Monitoring right wing rhetoric and skeptical debunking of conspiracy theories and woo are two of my major areas of interest, so hopefully you'll forgive me for being a little giddy when Barack Obama decided to take the birthers head on this morning by releasing the long form birth certificate they've been claiming they want so badly to see. As soon as it happened, I knew two things were inevitable: 1) The birthers would not accept the evidence in front of them and their claims that he's not a citizen would just get more baroque and 2) There would be harumphing from the people who are convinced that this kind of silliness can be ignored until it goes away.
On the second point, I want to come right out and say that Obama did the right thing here. The only real objections I have are with regards to timing—he probably should have just taken advantage of the situation by waiting until a politically opportune time to release his birth certificate. Jesse, in chat, suggested that right before the first GOP debate would have been awesome. But as it is, I think he had to deal with it and deal with it head on. I was skeptical initially, but upon thinking about it, it's clear that dealing with it was the only option.
We've tried the "ignore the liars and they'll go away" thing and it's failed. Time and time again, people on the left try to ignore some right wing nuttery in hopes that it just disappears from lack of oxygen, and it sneaks up to bite us in the ass. An unwillingness to fight back hard is why ACORN was dissolved. It's probably why John Kerry was swiftboated out of winning in 2004. It's how Terri Schiavo suddenly became a national story. It's why health care reform turned into such a clusterfuck, and why the Democrats are acquiesing on budget-cutting instead of demanding more stimulus. Acting like we're too good to even acknowledge people screeching about death panels and conspiracy theories involving John Kerry's war wounds has proven a failed strategy.
Punching back and setting the record straight, on the other hand, has shown promising signs of working. Case in point: It saved Planned Parenthood's ass. As soon as Lila Rose started going on TV and telling straight up lies about Planned Parenthood, Planned Parenthood put forward an aggressive defense. Every lie floated about them was smacked down with haste. The result was that when Republicans tried to defund Planned Parenthood, Democrats were able to stand firm and feel supported. Contrast this with the reaction to ACORN—Democrats folded, allowing the vicious lies about the organization to dictate their choices because, in part, there wasn't a well-publicized truth they could cling to in order to defend themselves.
Does setting the record straight stop the lies and bullshit? Absolutely not, and I'm hoping that the Obama administration isn't surprised when it turns out the birthers won't shut up, and that probably will include Donald Trump. But hitting back hard with the facts does create polarization, and that's what needs to happen here. The biggest danger conspiracy theorists pose is not that the public will just simply start buying their nutty ideas wholesale, but the perception that where there's smoke, there's fire. Again, with the Planned Parenthood example, what we saw was that Planned Parenthood's willingness to aggressively contradict lies about what services they provide and how much they do work with law enforcement when it comes to sex trafficking seriously limited how much the right was able to imply that something fishy was going on at Planned Parenthood.
And so it goes with this birth certificate thing. Full blown birthers won't be moved one bit on this. But I fear that a growing number of people were beginning to suspect that Obama was hiding something, because they can't think of another reason you would avoid talking about it. By showing that he wasn't afraid to engage and denounce the birthers, Obama has done a lot to clear the air of smoke. Now we can see that there isn't a fire, but a bunch of right wing nuts pumping smoke machines.
I'm increasingly convinced that the way to deal with right wing lies is to spend less time worrying about the drawbacks to thorough rebuttals, and just issue the rebuttals. I understand the fear of giving credence to lies by attending to them. I definitely get why you don't want to validate some underlying narratives by correcting the record. For instance, there is a very valid concern that by saying 97% of what Planned Parenthood does is not abortion, you're validating the taboo against abortion, or by demonstrating that it's false that feminists are ugly/humorless, you're throwing the ugly and the humorless under the bus. But it's also possible to overthink this. Lies are a lot like fires that have gotten out of control. You need to put the fire out before you start to fix the damage it's done. And with lies, you're not even going to begin to counteract the damaging implications of them until you actually get the facts out in the first place.
With this birth certificate thing, I think we're going to see the refreshing effect that a little truth-telling can have on a debate. Within just the course of the day, I've seen a dramatic uptick in the number of people willing to say directly that birthers are just straight up racists, for instance. Part of the reason was that as long as birthers could hide behind the claim that all they needed was to see the long form birth certificate, there was plausible deniability. Now that they've seen it and they're still squawking, it's become undeniable that they just don't like seeing a black man representing the nation, and they're willing to say any crazy thing that occurs to them to deny that he's a legitimate leader. Hopefully, being a birther will soon be seen as being just as obviously racist as being a segregationist is (and let's be clear, segregationists have tried in the past to claim they're not racist). I don't think that we were going to get any movement in that direction without the White House dealing directly with this problem.