that wasn’t true, would he?

The facts about the episode are murky, as there were only two witness who saw and heard everything, and one of them has been permanently indisposed. But what we do know is that the shooter, George Zimmerman, was the captain of a “neighborhood watch” team. Now I’m sure that neighborhood watch teams do some nifty things, but in my experience – and I do have some – they can also be a magnet for individuals who are as capable of causing mischief as preventing it. Introduce firearms into that mix and you have a tragedy waiting to happen.

Zimmerman apparently referred to Martin as a “fucking punk”  and also commented  that “these assholes always get away”. He was talking about someone he knew nothing about except that he was black and wore a hoodie. Does this sound like a person who is mature and level-headed enough to be entrusted with keeping an eye on a neighborhood – particularly while armed?

For some reason, he found Martin “suspicious” for being in an exclusive neighborhood – where he was visiting relatives. He called 911 and was instructed not to follow the youth.  He did anyway, very aggressively, and Martin ran away from him. At some point they exchanged words, perhaps even blows, and Zimmerman apparently substituted his gun for his brain – hardly the first time anyone has ever done that.

Zimmerman claims that he was acting in self-defense, that Martin jumped on him and was beating him to a pulp and even threatened to kill him. In which case he surely should show some signs of physical trauma.  The 911 recording does reveal someone screaming for help, but it sounds like Martin rather than Zimmerman. And if, at such close range, he was incapable of shooting the kid in the leg, what business does he have even being armed in the first place?

While all of this suggests that Zimmerman was a hothead looking for a fight (not to mention a liar), none of it proves that his is a racist. But that isn’t the question. The question is whether race was a factor in his classifying Martin as a “suspicious” character. And the answer, in all probability, is the affirmative.

The unsettling truth is that Americans in general have an overwhelming pro-white bias, and a tendency to regard persons of color with greater suspicion. Whenever I visit the Deep South, which is quite often, I almost invariably hear a comment along the lines of “them Niggers just can’t can’t be trusted”. And that attitude ain’t just a Red State thing, bro.

In his groundbreaking book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell discusses this bias, and talks about the Implicit Association Test, a psychological assessment you can take online, that may reveal more about your own biases than you care to know or admit. Millions of people have already taken it, and the results show that more than 80 percent associate being black with less desirable traits. Interestingly, even 48 percent of blacks who have taken the test also show this result!

But the real kicker is that Gladwell himself has taken the test several times, and he also has demonstrated color bias. Which is fascinating not only because he is a well-educated and highly intelligent Northern urbanite, but also because he is half Jamaican!  He notes that, having a somewhat swarthy complexion, he himself is sometimes regarded as a suspicious character – if he is wearing his hair in his usual Afro style, but not so much so when it’s shorter.

Bottom line: if you’re really convinced that his race can’t possibly be a reason that Trayvon Martin is dead, it is my solemn duty to caution you that you are in dire danger of suffocation from having your head inserted so deeply into your rectum.

Double Double

As for the matter of a “double standard”, we first should observe that quite often when people make such a complaint, they are comparing apples and potatoes. And that, to a large degree, is the case here. The victim in Kansas City, though wounded, is alive, and as yet nobody even knows who the attackers were, much less what their  motive was (it’s presumed to be a racially-motivated hate crime, but that’s only presumption). Trayvon Martin is dead, and we do know who his killer is; yet he has not even been arrested.

So is there a double standard? So it appears – but in a very different way from what some people assert.  George Zimmerman, who has an arrest record and has been accused of domestic violence, is being hailed as a hero for killing an unarmed kid.  Trayvon Martin, who had no arrest record, is being portrayed as a villain – again, by people who know little about him except that he’s black and dead. And just which of these conditions is supposed to justify such venom? They’ve even combed through hundreds of his Tweets looking for something to incriminate him with. Seriously. So what if the lad wasn’t an angel? Do you really believe his killer is? The real question is whether on this particular occasion he was doing anything that would warrant paying the ultimate price.

But when people complain of “double standards”, of course, they’re always talking about other people’s rather than their own. In this instance, they’re miffed that the media are paying more attention to the Florida incident than the Missouri incident. But it really isn’t that hard to see why: the Martin killing has garnered more public outrage, and even celebrity protest. Which makes it pretty hard for the media to ignore.

But why has there been such a strong public reaction? If you really gotta ask, we’ll cover that in another post.

Propaganda Prop # 4: Framing

The year was 1984, and President Ronald Reagan, already the oldest president in the nation’s history, was up for reelection.  During his second debate against Democratic challenger Walter Mondale, a reporter queried him about a mounting concern that he was growing too senile to function effectively. His response, in part, was, “I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” In addition to being a memorable one-liner, it was one of the most potent displays ever of framing, the fourth in our series of propaganda tools.

Framing is a psychological and sociological concept that has many applications and has been the subject of a great deal of research and experimentation. But in the public arena – particularly in current events and politics – it essentially means establishing guidelines that influence how the public perceives a particular topic – or even what topic the public perceives.

The Reagan quip (which probably was prepared in advance, but which he made sound off-the-cuff), in a single sentence, switched the frame from age to wit. And a few weeks later the voters decided, by a substantial margin, that they preferred a president who could turn a good punchline to one who wouldn’t fall asleep on the job.

It isn’t always so easy to establish a frame with a single sentence, but sometimes it’s done with only a word or two.

When politicians railed against the estate tax, most folks just yawned. When they re-christened it the “death tax”, they got a better response. After all, everyone dies, so the use of the term “death tax” implies that we’ll all be taxed on whatever we pass on to our heirs. In fact, the first 5 million or so you leave behind will not be subjected to federal estate tax. But Fox “News” had its viewers believing that when they kicked the bucket, President Clinton would send a truck to their house to confiscate half their stuff. The estate tax had been framed.

Privatizing Social Security? Fuhgeddabout it. But when you frame it as “personalizing accounts”, it becomes a bit more appealing. And mind you, these manipulative neologisms are often applied by the very people who sneer at “political correctness” for supposedly overdoing the euphemisms.

Americans also probably wouldn’t have been terribly gung-ho about an Operation to Invade and Occupy Iraq.  But when it was framed as “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and part of “The War on Terror”, that was another matter. (The Bush Administration dropped an earlier label, Operation Iraqi Liberation, apparently because it became clear that its acronym might sound a bit too candid.) It became routine to frame supporters of that exercise as “pro-troop”, suggesting that the anti-war demonstrators were in fact protesting against the military itself.

Few words these days have the framing power, at least in the United States, of socialism, and variants thereof. Most Americans may not have a clue what socialism really is, but they know it’s the spawn of Darth Vader, because they’ve been told it is so many times. Thus, it was all but inevitable that those who wanted to thwart the Affordable Care Act would dub it “socialized medicine”, along with “government takeover” of medicine and “Obamacare”.  The latter has long been used as a derogatory term by Obama’s political opponents to imply not only a government takeover but a takeover by one person. But in a very interesting recent development, the president’s own campaign has adopted the word,  reframing a frame! Brilliant strategy if it works.

The “socialized medicine” motif is hardly new; it was conjured by Republicans in Washington in 1993 when President Clinton also attempted healthcare reform. In fact, they conducted a poll in which they asked respondents whether they approved of Clinton’s plan  for “socialized medicine”. Not surprisingly, more than half said no, and this gave them ammo to shoot down the Clinton plan. Later, after the dust had settled, an independent polling organization queried people about specific provisions of the defeated bill without mentioning that its source was the Clinton administration (and of course without calling it  “socialized”), and three-fourths of them approved. A word or two, included or omitted, can make all the difference in how the public perceives an issue.

The GOP poll was an example of a push poll, which often isn’t really a poll at all but an attempt to frame an issue by implanting a suggestion in the minds of individuals contacted. If you spend much time online, you’ve surely seen “polls” (ads) by right-wing groups (notably NewsMax) targeting President Obama with  questions like “Do you believe Obama should be impeached ?”  or “Is Obama the worst president ever?”

You’d have a hard time getting approval of a “Bill to Discriminate Against Gays” even in the Deep South. But a law that did just that, when packaged as the “Defense of Marriage Act”, was approved by Congress, and a “Marriage Protection Act” was voted into law even in ultra-blue California. Nobody can explain exactly how allowing more people to marry would threaten the “institution” of marriage with extinction. And how can you defend it by reducing its numbers and restricting it to those individuals (heterosexuals) who are far less likely to stay married? Quite often, the topic is framed as a debate over religious beliefs (which are prohibited by the Constitution from being the basis of law) rather than about marriage equality.

But  large numbers of people are quite willing to overlook the absurdity of the proposition if it is expressed in resonant words. Some even believe that allowing gays to marry would open the door to marrying llamas or toasters. But hey, even that would result in more weddings, so how exactly would it be destroying marriage? How would your cousin tying the knot with his Corvette cause you to become less married? Is marriage a commodity in limited supply so that it needs to be rationed?

It’s a powerful testimony to the ability of ideology, expressed in the right language, to short-circuit the brain. It’s the power of framing at its finest.