The Zeskind Fortnight No. 19
by Leonard Zeskind and Devin Burghart
[Devin Burghart, my colleague at the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, joined in researching, writing and thinking through this Fortnight. Thank you Devin.]
Taking umbrage at the attention that the Doonesbury comic strip has drawn to a “Birther Bill” sitting in a House committee, Texas congressman Louie Gohmert (Republican) recently told Washington Post blogger Mary Ann Akers that the bill, H.R. 1503, has nothing to do with needling President Obama. If it ever was voted up and signed, Gohmert says, the bill would not take effect until the next presidential election in 2012. It would mandate that the campaign committees of the various contenders for president submit birth certificates and “other documentation as may be necessary to establish that the candidate meets the qualifications for eligibility…”
Gohmert served as the Chief Justice of the Texas 12th District Court of Appeals before his election to Congress in 2004. He voted for the Central America Free Trade Agreement, supported drilling for oil in the Alaskan wilderness, and he opposed same sex marriage. Gohmert also and joined the House Immigration Reform Caucus- – the hard core nativist group of 93 representatives opposing any legislative measure that smells even faintly of amnesty for undocumented immigrants. From that platform, he also co-sponsored H.R. 1868, the Birthright Citizenship Act of 2009, which would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to preclude automatic citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants that are born on American soil. This bill, which currently has 41 co-sponsors, is unlikely to get out of committee, and if enacted in the future it would run smack dab into the birthright citizenship provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment.
With credentials like these Gohmert fits right in with the other so-called birthers in Congress. Initially sponsored by Republican Representative Bill Posey of Florida, five of the ten co-sponsors of H.R. 1503, are from Texas. A state where the governor has given vent to secessionist sentiments. Of the total number supporting the Birther Bill, ten of the eleven are currently members of the House Immigration Reform Caucus. (The eleventh was once a member.) Even more significantly, ten of these cosponsors also support the Birthright Citizenship Act–the anti-14th amendment bill.
With these facts in mind, the Birther Bill looks more like a forward marker for anti-immigrant congressman than like a last ditch effort by conspiracy theorists hoping to avoid the reality of the Obama presidency.
The controversy over Barack Obama’s birth certificate may have originally been cooked up by Republican Party operatives such as Jerome Corsi as an election year ploy, like the Swift Boat attacks used to sink Sen. John Kerry’s presidential bid. (In 2006, Corsi co-authored a book with Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrist, Minutemen: The Battle to Secure America’s Borders.) By the beginning of 2009, however, the birthers-as they came to be called–had become a phenomenon with a mind of their own. They developed as many conspiracy theories about Obama’s birth as there are stars in the blue field of the American flag. Commentators tended to emphasize these conspiratorial attitudes as a way of characterizing who the birthers were. And these analyses were not far off the mark.
Nevertheless, there is another element of this worldview that needs to be understood. Consider, in this regard, the woman who stood up in a Delaware town hall last month and claimed that Obama was a citizen of Kenya. “I want my country back,” she told the crowd. Her anger is aimed at restoring a country that no longer exists. In fact, that country never did exist.
If a person believes, like Pat Buchanan has argued, that white people built this country alone, and as whites, it is not a long next step to think that President Barack Obama is not a genuine bona-fide natural born American. Nor is it very far to reach the conclusion that brown-skinned, Spanish speaking immigrants are an enemy force that needs repelling. The psychological, social and political space between conspiracy minded whizbangs outside the beltway, and the anti-immigrant congressmen supporting the Birther Bill then shrinks to invisibility. They are distinct without a difference that matters. The nuttiness of the conspiracy mongers becomes less salient then their search for a brighter, whiter tomorrow.
Leonard Zeskind is author of Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstreanstream. Devin Burghart is associate director at the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights.