Tuesday, August 4, 2009
This weekend, the illustrious LittleJ made an interesting and insightful comment regarding the birther movement (read it here). Her point was that just about every county in the nation, sans Appalachia, had an increase in democratic voters in 2008. Considering that there are plenty of relatively racist pockets of population all over the US, why is that the geographic span that includes southwestern Pennsylvania appears to have underindexed on Obama support? Her point, and rightly so, is that there are plenty of places in America where I would think it would be less welcoming to be black than in Washington or Fayette County, Pennsylania. If we combine this assertion with the current birther movement, can we arrive at a new motivation for the birther conspiracy, rather than simple racism, as was asserted before?
I believe there are two explanations for this trend. The first is an extension of my earlier claim that birtherism is a convenient outlet for simple anti-black racism. There are a few unique dynamics at play, both demographic and social, that seem to promote birtherism by the run-of-the-mill Appalachian racist, and I will illuminate that dynamic.
The second explanation is wholly separate from America's tradition of hierarchical racism, and deals more with a mutable and more grand struggle between ignorance and "the other." This explanation adds a religious component to the mix and also can only thrive given a relatively precise set of inputs. It is from this explanation that I derived the title of this post.
Let's take on the first issue, first (naturally). If you recall during last year's primaries, there was an exit poll that was released that showed upwards of 18-25% of democratic voters considered "race" to be important in their decision of who to vote for. That's 1 in 4 DEMOCRATS who based their vote, in part, on the race of the candidate they voted for (which, honestly, was between Obama and Clinton). Also, if you will recall, there were a surprising number of "Democrats for McCain" stickers and signs dotting the rolling hills of Appalachia in 2008.
If you look to other parts of the country, the "Democrats" are often profiled as being progressive, liberal, young, and more highly educated than the average of the population. What we see in the Rust Belt and in Appalachia is a mutation on the makeup of the Democratic voter base. Here, your typical democrat is more likely to be an older, sparsely educated, blue collar worker from a small, depressed former mill town. In effect, Appalachia's democrats look a lot more like the rest of the country's republicans. If we assume that the baseline racism in the GOP is constant (which it likely is not), then the added racist pressures from with the democratic party in our region would be sufficient to tilt the scales in the opposite direction. It's a double-whammy for a black candidate in Appalachia. The racists are not concentrated in a single party, so even if you are a democrat, you are essentially giving up 25% of your party base based on appearance alone.
That's all well and good, but really, that dead horse has been sufficiently beaten. My auxiliary theory behind birtherism is much more fun, from the perspective of an English major who LOVES to pile on the bullshit. Here's the theory: The segment of the political right that buys into the birther conspiracy is the segment that is the most literal representation of "conservatism," ie, they are the segment that most stubbornly adheres to the status quo, not due to nostalgia or a preference to the comfort zone of the familiar, but due to an inability to keep up with an ever accelerating world. The birthers were under the impression that there were basic truths to be found in social norms, religious beliefs, and the economic certainties to be found in the faux-permanence of the monolithic and seemingly immutable factories that defined Appalachia and the Rust Belt for decades. As the world shrank and what they "knew" became increasingly difficult to reconcile with what actually was, they fell into a default position of apocalyptic dread that has dotted every generation since humanity became aware of its own mortality.
The pocket of people who are convinced that we are living in the end times is always present. They have always interpreted threats, both real and imagined, as evidence of the end of our earthly existence. True, this is generally rooted in a religious belief that God will wipe the earth clean of humanity, but the perception of the end is not limited to, or solely generated by religious texts. Surely, watching nearly half of the population of Europe whither and die during the Black Death could be interpreted as the end of the world whether one was Christian, Muslim, or just simply conscious and aware of the pestilent pustules bursting hither and yon.
Prior to 9/11, the last "Real" threat to our existence was the hair-trigger alert that the world's nuclear arsenal seemed to always be on. The Cold War may very well have been the single biggest threat to our existence since the Black Death, insofar as its actual potential to destroy civilization and cause our extinction. However, upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the world was left with one super power, and no coherent "thing" for us to cower in fear from or unite in opposition against. Rising from the metaphorical ashes of the memory of the Cold War were any number of miniature phoenixes that could be said to be harbingers of death and destruction. There were exotic sub-Saharan viruses that would cause us to be liquefied from within. There were killer asteroids that would rain down the hellfire and vaporize surface life. There were super volcanoes lurking beneath our national parks that could tear the earth a new, fiery asshole. There were alien invasions, global warming, acid rain, polar reversal, solar flares, electro-magnetic pulses, black holes, dark matter, anti matter, the anti-Christ, the New World Order, Y2k, killer bees, and the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012.
Then there was 9/11 and we were momentarily able to unite against a common enemy, a common threat. It helped that the enemy was about as much of an "other" as possible. Different race, different language, different God, different heaven... Hell, they lived in fucking caves!
But that proved to be more of a point of divergence than a point of unification. Certainly, a portion of us expected the war on terror to be more like the war against the Nazis than... well... the "conflict" in Vietnam. How much more clear cut could it be? There were good guys and bad guys. You were with us or you were against us. The plan was to go kick ass wherever there was ass to be kicked. When we were done, there would be ticker tape parades and a worthy successor to the Greatest Generation.
The problem was that the world had outgrown it's capacity for a cut and dry conflict. Information flowed from outlets free of filtration, free of spin, and free of the dressing up that maintained order and kept perception aligned at home and abroad. What should have been a really easy PR campaign to maintain became increasingly muddled in nuance and second guesses.
There was an inexplicable inability to extrapolate the threat of Islamic extremism into an end-of-the-world threat. Bin Laden's attack was a spectacle, for sure, but it was, essentially, conventional. You simply cannot exterminate humanity by blowing up airplanes or cars or hotels. Sure, it's scary as fuck... but it's not the rapture.
So, we got to work building up the threats against us. Dirty bombs, nuclear bombs, biological weapons, chemical weapons, Iraq, Iran, North Korea... We assembled an ensemble cast of baddies that would, together, represent a unified force of evil, a force worthy of our fear, and thus, worthy of our merciless, no holds barred aggression. And yet, we were not unified in that fear. Those who united in fear against the common enemy viewed those who seemed unafraid as outsiders, infiltrators, usurpers, and, perhaps, one of "them."
Which is kinda sorta how we end up at the Birther movement. We have a population of people who have, essentially, been left behind in modern society. The values and beliefs that they took for granted were being tossed aside, not just by rebellious youths, but by the very establishment that had generally been on their "side." Ginned up by ratings-driven media whores, they found their aggression bifurcated between what had become a marginalized "other" (the nebulous Islamic Jihadi) and the subversive, domestic "other," the political left.
The birthers are particularly adept at seeing "signs" in the entrails of world events. As they look for links and connections between correlated or even disparate events, they are assembling a sort of modern day Revelations. There are anti-Christ figures everywhere, and each takes its turn as the focus of aggression in the right-wing media. There is Ahmadinajad, Kim Jung Il, Chavez, Ortega, Zelaya... but none has the "it" that makes a GOOD anti-Christ.
Obama. Yes... what better focus of mistrust, hatred, spite, and vitriol than the ultimate usurper to the throne? What better story than the evil that hides in plain sight? The birthers have condensed their frustration of economic, social, militaristic, and religious insecurities and projected them upon a convenient pariah to their cause. Their rhetoric betrays their self-terminating motivation. Those who support him have been "fooled" into following a "messiah." He is illegitimate, but only those who have the "secret" info are in on the gig. There is a time limit (8 years), so you have a ticking clock (a must for any good thriller).
They recycle their apocalyptic poetics in apoplectic fits of starts and stops. Socialism, Communism, Death Squads, Nazis, Dictator, Big Brother. The ingredients are the same, which is why this dish tastes so familiar.
The birthers are torn between wanting the end to come to vindicate their beliefs. They want Obama to be all the bad that they project onto him in order to validate their hyperbole. They want his presidency to culminate in a cataclysmic event, only to be vanquished by the "truth..." A "reset" button on "normal" life that will return them to the lily-white blue collar burghs and villes of yesteryear. They want to win by default. They want to win on account of this new philosophy, this progressive bullshit, this leftist illusion... failing. It has to be as bad as they say, as underhanded and evil as they predict... but it has to be non-terminal because, well, what fun is it to be right if you can't rub it in?
Obama is their anti-Christ. He is their imposter, their usurper, their harbinger of doom. He is a human representation of their proclivity for clinging to guns and religion. And just like every other prophesy to come before it, this one is fucking retarded. If the birthers bet the farm on this theory, they will ultimately end up like all those who have walked this path before... naked and possessionless, standing at the top of the mountain, arms outstretched to heaven... looking like a goddamn idiot while everyone else goes about their lives comfortable in the knowledge that it will end, but it will not be "the end." Sphere: Related Content