The Birther Mythos

by: Paul Rosenberg

Sat Jul 25, 2009 at 12:30

By now, you've probably seen at least part of the video of Delaware Congressman Mike Castle's town-hall encounter with the Birther base:

What struck me immediately on seeing it was how perfectly it epitomized something I wrote about roughly a year ago-the power of mythos as opposed to logos, a topic that has only grown more important over the past year, as all pretense of rightwing logos has crumbled into dust.  As I explained, following directly in Karen Armstrong's footsteps from The Battle For God, logos is all about how things work, mythos is about what they mean.  As I quoted from Armstrong in "Tales of the City IS Fiction-And Mythos":

Myth was regarded as primary; it was concerned with what was thought to be timeless and constant in our existence. Myth looked back to the origins of life, to the foundations of culture, and to the deepest levels of the human mind. Myth was not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning. Unless we find some significance in our lives, we mortal men and women fall very easily into despair. The mythos of a society provided people with a context that made sense of their day-to-day lives; it directed their attention to the eternal and the universal. It was also rooted in what we would call the unconscious mind. The various mythological stories, which were not intended to be taken literally, were an ancient form of psychology. When people told stories about heroes who descended into the underworld, struggled through labyrinths, or fought with monsters, they were bringing to light the obscure regions of the subconscious realm, which is not accessible to purely rational investigation, but which has a profound effect upon our experience and behavior. Because of the dearth of myth in our modern society, we have had to evolve the science of psychoanalysis to help us to deal with our inner world.

In the good old days, people were smart enough to keep the two separate most of the time, but this has become virtually impossible as logos has become so incredibly successful over the past thousand years or so.  This is the deep irony underlying fundamentalism-rather than being a reassertion of traditional religion, as it takes itself to be, it is a total abdication of the power of mythos on which religion ultimately rests.  

Paul Rosenberg :: The Birther Mythos
No true traditionalist would ever consider defending the Bible in terms of logos-for example, as something literally true.  To do so would be a sacrilegious trivialization,  Taking literal truth as the yardstick for measuring all things is itself an abandonment of mythos that totally misunderstands the nature and purpose of traditional religion, which is to provide a shared framework of meaning and purpose by which we may live.

Of course, fundamentalists haven't lost touch with mythos, even if they have misplaced their central faith in it.  Fundamentalists specifically and conservatives generally are much more appreciative of the power of mythos than liberals generally tend to be.  Which brings us to the matter of hand-Castle's encounter with the Birthers.

The pattern with the Birthers is much like the pattern with Creationists, global warming deniers or various different brands of Clinton conspiracy theorists who almost overturned our government in the 1990s.  They make outrageous claims, have little or no real evidence of their own, demand irrefutable evidence from those who disagree with them, and then when evidence is presented, they dismiss it contemptuously, often without even pretending to take it seriously.  This sort of behavior makes no sense whatever in terms of Enlightenment reason, but makes all the sense in the world as a performance  demonstrating unshakable belief.  And performance is at the very heart of mythos, as Armstrong explains in a passage I quoted in my follow-up diary, "Cults And Culture":

Myth only became a reality when it was embodied in cult, rituals, and ceremonies which worked aesthetically upon worshipers, evoking within them a sense of sacred significance and enabling them to apprehend the deeper currents of existence. Myth and cult were so inseparable that it is a matter of scholarly debate which came first: the mythical narrative or the rituals attached to it.

This is exactly what was happening at Castle's townhall meeting in the Youtube segment above. he words are a bit hard to make out in places, but here's my best attempt at transcription-certainly better than the Rachel Maddow Show transcript, which fails to recognize that Castle responded directly to the woman in red, or that she was the one who called for pledging allegiance to the flag:

REP. MIKE CASTLE ®, DELAWARE:  This lady in red has had her hand up for sometime.

LADY IN RED:  Thank you.  Congressman Cartle. I want to know-I have a birth certificate here from the United States of America saying I am an American citizen with a seal on it, signed by doctors, with the hospital administrator's name, my parents, my date of birth, and the time, the date. I want to go back to January 20th, and I want to know, why are you people ignoring his birth certificate?


He is not an American citizen.  He is a citizen of Kenya.  I am American.  My father worked - fought in World War II with the greatest generation in the Pacific Theater for this country, and I don't want this flag to change.  I want my country back.


CONGRESSMAN CASTLE:  I have only one comment... (GARBLED) . If you're referring to the president there, he is a citizen of the United States.  ... (GARBLED, but is clearly trying to call on someone else)

LADY IN RED: For all the men and women who died for this country in 1776 until the present time.  I think we should all stand up and give pledge of allegiance to that wonderful flag, those people that sacrificed their lives for our freedom. Everybody stand up and say...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Pledge allegiance!

CROWD:  (Begins to say pledge of allegiance out of phase with one another and with considerable cross-talk at first, mostly inaudible, but one man's voice is clearly audible--"You probably don't even know it"--though it's entirely unclear who he's addressing.  Some people are already all the way to "America" when a loud male voice--it sounds like Castle's--starts at the beginning, and everyone falls in with him.)  I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands - one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

CASTLE (Then says something faintly audible about the need to get back to discussing health care, and the need to call on some folks who haven't been heard from.) (END VIDEO CLIP)

The first thing to note about this episode is that it makes no sense whatsoever as a piece of Enlightenment discourse.  The woman stands up with what she purports to be her birth certificate.  What rational difference does it make whether or not she has her birth certificate?  Clearly, none at all.  But as a piece of mythos performance it is very important, "evoking... a sense of sacred significance."  She is not merely proclaiming her citizenship verbally, she is demonstrating it by holding up her birth certificate and talking about it.  This is ritually establishing her claim to be an American-and by implication denying that President Obama is an American.  As a matter of pure fact, she almost certainly goes on to lie, saying that the certificate says she's an American citizen.  Since any child born in America is an American citizen, explicitly stating that is entirely superfluous, and though I'm not an expert on birth certificates, I have seen several, and none of them make any mention of citizenship. However, it is ritually important that this lady present the implicit fact as an explicit one, and so she makes the claim, regardless of whether it's true or not.

She then goes from a probable lie to literaral incoherence, which draws applause from the crowd:

I want to go back to January 20th, and I want to know, why are you people ignoring his birth certificate?

Of course, it's the Birthers like her who are ignoring Obama's birth certificate:

[Clikc To Enlarge In New Window]

As well as the contemporaneous newspaper announcement of his birth:

Now, one might well say, "Well, she meant 'Why are you ignoring the issue of his birth certificate?'"  But what issue is that, exactly?  Because it's not just Obama's birth certificate that the Birthers have a problem with, since Obama's birth certificate is just one piece of evidence about where and when he was born, all of which point to the same conclusion-that he was a natural-born American citizen.

On Maddow's show the day after she aired the above Youtube video, she had David Weigle of the Washington Independent on to talk about it:

WEIGEL:  I don't know what they want anymore, because every time Hawaii verifies something or a reporter verifies something or a witness verifies something, that witness, that state, that reporter is lying and their evidence must be thrown aside.  

We've seen Lou Dobbs do this before four years ago with these claims about leprosy running rampant in America because of illegal immigration.  It's still really disappointing to see him go down this path.  This is - calling Hawaii and getting this thing verified should be enough for any sane person to put this to bed.  

MADDOW:  But what are the origins of this story.  One of the things you've been able to do is really trace it very specifically to where this theory came from.  

WEIGEL:  Well, it started with the Obama campaign.  There were rumors a year ago, a year in change, that Obama's real birth certificate contains a different middle name.  Actually, the rumor was his middle name is Muhammad(ph) and he changed it to Hussein, because Hussein plays better in Iowa, I guess.  

And the campaign said, "OK.  We'll do what no one has ever done.  We'll do what McCain didn't do, Bush didn't, Hillary didn't do.  We will put his birth certificate from the state online.  Anyone can look at it."

That immediately, instead of settling this, created a cottage industry of people trying to prove this is forged.  And then, after Hawaii has said, "No it's not forged.  This came from us.  We have a different copy on record that says the same stuff," then Hawaii was lying.  

Basically, the White House doesn't talk about this.  The Democratic National Committee doesn't talk about this because when they do, it just sends this train down the track a little further.  This is more evidence that there is a great conspiracy.  It's how conspiracies work.

So, clearly, when this birther stands up and says "Why are you people ignoring his birth certificate?" she is symbolically fusing the birth certificate with the wider conspiracy myth that she has come to believe in.

    (ASIDE: This kind of behavior has, of course, become institutionalized on the right-and legitimized by the Versailles center, whose assistance to the right has been invaluable.  This is what happened with the Clintons and Whitewater-a "scandal" with no "there" there, which nonetheless managed to serve as the scaffolding for the only successful impeachment of a US President since the 1860s.  Any and all evidence that there was nothing to investigate was ignored.  At the same time, it seemed that even the most outlandish claims that there was something to investigate were treated with the utmost seriousness.  Most remarkably, the Resolution Trust Corporation's 1995 Pillsbury Report, which should have completely closed the book on Whitewater was simply ignored by both the Washington Post and the New York Times. Both papers had invested their reputations in the proposition that there was actually something to investigate.  The Pillsbury Report demolished that claim. From page 199 of The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton by Joe Conason Gene Lyons:

    The firm's findings could hardly have been more favorable to the White House. Based on the Clintons' sworn interrogatories, interviews with forty-five other witnesses, and some two hundred thousand documents, the report concluded that the president and first lady had told the truth about their Whitewater investment: The Clintons were passive investors who were misled about the actual status of the project by Jim McDougal from the start. The report failed to challenge their account on a single substantive point.

    And how was the report treated in the press?  From page 200:

    On December 18, the Wall Street Journal ran a straight, clear summary of [the report's] findings, written by Viveca Novak and Ellen Joan Pollock. But other newspapers with a substantial investment in Whitewater virtually buried news of its contents. The Washington Post stuck a brief mention of the report's existence into a story devoted to the battle over William Kennedy's notes. The New York Times waited until Christmas Eve, then hid Stephen Labaton's perfunctory summary on page 12.

    That was the sort of preposterous Alice-in-Wonderland political world in which today's crop of Birthers were schooled, and the Washington Post and the New York Times played no small role in creating that world.)

But then look at what comes next, after a round of cheering and applause:

He is not an American citizen.  He is a citizen of Kenya.  I am American.  My father worked - fought in World War II with the greatest generation in the Pacific Theater for this country, and I don't want this flag to change.  I want my country back.

Again, as an example of Enlightenment rationalism, the passage is incoherent.  Even if there were legitimate questions about Obama's birth certificate-which there clearly are not-and if there were legitimate questions about the newspaper announcement of his birth-which there are not, and which this Birther did not even bring up-and if there were legitimate questions about other corroboration-which there are not-it's still a huge jump from saying that there are doubts about his citizenship to flatly proclaiming that (a) he's not an American citizen and (b) that he's a Kenyan citizen-a claim for which no evidence was offered.  Think about that for a second.  The woman brings a copy of her own birth certificate, which cannot possibly prove anything about Obama, but doesn't bring anything relating to her most heated claim that Obama is actually a Kenyan citizen.  Why make such a claim without evidence?  And if she did have evidence, why not bring it, instead of (or at least in addition to) her own birth certificate?

Why? Because all those questions come out of looking at her diatribe as if it were an example of logos, which it most clearly is not.  It is mythos through and through, and mythos has no need of evidence, as logos understands it.  The Birther's own birth certificate is not evidence in the sense of logos, it is a talisman, a symbol of her authentic identity as an American, and once she has established that identity, all it takes is her word as an American to cast The Other out.  (And, of course, there is no doubt that Obama is The Other after all, he's black a Kenyan citizen!  And probably a Muslim terrorist, to boot!)  This is why she doesn't offer any evidence that Obama is a Kenyan citizen, but instead simply asserts that she's an American.  Well, that proves it!  Not according to logos, of course, but according to the Birther mythos it damn sure does!

And to bolster her claim as an American, she immediately invokes military parentage-connection to World War II and the "greatest generation".  Of course, Obama, too, can claim an identical lineage-albeit to his grandfather, not his father.  In the framework of logos, this would be yet another problem for the Birther lady.  But in the framework of the Birther mythos, it's nothing of the sort.  If anything, it's just one more thing about Obama that needs to be "debunked".  And until it is debunked, it can simply be ignored.  After all, it doesn't change the "fact" that he's a Kenyan citizen!  

Next, continuing the same sentence where she claims her parental connection with the WWII military, the Birther lady says, "and I don't want this flag to change."

What? Where'd that come from?  Who said anything about changing the flag?  Although, come to think of it, the flag did change after WWII-both Alaska and Hawaii became states, adding two more stars to the flag.  But I don't think that's what she was talking about.  Rather, she was enacting a mythos-style fusion of meaning-the flag is the nation, and she doesn't want the nation to change, but saying "flag" for "nation" then leads directly into her call for saying the pledge of allegiance-a complete disruption of the logos for the meeting (which was supposed to be a town hall on health care, it appears, from what Castle says after the pledge is finished).

But, of course, disrupting the logos of the meeting is precisely the point-she is enacting a defeat of logos by her own mythos.  And who could argue against her?  To argue against her is to refuse to pledge allegiance to the flag!  This is the crowning accomplishment of ritual performance-she has gotten everyone to follow her lead in pledging allegiance to the flag.  Anyone who would not do it would have identified themselves by their own actions as not being a real American!  Who needs a birth certificate to prove that?

This is why this brief videotaped interaction is so strange.  It is a complete subversion of one reality by another, and the reality that is subverted is the reality of facts, logic, and good civil order, while the subverting reality is that of unhinged white supremacy utterly cut off from, and contemptuous of all manner of logic and evidence.

When the Birther lady concludes with her cri de coeur, "I want my country back!" can there be any doubt that she's speaking as a white woman?  A white woman from a military family? A white conservative woman from a military family whose mythic existence seamlessly melds into Pat Buchanan's fantasy of a nation built by white people (look ma, no slaves!) with a virtually all-white military?   Of course that's what she means-her entire performance was nothing but an act of meaning-making.  An invocation of mythos, all the more necessary since every last shred of white conservative logos lies shattered in a thousand pieces after eight long years of Bush/Cheney/Rove.

It was the Pledge of Allegiance that utterly impelled me to write this diary.  When the crowd rose to say it, chills ran down my spine.  "Holy shit!" I thought.  "This is straight out of Armstrong's description of mythos in The Battle For God, thinking of the passage already quoted above:

Myth only became a reality when it was embodied in cult, rituals, and ceremonies which worked aesthetically upon worshipers, evoking within them a sense of sacred significance and enabling them to apprehend the deeper currents of existence. Myth and cult were so inseparable that it is a matter of scholarly debate which came first: the mythical narrative or the rituals attached to it.

Indeed.  The growth of the Birther mythos today shows just how inseparable myth and cult really are.  Come to think of it, with 52% of those polled saying they find Sarah Palin "honest", Is the myth of Sarah Palin any different?  Are any of the rightwing myths that surround us any different?  And what of Versailles' centrist myths?  Particularly the central one that left and right are mirror images of one another? (Remember "Bush derangement syndrome"?) And the myth that only bipartisanship can lead to effective, lasting "reform"? Are Versailles centrist myths any different, either?  Ritual repetition is their very lifeblood.  And who can say which comes first, the mythical narrative, or the ritual recitations thereof?

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The Birther Mythos | 10 comments
Great analysis. When Paul Campos discussed the Birthers the other (4.00 / 1)
day, he linked to an excellent Richard Hofstader piece, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics:"

A passage that, it strikes me, gels especially well with your arguments:

"The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms-he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millenialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date fort the apocalypse. ('Time is running out,' said Welch in 1951. 'Evidence is piling up on many sides and from many sources that October 1952 is the fatal month when Stalin will attack.')
   As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated-if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid's sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes."

   The anger in that woman's voice, Christ, you could cut that with a knife. This is mythos that has no  moment of catharsis and climax- at least, not thus far, which is, ugh, problematic to say the least.  

That woman was scary (4.00 / 2)
Sadly I have met her type all too often, as a teacher, here in the shadow of Focus on the Family.   I teach in public schools and on more than one occasions some wild eyed parent has come to yell at me for teaching Satanism (Halloween) or for not teaching about Jesus.  
One time, when I was doing a unit on Maya civilization, I was having the kids do plaster of Paris "glyphs" based on what we learned about the Maya writing/symbolism.  So this mother comes in and accuses me of teaching the religion of the Maya.
And wanted to know why her son had to make a pagan symbol.
I tried explaining to her that the Maya civilization was basically a theocracy, everything centered around the priest and temples, and the writing, the symbols were a part of that; I tried to explain that if I was teaching the governments of Europe during the time period where they were all centered on Christianity, I would teach ABOUT those symbols, how they were made, used....and that this was simply an art project as part of the overall unit.

Did I make a headway?  Nope.  She insisted his glyph would represent Christianity.  I gave up and said fine.  You cannot argue with this people.  They simply will not listen/hear anything but there own agenda.  
Same thing with anything to do with Halloween, with evolution.  I pick my battles.  I refused to teach "creationism" along side evolution.  But I compromised on Halloween parties.  We called them "Harvest Celebrations" and the kids dressed up as literary characters.

Seriously, nothing anyone says or does will convince some...

[ Parent ]
Dang! (0.00 / 0)
You teach in or around Colorado Springs?

Talk about "enemy territory"!

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Yes, I did... (4.00 / 1)
I have since retired.  And believe it or not there is a left wing, liberal section of the city. I live there.  
It's so's a beautiful city that has been overtaken by a few extreme religious crazies and this has hurt the city in many ways.

[ Parent ]
Yup (0.00 / 0)
I remember, many years ago, when Focus on the Family pulled up stakes here in SoCal and made the move to Colorado Springs.  I felt a twinge of guilt, exporting our crazies like that.

I had no doubt of the persistence of liberals there.  But a fat lot of good that does you in the position of a single teacher facing a crazed parent. It's bad enough when they're just your garden variety nutcase certain that their little Suzie is being picked on when she doesn't study and gets a "C" on a test.  But with God on their side?  And not just one such parent, but a whole stream of them?

Hats off for having had the stamina to deal with that!

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
It helps to have a sense of humor (4.00 / 1)
as well be an activist, even if the odds are always against you.  My dearest and best, but now deceased, best friend, Randi had grown up on Long Island, in a fairly liberal, Jewish family.  I had grown up in a way ahead of their times Italian American family near Philly.  We met here as teachers and became best friends and used to become amazed, especially when we were first here in the early seventies, at what a white bread, strange town we had both chosen.  Neither of us had ever been to CO when we chose to go on an adventure and move here.  And both of us had become agnostics, liberals, adventuring city girls in the country. Her husband used to laugh hysterically at our renditions of going shopping, looking for items for Passover or Channukah, just to see the expressions on the faces of salespersons who had no clue what we were talking about.  And I would be hysterical at the fascination with my ethnic "EYE-talian" heritage.  

But we loved the scenery, the skiing, and watching the city grow a bit, bad and good, with the religious right and yet more diversity in the downtown.

We resented CA for a long time for sending us the religious crazies and a man, Doug Bruce, author of the TABOR amendment.

But we did have a passion for teaching, for our students and for opening minds.  The city has had some positive changes and we actually raised more money for a democratic candidate for Congress that has ever happened here. And since the downfall of Haggard, the influence of the evangelists seems to be waning.  Every house on my block had up an Obama sign this year.  We were so proud.  

So if change (albeit small) can happen here, then it can happen anywhere.

[ Parent ]
Every kid you save from homeschooling (0.00 / 0)
is a victory. Thanks for fighting the good fight.

Montani semper liberi

[ Parent ]
Well, Hofstader Has His Good Points, But... (4.00 / 2)
there are limitations as well.  Most notably, his sharp division, and relegation of the "paranoid style" to the political fringe has been heavily critiqued, most notably by Michael Rogin.  I think it's most important not to see these people as totally other--a mirror image of how they see us--but rather as having a problematic relationship with processes and concerns that touch us all.

This is the beauty of the mythos/logos construct.  It's not that mythos is bad and logos is good--as some of the "new atheists", for example, argue.  It's that we need to strike a balance that works--and that needs to be a dynamic balance, since we live in an ever-changing world.  Progressives tend to be far too bound up in logos, and far too dismissive of mythos, and as a result there is a great deal of political behavior--and a larger realm of cultural behavior--that they simply don't understand.... which needless to say is a severe disadvantage.

This episode is really unfathomable if one is too stuck in logos.  I hope that by discussing it in terms of mythos I won't simply be giving folks a cheap chance to feel superior, but rather that I will be suggesting the value of taking the power of mythos much more seriously.

Finally, while that lady certainly is crazed, it's also quite apparent that she's in deep pain.  Amidst everything else, we should be able to feel some compassion for her.  After all, that compassion--for the stranger, even for the supposed enemy--is something quite central to the progressive mythos.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
RE: "birth certificate here from the United States of America" (0.00 / 0)
LADY IN RED:  Thank you.  Congressman Cartle. I want to know-I have a birth certificate here from the United States of America...

MY COMMENT: In the U.S.A., birth certificates are not issued issued by federal government. They are issued by the state governments. (A possible exception is Native Americans / Reservations.)

The Birther Mythos | 10 comments

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