Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Secret Origin of the Birthers

Cross-posted at Birth of a Notion

Birthers like to claim that the public was questioning Obama's birth and eligibility long before such claims ever actually arose. By backdating their theories to 2007 or 2004 or even earlier, they mentally lend their beliefs greater credibility. Even some skeptics have proposed that proto-Birther rumors began prior to the 2008 primaries. A 2007 posting at Yahoo Answers asked “If Obama bin HUSSEIN al Barack was born in Kenya, how can he run for president in the US?” In a July 2009 editorial, the National Review said that the allegations of a Kenyan birth for Obama began with a commenter at a Democratic blog, The Blue State, who wrote on July 23, 2007, “Obama isn't technically a northerner either since he was born in Kenya... I like a more international view of the world so I like the fact he was born somewhere else.” There was even a Kenyan newspaper from 2004 that casually referenced “Kenyan-born Obama.”*

I believe that it is a mistake to peg comments like these as starting rumors about Obama’s birth. Apart from the lack of any evidence that others repeated their errors, they all are lacking essential elements of the popularized rumor: the acknowledgment that Obama’s public biography places his birth in Hawaii, and the allegation of a cover-up to hide his true birth in Kenya. The earlier comments don’t allege that the Hawaiian birth story is false; rather, they seem blissfully ignorant of Obama’s biography, and appear honestly mistaken in their assumptions. They give no indication that they’re questioning or disputing the official story, and their casual statements that Obama was born in Kenya appear to be nothing more than simple mistakes of fact, like someone who erroneously believes that George W. Bush was born in Texas, or Sarah Palin in Alaska, or Al Gore in Tennessee. Would you have guessed that of the two 2004 Presidential candidates, former Texas Governor George W. Bush was born in east-coast Connecticut, while Massachusetts Senator John Kerry was born in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado?

Extensive searching for the first online appearance of challenges to Obama’s birthplace, or challenges to his Constitutional eligibility, or demands for his birth certificate turn up nothing prior to the start of the 2008 primary elections. Rather, all three made their initial appearances in March 2008, right around the time that Obama took a decisive lead in the delegate count for the Democratic nomination. Most websites that one would expect to be early adopters of Obama birth and eligibility rumors (e.g., conservative sites like FreeRepublic, conspiracy sites like Prison Planet, white supremacist sites like Stormfront) didn’t engage the rumor until June 2008.

Virtually all of Birtherism owes its existence to the rumor that Barack Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, did not give birth to him in Hawaii. As the rumor goes, she instead had traveled to Kenya for unspecified reasons, and had given birth to her son there, before returning to Honolulu and falsely claiming that she gave birth in Hawaii. This is the rumor that eventually caused the Birther conspiracy theory to tip as an epidemic, that drove the resultant demands for the release of Obama’s birth certificate, that inspired the immediate skepticism of the birth certificate following its release, and ultimately led to the neverending supply of alternative legal theories as to why Obama ought to be deemed Constitutionally ineligible for the Presidency. Perhaps one or more of these events would have transpired anyway in the absence of the Kenyan birth rumor, but as it happened, the rumor was the root cause of them all.

And that rumor first appeared in the early hours of Saturday, March 1, 2008, on the conservative web forum, FreeRepublic.com. In a thread entitled “FR CONTEST: Pin the Middle Name on the Obama,” where posters were offering various 'funny' middle names for Barack Obama in lieu of “Hussein,” a poster named “FARS” posted this non-sequitur:

I was told today that Obama swore in on a Koran for his Senate seat. I do not believe he did. Can someone clarify this for me? I am under the impression only a Congressman has so far sworn in on a Koran.

Also that Obama’s mother gave birth to him overseas and then immediately flew into Hawaii and registered his birth as having taken place in Hawaii.

Again, any clarifications on this? Defintely disqualifies him for Prez. There must be some trace of an airticket. While small babies are not charged air fare they do have a ticket issued for them.

Long time ago but there may be some residual information somewhere. Good ammo (if available and true) BEST USED AFTER he becomes PREZ (if that occurs) and it’s too late for Dems - except accept the VP.

Most of the essential elements of the rumor are here, from the immediate flight to Hawaii for registration to the eligibility concerns. All that is lacking is a specific reference to Kenya, which we’ll see was remedied shortly thereafter. He acknowledges that Obama’s public biography states that he was born in Honolulu, and he alleges that the public biography is false. He actively endorses the idea of Obama’s family covering up a birth in Kenya, and as such, is proposing a conspiracy theory.

Importantly, despite being the first person, anywhere, to report this rumor, he cites no source for it. No news report, or broadcast program, or website. Only “I was told today.” The fact that it appears alongside the oft-repeated and equally oft-debunked false rumor that Obama took his oath of office on a Koran illustrates the level of FARS’ willingness to factcheck rumors before repeating them.

FARS’ rumor drew as much negative response as it did support; the very next poster wrote in reaction “Has the Conservative Philosophy and Message become so diluted and fuzzy that we must resort to trash like this[?]” No one appeared to pick up the rumor and spread it themselves. Rather, it took a blogger outside FreeRepublic to repeat it as a legitimate rumor.

Four days later, on March 4, 2008, FARS’ rumor was cited by pseudonymous blogger “Alan Peters” on his blog “Ruthless Roundup.” The post began with a link to FreedomsEnemies.com**, and followed that link with this addendum:

Add to the family history shown in this article that Obama's mother was allegedly visiting Kenya with Obama's father in the final months of her pregnancy and was not allowed to board a flight in her late term to return home.She allegedly had Obama in Kenya and quickly boarded a flight to Hawaii. Airlines do not accept late term pregancies but do not refuse passage to a newborn, usually issuing a 10% or free fare ticket for the trip.Once in Hawaii, his mother registered him as being born in Hawaii.

Apart from his bloodline making him an Arab American NOT an African American, (his African blood only reaches less than 7% and insufficient to qualify for Federal standards of a minimum 12.5% as a given minority) he may not even be born in the USA, and unlike McCain without being on an American military base and with BOTH parents being Americans.

Like FARS, Peters provided no source for the rumor, choosing only to frame the rumor with “allegedly,” giving it marginally more credence than FARS’s “I was told today.” Also, just as FARS had paired the birth rumor with another popular false rumor about Obama, Peters does precisely the same, with the claim that Obama is “an Arab American NOT an African American”*** (a rumor that FARS had mentioned in subsequent posts in the ‘Middle Name’ thread). Peters also adds the remaining core elements of the rumor, pinpointing Kenya as the supposed location of birth, and offering rationales for why Ann Dunham would have been in Kenya and why she would not have returned to the U.S. prior to giving birth.

Peters does not cite FARS as his source for this rumor, but there can be little doubt as to that. FARS regularly posts links to Peters’ blogs on FreeRepublic, and Peters occasionally incorporates comments from FARS into his blog posts. FARS actually tends to talk more about Peters than himself, and in my communications with FARS, he responded for the both of them. At the very minimum they are long-time friends who are in regular communication; on the other hand, it is entirely possible that they are actually the same person, and “FARS” is just a secondary internet identity for Peters.

“Alan Peters” is itself a pseudonym, and the 70-year-old Santa Ana resident who uses it is a prolific anti-Muslim blogger who maintains several websites, most notably Anti-Mullah. He describes himself as having been “For many years involved with intelligence and security matters in Iran with significant access at top levels during the rule of the Shah, until early 1979. Currently an Iran SME (subject matter expert), analyst/commentator, and multi-linguist.” A writer in Forbes Magazine cited Iranian sources who said Peters has become “a sensationalist and even fantasist in his later years.”

That description is, if anything, an understatement. Peters’ disdain for the Muslim religion is exceeded only by his outright hatred of Barack Obama. During the two years since the Kenyan birth rumor debuted on Peters’ blog, he has been one of the most steadfast purveyors of anti-Obama rhetoric and Birther conspiracy theories, ably assisted by FARS’s posts at FreeRepublic. Peters is also personally responsible for starting one of the most widespread secondary rumors about the supposed Kenyan birth, the completely false claim that Obama's half-siblings had said he was born in Kenya. If Birtherism has a founding father, it is Alan Peters.

So how can it be certain that the Kenyan birth rumor began with FARS and Peters? FARS’s source could have been a liar or a practical joker or a nut. Perhaps it all started with a random e-mail, or perhaps there never was a source, and it was created out of whole cloth.

Amazingly, I found the answer on a website I had frequented for years. And it was not on an extremist or racist or conspiracist website, but rather on a highly respected law blog. On February 28, 2008, UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh posted to The Volokh Conspiracy a short item where he stated that he was certain that John McCain was a natural-born citizen. In the comments thread to this post, one commenter posited this legal scenario:

Let's change the hypothetical (just for grins and giggles).

Barack Obama's father was a citizen of Kenya. What would Senator Obama's citizenship status (and Presidential eligibility) be if:

1) He had been born in Kenya, but taken by his mother to the United States immediately after birth and then spent the rest of his life as he has subsequently lived it?

2) He was born in a third country, and like my first hypothetical, immediately taken to the United States? Does that change the analysis?

3) Would these results change if Senator Obama had been raised in a foreign country for any length of time before his mother returned with him to the United States?

That was posted at The Volokh Conspiracy at 2:02 a.m. on February 29, 2008. Just over 24 hours later, FARS was sharing at FreeRepublic what he had “been told today” about Obama having been born overseas, but taken by his mother to the United States immediately after birth. All the details subsequently expressed in the rumor are there, a rumor that shows no signs of having existed prior to February 29.

Thus, before it was a rumor that gave birth to a fringe movement and dozens of attempted lawsuits, Birtherism was borne out of nothing more than a legal hypothetical. No family confessions, no stories out of Africa, no investigative reporting. Just a mere thought exercise about citizenship law.

That is how Birtherism was conceived. After gestating for three months, during which time it elicited comment on perhaps a dozen or two websites in all, mostly just in passing, it was eventually born on June 9, 2008, when it finally ‘tipped’ into being a full-fledged conspiracy theory. A conspiracy theory that even three years later continues to inspire lawsuits, books, and even White House press conferences.

- Copyright Loren Collins
June 22, 2011

Continue reading The Secret Origin of the Birthers, Part 2
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*The Kenyan newspaper is easily one of the top 3 favorite pieces of Birther evidence. It is often presented as proof that Obama's 'secret' African birth is a widely-known and published fact in Kenya despite simultaneously being the subject of an elaborate fifty-year cover-up in the United States. Birthers see such wild internal inconsistency as the preferable interpretation to "The foreign newspaper made a mistake."

**FreedomsEnemies.com was operated by Parker "Beckwith" Shannon, and was originally dedicated to commentary on Muslims. Shannon later shifted his focus to Obama (whom he was calling "the Muslim stealth candidate" as early as 2006), and rebranded his site TheObamaFile.com, which continues to be the internet's one-stop-shop for smears and unverified rumors about Barack Obama.

***The false claim that Obama is Arab and not African-American was invented by blogger and radio host Kenneth Lamb in a February 14, 2008 post entitled "Is Obama Really African-American?" Lamb has since declined to produce any evidence whatsoever to support his claim.

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