Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Birthers and Al Smith's Tunnel

The Birthers and Al Smith's Tunnel

It just hit me yesterday why the conspiracy theorists called the "birthers," who insist that President Obama is not a native-born citizen and thus is ineligible for his job, seem so familiar. As David Spade would have said: Yeah, I liked it the first time I heard it, when it was Al Smith's tunnel to the Vatican.

Al Smith played Moses for FDR, JFK, and Obama, showing the Democrats the way through the wilderness but never reaching the promised land himself. In 1928 Smith was the first Catholic presidential nominee, and not coincidentally one of the first presidential politicians to rise from the rough and tumble of big city machine politics.

It got rougher yet in the fall. The 1920's version of the Ku Klux Klan, starting to fade but still powerful, were equal opportunity bigots, hating Catholics nearly as much as blacks. The most popular attack showed a picture of Smith opening the Holland Tunnel linking New York and New Jersey, and "explaining" that it was Smith's "secret tunnel to the Vatican," so he could get his orders from the Pope who would rule America from Rome.

Debunking this story didn't do any good, just like producing Obama's birth certificate didn't help. So that's NOT a secret tunnel to the Vatican? Don't matter. Smith's still a Catholic and therefore un-American. "Take our country back," cry the Birthers.

And that's all this is really about. The Birthers, like their anti-immigrant allies, and like their precursors the 1920s Klan and the 1850s Know-Nothings, are defining Obama as un-American. Doesn't matter if we can see the birth certificates and the announcements in the Honolulu papers. Doesn't matter that his middle name is Hussein and not the briefly rumored Mohammed. Proving where and when he was born don't matter here because the conspiracy has its own truthiness in that it emphasizes Obama's other-ness.

Look at all the weird stuff on that certificate. It's from a place that had only been a state two years. It's got a funny name on it. And perhaps most damning:


Native born American? When the Birthers are saying no, what they really mean is Yeah But.

In his 1928 defeat, Al Smith redrew the map and set the stage for Roosevelt's rise just four years later. (By then, the two onetime allies had bitterly split.) He lost places Democrats had carried even in the worst losses, like Texas and Florida, just as Obama lost West Virginia. And much like Obama made inroads into the South and West, Smith won or came close in the industrial Northeast, including Massachusetts where Yankee bluebloods had previously dominated the likes of John Fitzgerald and Joe Kennedy.

Anti-Catholic prejudice has faded to the point that, assuming the Birther's wet dream comes true, the Catholic faith of the next two people in line, Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi, is scarcely noticed. But those old prejudices have merely migrated to other groups, immigrants in particular.

Conservative intellectuals (that's not necessarily an oxymoron) are aghast at the tea party, Minuteman, Birther direction that the grassroots of the Republican Party has taken. On the occasion of Sarah Palin's regrouping, Rick Perlstein writes in Newsweek:
Another thing that makes some elite conservatives nervous in this recession is the sheer level of unhinged, even violent irrationality at the grassroots. In postwar America, a panicky, violence-prone underbrush has always been revealed in moments of liberal ascendency. In the Kennedy years, the right-wing militia known as the Minutemen armed for what they believed would be an imminent Russian takeover. In the Carter years it was the Posse Comitatus; Bill Clinton's rise saw six anti-abortion murders and the Oklahoma City bombings. Each time, the conservative mainstream was able to adroitly hive off the embarrassing fringe while laying claim to some of the grassroots anger that inspired it. Now the violence is back. But this time, the line between the violent fringe and the on-air harvesters of righteous rage has been harder to find.

The Birthers are part of this dynamic of the fringe becoming dominant in a shrinking Republican Party. Like a pot left to boil, the residue becomes denser as the steam rises. Republican orthodoxy gets narrower and narrower. Deny a crackpot theory and you're booed off the stage for simply saying you believe the President is a citizen, like Delaware Rep. Mike Castle was recently.

”Anything un-American cannot live in the sunlight,” Al Smith said of his detractors. A few conservatives, to their credit, are willing to shed light on the foolishness of the Birthers. But far too many play along. They bear an extra responsibility to make this un-American foolishness wither in the light of day.

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