Friday, April 30, 2010

Barackryphal in the AJC

A guest editorial I wrote about Birtherism and Georgia politicians is in today's Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

‘Birther’ claptrap deserves our reproach

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Birther Debating: The Motion Picture

Someone adapted the Birther platonic dialogue I wrote last January into a short little animated video.

As it happens, I've drafted an updated version of the dialogue, but this was a nice surprise.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Birther Mythbusting: UPI and Queens Hospital

Of all the newspaper articles with mistakes that Birthers love to cite, among the most popular is a November 4, 2008 UPI article that originally said "Obama described his birth at Queen's Memorial Hospital in Hawaii Aug. 4, 1961..."

Although the article does not state that Obama identified Queen's by name in his speech, and although the article is somewhat ambiguous as to what speech it may even be referring to, and although there is no other news story claiming that Obama referenced Queen's, and although there is no video or audio of any speech wherein Obama referenced Queen's, Birthers have taken this article as gospel proof that Obama personally named Queen's Memorial Hospital as his place of birth in a speech.

Naturally, when this error was brought to UPI's attention, they corrected it and added an editorial note stating that the reference to Queen's was a mistake made by the writer. This did not dissuade the Birthers, as any correction of a mistake is viewed as "scrubbing" (whereas the failure to correct a mistake is viewed as continued endorsement of its accuracy).

In any case, exactly how reliable was UPI's reporting in this particular article? Did they write an article that was perfect on all factual details except for the name of the hospital?

No. Not by a long shot.

On a freezing day in February 2007, the first-term U.S. senator announced his candidacy for president outside the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., saying he could not wait until politics "boil the hope out of him."
The phrase "boil the hope out of him" was not used in Obama's February 10, 2007 speech announcing his candidacy. The only similar usage I've located is when Obama said "They say Obama has not been in Washington long enough. He needs to be seasoned and stewed to boil all that hope out of him," nearly a year later in January 2008.

His best-selling third book was called "The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream."
"The Audacity of Hope" was Obama's second book, not his third. Obama has not written a third book.

He said his late mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, who died of cancer at 53,
Stanley Ann Dunham died at age 52, not 53.

and his grandmother, Madelyn Payne Dunham, 86,
Although UPI identifies Obama's mother as "late," it fails to do so with his grandmother, who was also deceased at the time of this article.

taught him how to dream and value hard work, and were the guiding forces of his life.
I can't find anything resembling such statements in his February 10, 2007 speech. If UPI is referring to another speech during the two-year campaign, it offers no hints as to when or where.

Obama described his birth at Queen's Medical Center
Obama was born at Kapi'olani Medical Center, not Queen's.

in Hawaii Aug. 4, 1961, to a young white woman from Kansas and a father of Luo ethnicity from Nyanza province in Kenya,
Again, there does not appear to be any talk of Obama's birth in his February 10, 2007 speech.

as an "all-America" story transcending orthodox racial stereotypes and experience.
The quoted phrase "all-America" definitely does not appear in the February 10, 2007 speech. If it appears in another speech, I cannot determine where.

That fall he won his Senate seat with more than 70 percent of the vote.
Obama won slightly less than 70 percent of the vote, not more. 69.97%, to be precise.

(Edit: A commenter below pointed out that one reference in the article, involving merely the use of punctuation, might have been an understandable mistake. Since this is by far the most minor of the items in this list, I elected to remove it.)

They married in 1992 and have two daughters, Malia, 9, and Sasha, 7.
At the time this article was published, Malia was 10, not 9.

That's a total of 4 outright errors about Obama's personal life, 2 technical errors, 1 inconsistency in tense, 2 quotes of unidentified origin, and at least 2 topics that are said to have been discussed in a speech but were not. So why is UPI's reporting in this article assumed by Birthers to be impeccable?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Tom Tancredo: Foreign Citizen? Attempted Usurper?

Tom Tancredo, former Congressman from Colorado, was among the Republicans vying for the party's 2008 Presidential nomination. Tancredo made a name for himself on the issue of immigration, not only calling for strong measures to halt illegal immigration, but also proposing such measures as a three-year moratorium on legal immigration and the complete elimination of H-1B visas for temporary workers. In February 2010, Tancredo shared the stage at the National Tea Party Convention with Sarah Palin and Birther advocate Joseph Farah.

Farah, as it happens, also endorsed Tancredo during the 2008 campaign. Such an endorsement would rather suggest that Tancredo's eligibility was not in question.

But under the Birther standard of Presidential eligibility, that is far from certain. Tancredo's website states that he was born in Denver, Colorado, but there is no publicly-available evidence supporting this. No birth certificate, no newspaper announcements, nothing. What was the name of the hospital Tom Tancredo was born in? What was the name of the doctor who delivered him? We don't know. And yet, this lack of information did not stand in the way of Tancredo garnering the endorsement of the man who demands this same information from Obama.

Moreover, Tancredo's website states that he is the "grandson of Italian immigrants." Whereas Barack Obama has American ancestors dating back to the eighteenth century, Tom Tancredo is only two generations (at most) removed from Europe. Indeed, his grandparents' nationality is reflected in Tancredo's genealogy, as provided by William Reitweisner. But even Reitweisner doesn't identify a birthplace for Tom's father, Gerald Tancredo. And despite a birthdate in 1911, there is no "Gerald Tancredo" in the 1920 or 1930 Censuses. In other words: we have no evidence that Gerald Tancredo was born in the United States, or that he was a U.S. citizen when Tom was born in 1945.

Still, that remains speculative. Perhaps Tom could prove he was born in Denver, satisfying that prong of Birtherism. Perhaps he could prove that his father was a U.S. citizen, satisfying that prong. But there is one prog of Birtherism that he very likely does not satisfy.

Tom's paternal grandfather was an Italian native and citizen. As was, one should imagine, his paternal great-grandfather. Under Italian citizenship law, that makes Tom Tancredo a citizen of Italy. And if persons entitled to dual citizenships are excluded from the Presidency, as many Birthers insist, then Tom Tancredo was running for an office he was Constitutionally ineligible for.

Of course, no one ever questioned Tancredo's eligibility, or inquired into his parents' citizenship, or investigated the nuances of Italian citizenship law as it pertained to his father and grandfather. Indeed, he was personally endorsed by no less than Birtherism's greatest spokesman. Perhaps if Tancredo runs again in 2012, we'll see how consistent the Birthers are.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Top Five Birther Debate Tactics

As an aid to my fellow Americans who might find themselves confronted with a Birther and his arguments, I thought to prepare a top ten list of rhetorical devices that Birthers tend to use when confronted with counter-arguments and evidence that contradicts their existing beliefs. Learning to recognize these methods and logical fallacies is the first step in promoting useful dialogue and avoiding unnecessary conflict. And as might be appropriate for April Fools Day, it should serve as a handy list of the most common ways that Birthers try to fool others everyday.

However, as I attempted to assemble a list, I was amused to find that I could not think of ten different Birther devices. Rather, the typical Birther responses to critical analysis of their position can be broken down into as few as five categories.

Note, this is a breakdown of Birther responses to questions or criticism, not initial Birther arguments. Those can be summed up largely as Argument from Ignorance (something is true because we don't know it isn't true) and Misrepresenting Evidence (take your pick). These items below are the ways that Birthers respond to challenges to their statements, positions, or worldview.

5. Ad Hominem Attacks

Here, the Birther responds to substantive criticism not by defending his position, but by levying a personal attack upon the questioner, or upon a third party (such as Obama, or FactCheck, or a judge). The subject itself is evaded entirely, and the Birther substitutes an on-topic response with mocking of the questioner, smearing of a third party, or making negative insinuations about whoever might disagree with them.

EXAMPLE: Marvin stated that "the Senate held hearings regarding McCain’s natural born citizenship." I responded to Marvin showing that no such hearings ever took place, and that the only testimony was a single question during a Judiciary Committee briefing. Marvin's entire response was "Your hatred of those questioning your pres_ _ent is coloring your mind. Maybe the kneepads are too tight?" As you see, rather than defend his previous statement, Marvin completely ignored my factual evidence and chose to redirect the subject of the conversation to be about me, making accusations about my emotional state, my mental acuity, and my partisan stance.

4. Special Pleading / Conspiracy Pleading

Special pleading is a logical fallacy where one deflects criticism by concocting an external rationale as to why the usual rules of evidence should not apply to the argument they're making. With Birthers, this most often takes the form of suggesting or implying the existence of a covert conspiracy that has interfered with the available evidence. When confronted with evidence that contradicts Birther beliefs, the Birther alleges that the conspiracy created that evidence to fool the public. When confronted with the lack of evidence supporting Birther beliefs, the Birther alleges that the conspiracy has destroyed or hidden all the secret evidence that would support his beliefs.

EXAMPLE: Birth announcements of Obama's birth were found in two Hawaii newspapers. Solid evidence, no? But Ron responded to this evidence by proposing an elaborate scheme whereby the library's microfiche was altered or forged. The end result is that the birth announcements are discounted because Ron thinks the conspirators created them.

3. Moving the Goalposts

Sometimes new evidence presents itself that meets a Birther's previously-stated evidentiary demand. When confronted with this new evidence, such as newspaper birth announcements or official health official statements, the Birther response is to claim that that new evidence, despite being what they had previously demanded, is now insufficient to satisfy them. So it's no longer enough that the Director of the Hawaii Department of Health issued a statement, they want the Hawaiian Governor to issue a statement too. This turns any attempt to satisfy the Birther's curiosity into a neverending marathon, as the Birther's standard of proof continues to grow higher and higher.

EXAMPLE: "Steven" complained that when Obama took the Oath of Office a second time, the "redo was held a few days later, no witness, no media, behind closed doors." I pointed out that not only was this incorrect in several respects, but CBS Radio released an audio recording of the second oath. "Steven" responded not by conceding his mistake, but only by demanding video footage in addition to the available audio and photographic record.

2. Shifting the Burden / Refusing to Prove Factual Claims

Given the frequency with which Birthers fall back on unsourced claims, a ready response is often to simply ask the Birther to produce a source for his factual claim. On the occasions that the Birther is willing to actually stay on topic (as opposed to the responses exemplified by Tactics 1, 4, or 5), the most common reaction is to refuse to provide any evidence for the factual claim they just made, and to instead tell the skeptic to go look for it himself. This not only allows the Birther to create work for the skeptic but not himself, but it also allows the Birther to claim that any failure to find evidence supporting his factual assertion is the fault of the skeptic questioning the alleged fact, rather than the fault of the Birther who made the questionable assertion.

EXAMPLE: Leonard wrote of Obama that there are "a few witnesses claiming he was born in Kenya." I asked him who. He cited a supposed encounter between Jerome Corsi and a Kenyan health official. Having never heard of such an encounter, I asked Leonard where Corsi reported this event. Leonard's response was "Do your own searches." He never produced any evidence to support his initial claim of witnesses or his specific claim of a Corsi conversation. Instead, he acted like it was my job to find evidence of his claims.

1. Non-Sequiturs / Changing the Subject

My personal favorite of all Birther debating tactics, because they utilize it so incredibly often. If a Birther finds himself pinned down on a position or statement that he simply cannot defend, he will frequently avoid conceding by attempting to shift the topic of discussion to another Birther topic. And often, it will be a topic that is less factually-specific and more speculative or interpretative, and thus less susceptible to absolute proof of falsehood.

Point out that there never was a Pakistani travel ban, and the Birther starts talking about adoption. Illustrate that it was TechDude who made up the claim about Maya's COLB, and suddenly the Birther wants to talk about Vattel. By shifting the focus onto an unrelated issue, the Birther attempts to take the attention off the demonstratably false factual situation, hoping that the new issue will be a distraction.

EXAMPLE: Steve was confronted with the allegation that he is not the credentialed expert that he has posed as and as other Birthers have treated him. Does Steve have forensic experience or not? Steve could have answered the question, or at least address it, but he didn't. Instead, he penned a lengthy response where he completely ignored the questions about his document experience, and opts to talk about about everything from Perkins Coie to citizen grand juries to criminal conspiracies to Obama's poll numbers to Bill Richardson quotes to the issue of legal standing. Having been caught in a statement he cannnot defend, Steve started throwing out multiple other topics in the hopes of diverting attention away from his original, unsupportable position.


So if you find yourself tangling with a Birther, and you get one of the above responses, consider replying with a simple number citation and a link to this post. Whatever you do, don't allow yourself to get distracted by tricks like these.

Fair warning, though: don't be surprised if failing to fall for tricks #1-4 results in #5 being levied at you soon thereafter.