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Not my problem

The point of departure for this essay is the amicus brief filed by the Alabama Democratic Party in the McInnish case. What struck me about that brief (and has struck me before in other defense arguments in birther cases) was it’s direct, non-nonsense style. It was addressed to other lawyers and judges, to normal, well-educated citizens. Here’s a sample:

In order to accept the claim that President Obama’s birth certificate is a forgery, one has to buy into a conspiracy theory so vast and byzantine that it sincerely taxes the imagination of reasonable minds.

This is very different from much of what I write, because I bear in mind that my readers include normal, well-educated citizens, but also birthers.

That quotation preceding means nothing to a birther. There are some things that you simply cannot say to birthers without receiving well-worn rejoinders, nonsense, but predictable. It might be said that I over qualify, and over document the obvious and I might be guilty of what one of my bosses said never to do: negotiate against myself.

Certainly things like “you’ve lost 200 cases already,” “no competent scholar agrees with you” or “your evidence is not admissible and your experts are not qualified,” while damning observations to normal folks, are essentially meaningless to birthers. To be a birther at this late date requires the acquisition of immunity from rational objections.

For me, the takeaway is that I am better off reconciling myself to the fact that birthers do not think like I do, and that nothing I say is going to have any impact on what they say or do. I should talk to the normals and let the birthers take care of themselves. This is in line with the third great life insight I discovered1: some things are my problem and some are not. Your being a birther is not my problem.

Further reading:

1The other two are:

  • Life is difficult (from Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled).
  • It’s not about me.

Playing dress-up

I think that one of my most important guidelines in this birther business is not to take myself too seriously. I put on a cowboy hat and call myself “Dr.” and it’s a bit like an adult version of a child game of “pretend” where I become a journalist or a lay expert on something or another. (The birthers play dress-up too, as forensic document examiners, legal experts, grand juries and saviors of freedom. The difference is that some of them take themselves far too seriously.)

It’s good for retired folks like me to have an intellectually stimulating hobby. It provides an opportunity to learn new things, provides a topic for conversation at parties, lets me meet really neat people, and gives me an environment to try out ideas and approaches to dealing with controversy.

One of the areas where my ability gets stretched is in the ethical domain. Certainly the free speech vs. community wellbeing issue is always at the forefront here on the blog. Banning and moderating comments is a difficult judgment with no perfect solution that I’ve found. Another ethical challenge is in the area of “helping the birthers.”

I believe that the birthers are wrong, and I think what they are doing is harmful, and I don’t want birther activity to succeed. One the other hand, birthers are people. When the Orly Taitz web site was down for several days, I felt her pain and considered sending her an email offering to help get it back up, since I know a lot about WordPress blogs. I decided against that for several reasons and from what I know now, I probably couldn’t have helped anyway. There are things I could show Orly to make her web site better, not only for the birthers but for me and the non-birthers who also go there. I don’t think she cares, so I think I’ll keep those suggestions to myself.

I sent birther attorney Van Irion a case citation once on something he needed to prove. He wrote back saying he already knew it (I have my doubts). Now I am confronted with another situation where I have a citation that I believe might help some unspecified birther out of an unspecified tight spot.

Photo of Pickle with caption "It's a Pickle"

I think the ethical answer comes in the introductory principle in this article, not to take myself too seriously. In my 62 years, I have found three great spiritual insights that I will share with you below, and note that the second seems to apply to the current situation

  1. “Life is difficult” (Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled)
  2. Some things are my problem, and some are not
  3. It’s not about me anyway


“Life is difficult.”

I hope you don’t do what I did after reading those words from M. Scott Peck’s book, The Road Less Traveled: I stopped reading. The opening sentence of Chapter 1 struck me as so profound at the time that I paused to contemplate it for 30 years, and never got back to the rest of the book, which sits on the shelf unread to this day.

imageSavvy readers might infer from my philosophical tone that I have been mowing grass again, and they would be right. As I mowed, I contemplated something else that I read, just last night, from Loren Collins’ new book, Bullspotting. Loren was commenting on how 9/11 conspiracy theorists frame arguments and said in a section titled Anomaly Hunting:

What Truthers do instead [of providing concrete evidence], and what they do a lot , is try to “poke holes” in the accepted version of the events of 9/11.  This often involves a lot of open-ended questions…

I understand Loren’s point, but it caused me some disquiet because “poking holes” is what I do a lot too. So this article tries to make some distinctions between anomaly hunting the way I do it and the way some birthers do it.

Loren makes one important point about “debunking” and that is the debunker usually approaches questions with his mind made up, and is just trying to prove something he already believes to be bunk actually is. Obviously after 4 years of arguing about Obama’s birthplace, I have made up my mind about where Barack Obama was born, and I do approach every new argument to the contrary with the view that it is bunk. I think, however, with basic integrity and commitment to honesty, plus the methodology of proof I learned as a math student, that honest investigation can be done even by someone somewhat biased. Knowing you’re biased at the start helps compensate. So one difference is that when I make an anomaly argument I take my own admitted bias into consideration.

I’d like to compare and contrast two particular debunking efforts. One deals with my treatment of the fake birth certificate, the so-called Bomford certificate (named from the person named on the source document from which the fake was made). The second deals a popular birther debunking of Barack Obama’s birth certificate, the presence of the word “African.”

When I looked at the Bomford certificate, I noticed that the price listed on the 1964 document form was shown in shillings and pence. That is an anomaly because Kenya used cents and not pence in 1964 (and before and after). The debunking argument goes: “since Kenya used money denominated in cents in 1964, any purported official Kenyan document denominated in pence is a fake.” Government agencies use official currency in their transactions and no objection to this argument has been put forward. The Bomford certificate is a fake. QED.

Many birthers looking at Obama’s birth certificate made an argument: “No official document in 1961 would have used the term ‘African’ as a race, so any purported official document using that term is a fake.” The argument form is the same as mine. The difference is that the premise is false. It was possible to establish from other contemporary birth certificates and a vital statistics data entry manual that national and regional groups could appear on birth certificates, and that black Kenyans considered their race as “African.” Not only is the “official version” plausible, it is exactly what it should be based on this evidence. The difference is that the anomaly in the Bomford Certificate proved decisive based on well-sourced fact, while the alleged anomaly in the Obama certificate didn’t hold up against the facts.

Whenever some new Obama Conspiracy evidence comes forward there is a flurry of activity on the Internet with various people on the “other side” trying to find anomalies, to poke holes in the evidence. We had a world of fun poking holes in the Lucas Smith’s POSFKBC for a year. Most recently, we’ve seen a flurry of anomalies directed at the Peter Rehnquist Obama birth video: Why does the baby have teeth? Why is there so little blood; Why is the flag wrong? [Update: Why is there a 2013 calendar picture on the wall :shock” ?]

What happens over time is that crowd-sourced research on the Internet sorts through the anomalies, separating the plausible from the implausible, from the impossible. New information is found, corner cases are located, and the arguments are tested. In the case of the birth video, that process resulted in an “impossible” verdict quite quickly. It goes: “An image appears in the video that was created in 2005; therefore, any video that claims to be from 1961 with that image is a fake.” QED

As far as I know, the Obama birth video has so many problems that no one except Peter Rehnquist defends it. However, with other evidence regarding Obama’s long-form birth certificate, the birthers have refused to join the consensus, preferring to rely on themselves as sources. There’s no help for that. They don’t admit that they are biased.