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We Are All Birthers

April 20, 2011

Just kidding.

My parents keep asking me for my take on “all that birther stuff.” I asked them, what is there to say really? But, after some careful thought, I discovered that I have quite a bit to say about birthers. I also discovered that everything I have to say about birthers is complete nonsense, not worth a wooden nickel. I sure had fun writing it, though.

The birthers’ dogged uncertainty about Barack Obama’s claim to natural-born citizenship has been thoroughly refuted by many reputable sources so I won’t bother to address their claims here. Many have suggested—rightly, I think—that the continued doubts about Obama’s citizenship in the face of overwhelming evidence are a textbook example of confirmation bias.

So why write about birthers? Well, for rhetoricians, they’re a nice break from presidential speeches and the like. So, just for fun, let’s deconstruct a little birther rhetoric. The first thing that comes to my mind are those bumper stickers, especially the ones with this slogan:

Where’s the birth certificate?

From a Foucaultian perspective, the need to obsessively document births and even “certify” them reflects the government’s unending quest to control, regulate and subjugate bodies. Michel Foucault called this phenomenon “bio-power.” Think about it this way: from the moment we are born, our lives, our very identities as humans become the subject of an obsessively kept, carefully controlled stack of certificates, records, degrees, licenses and, finally, death certificates.

I bring this up because birthers look to the birth certificate as the ultimate arbiter of citizenship. Barack Obama is or is not a natural-born citizen because of what that piece of paper says. And not just any piece of paper will do. It must be the original, longform certificate. It must be original. The shortform version, which is acceptable as evidence of citizenship in any court in the United States, is not enough. It’ll get you a passport, but it doesn’t prove anything, am I right?

Birthers insist on the original certificate for a reason. It’s because they have a growing sense that those “certifications of live birth” that are bandied about are a reproduction of a reproduction—a simulacrum of human life. The problem with their quest, it seems to me, is that if they are successful, they will find only another paper, another meaningless artifact of our government’s obsessive need to document and regulate our lives.

The birther movement has, at its heart, a real sense of existential dilemma. Who is Barack Obama? How can we trust him? How do we know that he is one of us? Birthers are on a quest for human connection. They are groping around in the dark for a sense of meaning in the world, refusing to settle for the authoritative “documentation” that seems to be the only thing our society can offer up.

In a sense we are all birthers. We are all on a quest for a “longform birth certificate,” are we not? We might not call it a “longform birth certificate,” but we are equally hungry for a document, a voice, a something that will make sense out of the dreadful, alienating reality in which we live.

On the other hand, the bumper sticker could just be a play on those “where’s the beef” commercials. Well, it’s one or the other. I know that for sure.

If you want to know more:

  • I tried to make it obvious that much of this column is written in jest. A friend and mentor once told me that “irony is dangerous in the classroom.” Irony is dangerous on the Internet, too. Nevertheless, I’d love to hear our readers’ thoughts on birthers, ironic or no.
  • The notion of bio-power that I used here is from Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, pages 140-143.
  • My joking approach to birther rhetoric reflects a bipartisan dismissal of the question of the birther issue, Donald Trump notwithstanding. Obama has taken to joking about it and even Republican House Speaker John Boehner has, albeit tepidly, accepted Obama’s claim to citizenship.
6 Comments leave one →
  1. Vic Perry permalink
    April 20, 2011 11:53 am

    The other day, I had the document I have carried and presented for my entire life as my birth certificate, which was issued by the hospital where I was born and features my baby footprints and handwritten names of my father and mother, REJECTED, by a state agency in this, um, state that I am in, as a mere “commemorative” birth certificate, a sort of gaudy travel souvenir: “I was born here and all I got was this stupid commemorative birth certificate.”

    I still haven’t gotten over this: what if I don’t exist? What if the State of California doesn’t come through with the “true” birth certificate? What happens to me then? Do I still have to pay back my student loans?


    • Matt Zebrowski permalink*
      April 21, 2011 3:47 pm

      Sounds fishy to me, Vic. I think it’s way more likely that your parents, along with the nurses and doctors that delivered you as well as everyone responsible for keeping public records in the state of California, have been conspiring all along so you wouldn’t have to pay your student loans several decades later.

      • Vic Perry permalink
        April 22, 2011 11:40 am

        Well then I’m just the innocent victim of a conspiracy designed to rob me of my right to repay student loans. But these people – I don’t mean my parents specifically – are notoriously farsighted, planning for the Kenyan to become president decades beforehand. How else to explain the “birth announcement” that appeared in a Hawaiian newspaper so long ago?


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