What Really Bugs the Birthers

The birthers' urban legends might arise less from fears of race, Islam, or immigration and more from Obama's brand of coolness as a threatening alien value

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Why is birtherism so tenacious even after contemporary newspaper announcements confirm Barack Obama's origin in Hawaii? Many people dismiss the meme as racism. But even if all birthers were racists and vice versa, that doesn't explain why fully 20 percent of Americans accept the story and almost a quarter are unsure, apparently taking it seriously. In the New York Times Magazine's forthcoming article on Obama's mother, there's a paragraph that may offer a clue to the rumor's tenacity:

What mattered as much as anything to Ann, as a parent, was her children's education. But that was not simple. Indonesian schools in the late 1960s and early 1970s were inadequate; there were not enough of them, the government controlled the curriculum, teach­ers were poorly trained. Westerners sent their children to the Jakarta International School, but it was expensive and difficult to get into. Obama attended two Indonesian schools, one Catholic and one Muslim. The experience cannot have failed to have left a mark. The Java­nese, especially the Central Javanese, place an enormous emphasis on self-control. Even to sneeze was to exhibit an untoward lack of self-control, said Michael Dove, who got to know Ann when they were both anthropologists working in Java in the 1980s. "You demonstrate an inner strength by not betraying emotion, not speaking loudly, not moving jerkily," he said. Self-control is inculcated through a culture of teasing, Kay Ikrana­gara told me. Her husband, known only as Ikrana­gara, said, "People tease about skin color all the time." If a child allows the teasing to bother him, he is teased more. If he ignores it, it stops. "Our ambassador said this was where Barack learned to be cool," Kay told me. "If you get mad and react, you lose. If you learn to laugh and take it without any reaction, you win."

Barack Obama was raised almost entirely by a white American mother with the highest aspirations for her son -- an all-American story. Obama's outwardly affable Indonesian stepfather was at best chauvinist, according to some accounts in the article, emotionally if not physically abusive. In fact, Lance Morrow wrote 10 years ago that "[t]here seems to be a sort of presidential configuration -- saintly mother, loutish father." (There are huge exceptions that Morrow didn't note, like Theodore Roosevelt.)

The birthers' fixation on origins might be related to antipathy to immigrants and racial minorities. But it also reflects a xenophobia of cultural differences. This paragraph suggests that when Obama was at a formative age, Javanese customs helped shape his celebrated style. But those values regarding expression of emotion were and are the opposite of what prevails at American schools. Birtherism is like other urban legends. It expresses an anxiety -- not mainly, I think, about race, Islam, or even immigration, certainly no longer about leftism, but about his brand of coolness as a threatening alien value. It's part of Americans' ambiguity about self-control.

Image credit: Reuters/Ho New

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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