By David Solway
An astonishing story broke recently concerning Barack Obama's controversial origins. It has been discovered that the publicity bio for the president's first (and unpublished) book gave his birthplace as Kenya, and that this subsequently prejudicial item remained in place for the next 16 years – until shortly after Obama declared his campaign for the presidency, when it was abruptly scrubbed. His literary agent claimed a fact-checking error, although as others have pointed out, a 16-year error seems highly unlikely. Moreover, it is no less if not more improbable that an author would neglect vetting his own introductory material. And where or from whom, one might sensibly inquire, did the agent derive her information?
The question then becomes what to make of this extraordinary fact. There appear to be only two logical assumptions to account for so startling a discrepancy: 1) The president lied about his origins to add a touch of exoticism to his biography and/or to take advantage of his putative status as a foreign student to facilitate his entry into college and university, or 2) Even more damaging, the president may have been born in Kenya and, according to Article II, Section 1, Clause 5, of the U.S. Constitution, would then have been, by at least one interpretation of that clause, ineligible for the presidency.
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Most commentators on the issue have opted for the first explanation. It is, after all, safer, less compromising, somewhat more "decent" – a speculation that avoids deep waters, the "conspirator" label and vindictive retaliation from the president's supporters. Even some whose conservative credentials are unimpeachable refuse to consider the Kenyan connection partly because the implication is regarded as perilous to one's reputation, and partly because bringing this issue to the forefront would associate them with a supposedly shady and disreputable group of skeptics known as "birthers."
This attitude is similar to the response of some conservatives (or, at any rate, many of my acquaintance) to the tea-party movement, which they regard as vulgar, lower class, prone to the bizarre and socially problematic. Of course, every movement will have its fringe elements that serve to discredit its central aims, and the tea party is no exception. But to seize upon the antics of an obstreperous fringe in order to disparage an entire movement is distinctly disingenuous. Any form of public activism is liable to the same spirit of rejectionism.
Though widely different in their constituencies and political influence, the tea party and the birthers have been dismissed by some conservatives for similar emotional reasons. Indeed, what goes for the tea party goes in far greater degree for the birthers. The birthers are condemned by virtually the entire conservative establishment as a gaggle of demented conspiracy-mongers whose brief cannot be taken seriously by reasonable people. And yet, just as the tea party is composed of a solid majority of fundamentally decent citizens concerned about a country going off the rails and should not be identified with their unfortunate marginals, so the birthers are by no means a tribe of knuckle-draggers loping out of the jungle of primitive and deranged conjectures.
To take just a few prominent examples: Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is investigating the possible scandal involving the president's birth certificate, is no knuckle-dragger but a law-abiding and law-enforcing public servant of impeccable qualifications. Joseph Farah and Drew Zahn of WND are honorable and thoughtful writers. Diana West, author of "The Death of the Grown-Up," is both brilliant and modest. Jerome Corsi, whose "Where's the Birth Certificate?" has thoroughly examined the issue, is, for all the obloquy he has endured, a convincing and meticulous writer. All five would be targeted as birthers and castigated by the more virtuous class of conservatives as unrespectable, at least so far as their foray into the supposedly shadowy realm of presidential authenticity happens to take them.
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The problem with many conservatives is that, for all their bona fides, there exists an unwillingness to go the distance, a fear of provoking contempt and aspersion, and a reluctance to associate themselves with movements – the tea party, the birthers – they have persuaded themselves are somehow dissolute, abject, tawdry and boorish. In short, as beneath their dignity. The operation of the internal censor remains strong.
Thus, in the case that has now surfaced addressing Obama's Kenyan bio, most moderate and even committed conservatives, confronted with two explanatory theories – the president lied to profit from university largesse and/or cultural cachet, or the president was actually born in Kenya – will almost unfailingly decide for the former. Yet both alternatives are, on the face of it, equally plausible. The evidence assembled by Drew Zahn in his devastating article "Obama still Kenyan-born in 2007," might, in the estimation of many sober observers, tilt the debate in favor of the latter interpretation. Given the facts that all the president's salient records have been suppressed, that controversy continues to surround the birth certificate released by the White House, and that a certified copy of the original birth certificate remains under seal, Zahn's argument and those of his intellectual colleagues is arguably reinforced.
The problem is that principled people have stopped pursuing uncomfortable or personally dangerous questions out of a fear of consequences, thus allowing their opponents – those who wish to deep-six the issue – to set the terms of the debate. No one who merits attention is saying that the president was undoubtedly born in Kenya. This would be going over the top, to put it mildly. What is here being suggested, rather, is that an issue of this magnitude, involving the occupant of the highest office in the land, needs to be resolved for everyone's benefit and should not be marked off as a no-go zone. The dilemma refuses to disappear, irrespective of how we try to ignore or banalize it. It persists as a distraction at best and a destabilizing possibility at worst. As Thomas Lipscomb, founder of Times Books, writes in an article titled "Obama Is a Martian," "No one can say, after the problems caused by the uncertainty over Obama, that this problem isn't worth solving."
But whatever way the scandal plays out, what is no less astonishing than the recent revelation of Obama's hypothetically natal ties is the troubling diffidence of many presentable conservative writers and thinkers in considering the second option as at least one viable elucidation of the mystery. And, as I suspect, the reason for this evasion is partly a fear of provoking ridicule, partly a species of caste snobbery that shrinks before public association with the presumably great unwashed, and partly the anxiety of being slandered by a media consortium ever ready to distort or bury unwanted data and to impugn the motives of those they have stigmatized and proscribed.
In conclusion, it should be said that the issue is emphatically not what conservatives should believe. As things now stand, no one can claim with certainty that the president was born in Kenya – or not, for that matter. The issue is what reasonable questions conservatives should be willing to pursue in their quest to arrive at the truth, even if the truth turns out to be unpalatable or distressing – or embarrassing.
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David Solway is a Canadian poet and essayist. His most recent book is "Hear, O Israel!" A monograph on the global warming scam, "Global Warning: The Trials of an Unsettled Science," will appear this fall with the Centre for Policy Options in Ottawa.