If you’ve glanced at today’s headlines, you’ll notice that President Barack Obama has released documentation that would seem to put to rest, once and for all, the question of where he was born (and thus his constitutional eligibility to hold the office he occupies). At a time when it would seem incumbent on all responsible political leaders to address the challenges confronting the United States, the resurgence of chatter about the president’s place of birth from some folks who do not always impress me as serious about political discussion or the state of the nation threatened once more to serve as an irritating distraction, a nuisance to the president, and not necessarily welcome news to those Republicans who realize how poorly the birther claim plays among voters that the Grand Old Party must attract in order to mount a serious challenge to Obama’s reelection bid.
Some people are fond of drawing connections between Tea Party advocates and folks who embrace the Confederacy. I think that is another case of mistaking the extreme for the whole, and it tends to serve to dismiss Tea Party supporters by trivializing them, something that I believe is foolish. I don’t have the same reluctance, however, to suggest that there might be something for us to learn if we compare birthers to proponents of black Confederates. Both parties continue to repeat the same sorts of arguments and don’t seem particularly eager to wrestle with counterarguments that call into question their handling of evidence. The recycling of already discredited claims reflects upon a quality of mind that argues against reasoned discussion and leads to exasperation. The debate tends to draw our attention to a colorful group of people who are not part of the mainstream of serious discussion. Countering bizarre claims is criticized on the grounds that it offers unwarranted recognition to these assertions; failure to respond is criticized as a desertion of scholarly obligation or is interpreted as a tacit admission of the validity of the claims. Finally, of course, notions of race and race relations lurk just beneath the surface in both debates, as is the willingness of black Confederate advocates to highlight the race of some of the people who espouse their position (an interesting play on the concept of identity scholarship).
Of course, there are differences (and I’m sure I’ll hear all about them in the comments section, along with statements of political positions, etc.). Had the birthers been proven correct, the consequences would indeed have been serious; in contrast, advocates of large numbers of blacks voluntarily serving the Confederacy don’t address why this matters or how this changes our understanding of the Civil War, preferring instead to argue, for example, that the lack of evidence is proof positive that the evidence once existed (documentation is also at the heart of the birther controversy). However, the similarities remain. Advocates of the existence of black Confederates in significant numbers, for example, often soon turn to other arguments to document northern racism and white southern purity on matters of race, a suggestive interpretative turn.
Now, I know some people will read this blog entry as a partisan statement. I can’t help that, and frankly, I don’t care. I’ve got better stuff to do. But I would readily admit that I am offering a political statement, broadly defined, just as my statements characterizing the debate over black Confederates present a perspective on historical discussion, broadly defined to include the realm of popular understandings of history. In both cases we have more serious and more important matters to discuss.
But if you want to drive up my hit count, go ahead.