Now that Birtherism has become the latest cause célèbre in the public consciousness, it has progressed from a half-mad conspiracy theory to a half-baked political platform. Once the sole purview of the reactionary Right, questioning Barack Obama’s American citizenship is now the stock in trade of would-be-politicians and public figures. But now, having embraced this fabrication, they will live or die by it. A long, ignoble history of similar conduct exists, particularly when an outright fallacy is believed by enough people that cynical opportunists seize fast to it to increase their own power. I could cite any number of examples from history, but I’ll focus my attention on two.
Conquered peoples, or at least defeated peoples have a way of perpetuating and substituting legends and myths when the truth is too painful to admit. The Dolchstoßlegende, or stab-in-the-back legend insisted that the German army lost World War I due to the betrayal of its own citizens, not opposing armies. Fact and scholarship prove that this was a colossal lie, but the proud German people, who believed themselves nearly invincible in the field of battle did not willingly accept the reality. And before someone calls Godwin’s Law, I will say no more on this subject.
Most appropriate for the 150th anniversary of the conflict, I note that I myself grew up something of a believer in the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. The kind of complete destruction brought on by four years of destructive war could only be softened away by romanticism and a deliberate disregard of the facts. Denial is a powerful force in the minds of men and women, and when it becomes collectively embraced, it is powerful still. Those who are natives of the Southern states refuse to let the conflict go, while those in more Northern localities often cannot understand why such an emphasis is placed upon an epoch they associate more with history books. History is written by the victors, but the defeated never forget. So it doesn’t surprise me a bit that the epicenter of Birtherism is the South.