I'm going to choose to believe Ezra is being a little obtuse on purpose to start a discussion here, in talking about how stupid a conspiracy theory the birther thing is:
As I understand it, the argument here is that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, but that his mother said he was born in the United States and even had relatives lie to that effect. Presumably, she also told young Barack that he was born in Hawaii. The big reveal here is...what? That Barack Obama's American mother desperately wanted to be certain that her infant child had American citizenship?
It's about as lame a conspiracy as I can possibly imagine. This is like charging that his mother and father smoked pot and baby Barack got a contact high. It's a conspiracy theory for the sake of being a conspiracy theory. It has, in practice, precisely zero implications for the character or comportment of Obama. I guess the dream is that it would disqualify him from office, but it wouldn't even do that.
It's not that hard to understand the appeal, is it? Nojojojo spelled it out clearly enough:
I mean, it’s obvious with the Republicans. They’re just using this shit (and other shit) to blow smoke over their attempt to scuttle single-payer healthcare. But all these individual teabagging crackpots who jump up at rallies and rant about Obama being from Kenya? They’re not really crackpots. They’re just the same old garden-variety racists we’ve always had, using “he’s not a citizen” as a euphemism for “he’s not completely white OMFG he’s got 50% black cooties straight outta Africa and I bet the White House smells funny now somebody go get a roooope!!!”....
So it really doesn’t matter how much proof gets shown to confirm that Obama is too, really, truly, an American. The birthers aren’t going to buy it. Because the only proof these people will accept is a 100% European American genetic makeup, or 99.44% with the incriminating .66 hidden acceptably far back in the family tree.
The birther thing getting so much media play is a bushel of lemons of epic proportions, in terms of being a distraction from the real issues and yet another example of how much nuttery the mainstream media will indulge as long as it panders to the right. But here is the lemonade for you good people who are sick of this shit: It's a learning moment. You can learn a lot about the sort of things that motivate right wingers, so you can be better prepared to predict and react when this shit inevitably stirs up. Sadly, geography and my own fascination with aggressive stupidity led me to predict to my dear, patient boyfriend that something like this would happen when Obama looked like he was going to win the nomination. I said, to paraphrase: "Right wingers will never get over the fact that Obama has a black father and a white mother." Interracial relationships set off pretty much every wingnut alarm imaginable, because racism and lurid sex-phobias make up 95% their make-up. (The other 5% is hating bureaucrats for not acknowledging that they're better than everyone else.) They will never get over the fact that not only do we have a black President, he has a white mother. Being a birther means you get to talk in coded language about your disapproval of Obama's parents' relationship without coming right out and saying it. You get to obsess about race and sex and the two things at once and it's just a smorgasbord of undiluted wingnut assholery.
I wrote a piece about the connections between birthers and anti-choicers at RH Reality Check, and I'd like to draw your attention to something I noted then that is relevant: birtherism isn't even the only manifestation of this obsession with Obama's birth and his parents. Anti-choicers have their own form of birther-ism, which is "Obama nearly got aborted nanny nanny boo boo"-ism, which isn't as snappy a phrase, and I'm working on making up something catchier. But if I may be so bold as to quote myself:
Interestingly, movement conservatives aren’t just obsessed with the circumstances of Obama’s birth when they’re wearing their birther hats. For a long time now, anti-choicers have dwelt upon an obsessive insistence, against all evidence, that Obama’s mother wanted to abort her pregnancy, and was merely prevented by illegal abortion. Catholic Vote has done an ad implying this, and going so far as to call Obama’s mother a “single mother”, even though she was married to his father when he was born. And, as I document in last week's podcast, the myth reached the House floor when Representative Todd Tiahrt claimed that Obama is here only due to the unavailability of abortion in 1961. He also said the same thing about Clarence Thomas, in case there was any doubt about what he was hinting at.
There’s no reason to think that Obama’s mother wanted an abortion in 1961 and was forced to have a baby against her will. Yes, she was young and pregnant when she got married, but that was the custom in that era. The only difference between her and most young mothers/wives of that era was the racial make-up of her marriage. Thus, the ready assumption that she was eager to abort is no doubt based in the conservative belief that interracial relationships are seedy.
I promise you; it's shocking how blithely conservatives who bring this up assume that the only thing that kept Obama's mother from getting an abortion in 1961 was the ban on abortion. They just know she wanted to, even though I can't think of a scrap of evidence to suggest this. They developed the ability to time travel and read minds. But this shouldn't be so surprising, I suppose. Think of the recent revelation of how Nixon---the godfather of paranoid conservative thought as we know it---went immediately racist when he was thinking about abortion.
“There are times when an abortion is necessary. I know that. When you have a black and a white,” he told an aide, before adding: “Or a rape.”
These are the prejudices and assumptions that have given us the birther conspiracy theory. I could go on making connections between racism and the titillation/condemnation wingnut cycle, but then this post would be 3 hefty volumes long.
I don't think it's a big revelation to say that conspiracy theories tend to erupt because a group of people have all these feelings that find expression in the fantasies of the conspiracy theory. (Conspiracy theories, I suspect, also prey on people who haven't completely matured out of the adolescent phase where reality and fantasy blend into each other.) For moon landing conspiracy theorists, it's usually either about their own annoyance at the way the moon landing was supposed to be this beacon of hope in a time that was actually pretty hopeless on earth. (Though nowadays, a lot of it is just a bunch of people who really have it out for science, which makes them feel inadequate.) 9/11 Truthers, well, what bothers them is pretty obvious. On the right, conspiracy theories are usually about racism, sex, and purity---fluoridation fears being the most obvious kind of purity paranoia. Always, you have this lurking fear that right wing white men will lose their rightful claim to power not just over the country, but over their own homes. (Think black helicopters.) The Vince Foster conspiracy theory was actually a very good predictor for the birther conspiracy theory, since both are about satisfying the right wing desire to believe that this President is illegitimate, that he should be in jail (Clinton) out of the country/not in existence at all (birthers/anti-choice fantasists). Because birtherism satisfies its proponents on many levels---it satisfies their need to obsess about sex, their racism, the need to believe that liberal men are not real or legitimate, and their fear that someone is coming to your house right now to take away your penis and/or phallic symbols---it's probably even stickier than the Vince Foster thing.