Working in NYC means riding public transportation and occasionally having a crazy person strike up a conversation about mind control serum in the water, Jewish cabals, or gay conspiracies involving probes of one kind or another. I can never be sure if the individual is serious or joking or more importantly armed or unarmed, so I usually nod, say something like ‘That’s wild’, then get off at the next stop or switch train cars, because there is no way to talk to a crazy person without yourself seeming crazy.
Our nation’s history is not without nefarious conspiracies like Iran-Contra, Watergate, the Tuskegee Experiment; gross violations of citizens’ rights like Presidents Lincoln and Wilson’s suspension of habeas corpus and free press; and sociopaths masquerading as elected officials like… well fill in the blank. However, whether we have been in the throes of a national crisis or in an era of relative prosperity, the lunatic fringe has continued to churn out theory after theory demanding that we seriously consider whether or not Bill Clinton murdered Vincent Foster; President Johnson orchestrated the assassination of JFK; or whether or not the letters of Ronald Reagan’s name symbolize a pact with Satan. In the past, serious politicians and thinkers would have been unwilling to be associated with this kind of talk, but times do change.
In the last several years, new factions have emerged on the Right that place President Obama’s sympathies and roots among Indonesian socialists, as assorted Birthers claim; Muslim terrorists as Alan Keyes and Michele Bachmann suggest; and Kenyan Lao tribal anti-colonialists according to author Dinesh D’Souza and elder statesman Newt Gingrich. To D’Souza’s credit, his claim contains the perfect combination of paranoia, exoticism and bigotry so we can examine that one first.
Dinesh D’Souza is known for pushing envelopes and buttons, with his most incendiary work being ‘The End of Racism’, published back in 1995 which locates black frustration, not in discrimination – which he views as a rational response by whites to black ‘barbarism’ – but in ‘black failure’ which he says is endemic and a by-product of a slave culture and perhaps innate inferiority. His assessment of President Obama’s ‘roots’ and motives is similarly provocative with D’Souza finding the roots of President Obama’s ‘rage’ or hostility to America in his idolization of his father and Obama the elder’s anti-colonial/imperial views. D’Souza’s film – Obama 2016 – continues with this theme, and was number 1 last weekend at the box office.
Compared to D’Souza and many on the Right, President Obama is clearly a man of the Left with a leftist pedigree, but he is hardly the most ‘left’ leaning President we have ever had. Compare him to Franklin Roosevelt, who tripled federal taxes in several years; taxed undistributed corporate profits; placed excise taxes on a host of consumer goods ranging from bubble gum to movie tickets; and whose justice department prosecuted farmers for growing too much food in order to keep food prices high. One could – and many did – certainly argue that FDR was too far to the left, or even that his policies prolonged the Depression as author Jim Powell suggests, but no one would think to locate the roots of FDR’s political philosophy in an African tribe, because no one would have believed it because… well because its absurd.
President Roosevelt, like every other American President, was a man of his party and his time whose decisions will be judged on their merits within the American political context, which brings me to another charge hurled at President Obama: that he is not a US citizen. He’s released two birth certificates (long form and short form). That has not satisfied his critics. His hospital and local newspaper have confirmed he was born in Hawaii. This is not enough for Birthers. So, they continue to demand more evidence or a military coup perhaps.
The final charge of course is that President Obama is a Muslim. Some attribute this to his middle name. Others attribute it to his father having been a Muslim – not sure if he was but that’s what they say. Others are just convinced that President Obama looks Muslim or at the very least like a non-Christian. No convincing them either. President Obama has said he is a Christian. He goes to church. Not sure what else can be said to that.
A lunatic fringe is just that and should not really be a problem in an advanced society, but ‘respectable’ elected officials on the Right often draw sustenance from these claims – sort of like the guy on ‘Man vs. Wild’ drinking piss to prevent dehydration – and yet try to maintain their respectability, by saying something like ‘I don’t know if he’s a citizen/Muslim/tribal anti-imperialist but the deficit is too high’. This is actually an age-old tactic deployed by master politicians like Cicero who would occasionally begin a supposedly sober, even-handed appraisal of his opponent’s policies by first reminding his audience of rumors that his opponent was a “degraded contemptible woman among men” or a raging degenerate. Cicero admitted to favoring this technique when his actual argument was weak, which of course should be familiar to us. Once again, a thriving and advanced society can perhaps endure all kinds of absurd claims, but it is important that we not pretend that they represent any kind of legitimate grievance.
A more recent comparison is the ‘9/11 Truth(er) Movement’ that emerged in the years following the attacks of 9/11, which accused President Bush of orchestrating those attacks to justify American imperial ambitions in the Middle East. Folks that believe Bush planned 9/11 cannot be expected to fairly assess the ‘Bush Doctrine’ or ‘nation building’ or any of Bush’s other foreign policy decisions. If the guy’s a mass murderer, every decision he makes is going to affirm and reaffirm that suspicion. The same goes for President Obama and many of his kook detractors.
If you have principled objections to liberalism or President Obama and none of the above applies, then I have absolutely no problem with you. If not, this next stop is mine. Feel free to talk to my seat when I’m gone.