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What Are You Hiding Under That Birth Certificate?

May 2, 2011

As of last week, asking “where’s the birth certificate?” suddenly sounds more like you think it was misplaced—not that it doesn’t exist. You see, responding to the nagging persistence of the birther movement in spite of, well, reality, the White House finally caved and released President Obama’s long form-birth certificate for public scrutiny.

If you’re like me and you absolutely love birthers for how just plain fabulous they are, this is bittersweet news indeed. On one hand, if the Obama camp is successful in ending the “silliness” of the birther movement, then people will finally quit questioning the president’s eligibility to, you know, be the president. But on the other, their silliness is what makes them so gosh darn awesome, and without that we’ll have lost the best example of American public spectacle since the Lewinsky trial (although, if it’s anything like the Lewinsky trial, we can count on Jay Leno and other mediocre comedians to make jokes about it for the better part of the next decade, so silver lining I guess).

But, if you’re really like me then you also suspect there’s a pretty good chance that we haven’t heard the last of the birthers. And that’s not just wishful thinking that they’ll rise, phoenix-like, from the smoldering ashes of their embarrassment, either. On the contrary, I’m pretty sure that some of them won’t be embarrassed at all. Let me explain.

See, whenever we show something, whether it’s an aspect of our personality, a particular behavior, or a birth certificate, we’re selectively choosing that moment to display that particular thing—and not other moments or other things. This is something that we know particularly well when it comes to self-presentation; think of all the sayings we have like “put your best face forward” or “show them your good side,” implying that we have other faces and other sides that might not be particularly appropriate for that situation. This applies to other forms of action too—every time we do something that we expect to have particular results, we’re selecting from a number of other possible things that we could do. In that way, our choices are symbolic and communicative; they make evident the results we expect to achieve as well as, by omission, the things we don’t want to see happen.

So, by putting the birth certificate on display, the White House makes it pretty clear what their goals are. As Obama said in his press conference about the decision to make the long-form version available, “we do not have time for this silliness.” So, they’re hoping that by making the document public, attention will focus on its authenticity, ending what they see as an ongoing distraction.

But, as I pointed out, choices like this are significant for their timing as well—it’s not just what you do that’s significant, but when. As the Times article I linked to above points out, some conservatives, including Sarah Palin—who advises us against letting “the WH distract you w/the birth crt”—think that the timing is just misdirection to distract us, not to facilitate an end to distraction. It even took me a minute to figure out what she was trying to say, and I’m good at the internet! That Sarah Palin and her text-speak. With moxie and tech-saavy like that, you just can’t slip one by her, you know?

And another thing about timing—it’s been like years since all this birther stuff started. So do you really think that if you’re the type who believes that basically the entire legal apparatus of the state of Hawaii was mobilized for decades to help an immigrant become president you’re not going to think that a birth certificate could be convincingly forged in that time? Also, some birthers (including Donald Trump, their self-styled public mouthpiece) have begun implying that we need to start digging through Obama’s past to find out what else he’s covering up—namely his allegedly poor grades in college and law school. That’s Harvard law school, where you can easily get elected as the president of the Harvard Law Review by being a poor student and all-around ne’er-do-well. So, rather than being shamed into shutting up, the display of the birth certificate can actually inadvertently fuel further speculation about Obama’s background.

Despite the White House’s hope that releasing the birth certificate will put these questions to rest, we can see that it’s not really that simple. By displaying the birth certificate, they are inevitably inviting questions like “why now?” and “what are you trying to hide by showing us this?” The nature of the action means that these type of questions are always possible, so fortunately I don’t think that the awesome public theater that is the birther movement is going anywhere.

If you want to know more:

  • I got the idea that symbolic action is all about simultaneously displaying some things and hiding others from Lawrence Prelli’s introduction to Rhetorics of Display, an anthology organized around that concept. I also bit off the work of a number of sociolinguists like John Gumperz, Peter Auer, and Charles and Marjorie Goodwin that argue that all communicative behavoir is contextually situated and that this has important consequences for its interpretation.
  • If you want to check out the long-form certificate for yourself, or listen to Obama’s remarks on the matter, you can do so here. Whadda y’all think? Forgery or fake?
  • Donald Trump has claimed that he’s responsible for getting the White House to finally show the long-form birth certificate, but I think that’s crap. The straw that broke the camel’s back was undoubtedly this post on this here blog by Doug Cloud. I mean, if we’re all birthers then they’d best get on releasing that certificate already, amirite?
  • Shout out to Hilary’s dad for linking us to this related gem from The Onion’s brilliant “News In Photos” feature.
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