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Who Are the Birthers?

5182726Conspiracy theories often flourish in the wake of traumatic or game-changing events – the Sept. 11 attacks, the moon landing, the Kennedy assassination – and the election of America's first black president has been no exception.

Almost as soon as Barack Obama emerged as a serious candidate for the presidency, rumors about whether or not he is really an American, and thus eligible for the presidency, began popping up online. In response, the Obama campaign posted the Certification of Live Birth* (here it is) showing that Mr. Obama was born in Hawaii on August 4, 1961.

But that did not quiet the skeptics, a group that has been come to be known as the "birthers." If anything, it encouraged them. They argued that the birth certificate is a fake, and that Mr. Obama is not the "natural born citizen" he claims to be. Mr. Obama, many birthers say, was actually born in Kenya, though there are a number of theories that fall under the birther umbrella.

The din eventually got loud enough that some reputable organizations checked out the birthers' claims – and they found no evidence to support them. In fact, there was overwhelming evidence against such claims, including Mr. Obama's 1961 birth announcement, printed in two Hawaii newspapers. Here's one detailed investigation, and here's another.

PolitiFact wrote after its extensive look at the claims a year ago:

It is possible that Obama conspired his way to the precipice of the world's biggest job, involving a vast network of people and government agencies over decades of lies. Anything's possible.

But step back and look at the overwhelming evidence to the contrary and your sense of what's reasonable has to take over.

Yet the birthers' claims have not simply survived into Mr. Obama's presidency – they've actually gained steam. Liz Cheney, talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh and Michael Reagan and even CNN's Lou Dobbs are among those taking the birthers' theories seriously. Former presidential candidate Alan Keyes and others have pushed the argument in court; earlier this month a soldier challenged his deployment to Iraq based on birther claims.

The birthers are a passionate bunch, as this video of a birther angrily confronting Delaware Republican Rep. Mike Castle handily illustrates. "Why are you people ignoring his birth certificate?," the woman asks, prompting cheers from the crowd. "He is not an American citizen, he is a citizen of Kenya."

Some Congressional Republicans have also taken up the birther cause: California Rep. John Campbell co-sponsored a bill (with at least nine others) requiring presidential candidates to submit a birth certificate, a wink and a nod action that he maintains is somehow not related to the birthers' claims. When MSNBC's Chris Matthews asked Campbell if he believed Mr. Obama is a natural born citizen, Campbell hedged, saying, "As far as I know, yes, OK?" He told Matthews, "it doesn`t matter whether I have doubts or not."

To find out why the birthers' claims have endured, Hotsheet contacted Michael Barkun, an expert in conspiracy theories and professor of political science at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.

"There are people out there who firmly believe that the truth is always hidden, regardless of whether it's about politics or science or any other subject," he said. "That whatever is presented as public knowledge is necessarily false. That the truth is always hidden from them, regardless of what the subject is."

Pressed on why that is the case, Barkun pointed to the ability of the Internet and to a lesser extent television to disseminate conspiracy theories far more easily than ever before. He also said that, "in a strange way, conspiracy theories are comforting."

"They give people a feeling that we know the truth," Barkun said. "That we have secret knowledge, and that we know how the world really works. In a sense, we're part of a kind of elite of those who know and everybody else is misled or are trapped by illusions."

The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder, CBS News' chief political consultant, notes along these lines that "birthers now wear the term 'birther' as badge of honor, as if they were a persecuted minority -- which, come to think of it, is one mechanism for solidarity in the face of evidence to the contrary."

As Ambinder suggests, the birther phenomenon goes to the heart of the dilemma now facing the Republican Party.

"Republican presidential candidates need to figure out how to diffuse angry birthers who are bound to show up and demand their attention," he writes. "…If they give credence to the birthers, they're (not only advancing ignorance but also) betraying the narrowness of their base. If they dismiss this growing movement, they might drive birthers to find more extreme candidates, which will fragment a Republican political coalition."

*Correction: This post initially erroneously referred to Mr. Obama's Certificate of Live Birth as his original birth certificate. The original document was not released by the state of Hawaii, though Dr. Chiyome Fukino, director of the Hawaii State Department of Health, has said she has seen it and that it verifies Mr. Obama's birth and citizenship.

As Fukino pointed out in a statement explaining why the original was not released, "State law prohibits the release of a certified birth certificate to persons who do not have a tangible interest in the vital record." A spokeswoman noted that a Certification of Live Birth "is considered a birth certificate from the state of Hawaii."

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