Tavis Smiley: What did birthers give us? Ignorance

Barack Obama headshot over Copy of the long form Certificate of Live Birth from State of Hawaii

President Obama this past week made public his so-called "long form" birth certificate, after Hawaii officials granted his request for its release. Some thoughts about the birth certificate controversy now from Contributor Tavis Smiley:

Gerald Ford once famously said, "Our long national nightmare is over."

Those words - uttered more than 35 years ago in the wake of Watergate - could certainly be used this week to sum up the final folly that was the birther issue.

How is it possible, in this hyper-informed age of information, that our public discourse could be hijacked by something conceived of such ignorance?

The drumbeat of foolish, factually-challenged and thoroughly uneducated rhetoric that defined this debate demeaned our national dialogue at a time when serious and sober conversation is desperately needed.

Jobs, health care, ongoing wars, the deficit and the discussion about national priorities are the pressing issues of our time.

Instead, we allowed a small, un-informed minority and one publicity-starved reality TV purveyor to lead us down this slippery slope.

Regardless of the motives behind the birther movement - political gain, ignorance, or something more sinister - the issue struck some of us as more than a little curious given that it involved a black man whose name does not sound typically American.

Questioning this president's birth amounted to a frontal assault on his legitimacy, his character and his very being. It was a futile attempt to undo his inspiring personal narrative - something, as Americans, we should all celebrate, not denigrate.

My friend Dr. Cornel West puts it this way: "We need to respect the president. We need to protect the president. And when necessary, we need to correct the president."

Holding this or any president accountable on important issues is our right and duty as American citizens.

But when we allow falsehoods to trump the truth, real accountability gets lost in the fictional fog.

And what has this moment taught us about the notion of civility?

I was so moved, as I'm sure many of you were, to see Congresswoman Gabby Giffords make her way to Florida from a hospital in Houston - courageously attending the launch of the space shuttle carrying her husband, Mark Kelly.

It reminded all of us that the tragic incident in Arizona was to be a national wake-up call about the tone of our public discourse. Sadly, those who cynically swam at the bottom of the birther barrel dealt civility a terrible blow.

Of late, we don't seem to learn much from so-called teachable moments, so I won't add to that clichéd optimism. But perhaps there is a take-away from the birther debate.

As someone once said, "You're entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts."

Let's have a vigorous debate between now and November 2012 about the future course of our country.

And let's remember that politics may determine who has the power, not the truth.