Friday, July 31, 2009

Teaching Birther Babies

I see the Daily Kos has commissioned a quick survey generating the conclusion that some half of all Republicans could be classified as "birthers" with a dispproportionate number of "birthers" coming from the South. Not suprising to me. A dear friend and fellow colleague (20 years working together), had an "I just can't take it anymore moment" after hearing one too many Obama is the anti-christ comments at his Church the other night. He came home and posted his rant up on his Facebook page and within moments had 20 reply attacks. His second rant garnered 15 additional rants before everyone retired to their respective corners. Since it is a Southern Baptist church, I assume no beers were involved--although, judging from the comments they are a long way from the reconciliation moment.

Of course, the children of these people will be showing up in my classes. Flashback to the Spring Semester. Not the Cultural class but the Archaeology. Who woulda known the trouble would start there?

Somehow a handful of students hijacked every discussion with their own (often conspiracy-based) theories, everything from pyramids built by aliens, to government-sponsored death camps, dinosaur-human coexistence creation science myths, and, yes, every anti-Obama rumor you can imagine. I would walk into class and see them clustered in groups comparing notes, the "good" students looking like deer caught in the headlights, the "really good" students absent. Just me and the "mob" (*sigh* what to label them?) remaining. Even the typical foraging cultural ecology discussion turned into an attack: this is promoting socialist values--all that sharing of resources, you know, primitive communism, Obama is trying to do that.....

Now, you could find that a series of really good teachable moments and it should be and in the past, has been BUT, a good number of those needing the teachable moment are just not listening. They aren't using "scientific reasoning". The evidence doesn't matter, the reasoning doesn't matter, the strength of an argument--that package that we label "critical thinking" isn't there. Little birther babies.

Alternet has a very good article exploring the growing entrenchment of belief in the face of reason meme. Arguing, as it is entitled, Racism Is the Prime Cause for Debunked Obama Birth Certificate Conspiracy Theory, quoting Tim Wise, author of Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama, the author argues:
The attacks on Sotomayor, the hysteria over Obama's criticism of the Cambridge police, and the persistent rumors about Obama's origins seem symptomatic of something larger, something Wise believes is "the culmination of centuries of ingrained privilege and hegemonic control."

To explain the devastating effect of Obama's presidency on those ordinary Americans who were quite happy with their white privilege, thank you, Wise quotes W.E.B. DuBois's concept of "the psychological wage of whiteness."

"A lot of white folks don't have much. They're struggling, they're hurting, but they've been able to content themselves with the idea that at least they're not black," Wise says. "So they get this psychological wage from their whiteness. The problem is, that's a wage which is diminishing in value. If you say to yourself, 'Well I may not have much, but at least I'm not black,' and then you look around and say, 'Shit, black is the new president!' -- now the value of your psychological wage is reduced in real dollar terms. Now you've got nothing."

In Wise's view: "The people who latch on to the birther stuff (working-class and struggling middle-class whites) aren't any more racist than elite white folks, but their way of expressing it is so much more raw and visceral, because: a) they may not have the filter that you get when you're elite (you sort of know when to check yourself), but also because they're the ones who feel the most threat."
As I read that I was reminded of the work of the great George Fredrickson, anyone out there remember White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History (1981)? My Northwestern bias predisposes me to remember that one above his other books. Also, my own Africanist bias. In South Africa, that loss in "real dollar terms" and the threat of the rise of a competing black middle class brought about apartheid. In America, will the fear shut down out ability to engage in reasoned discussion? My fears of the coming year seem awfully real to me.

And my fears for my country. Paul Krugman's piece today addressed that same issue: Where is the health care debate going when most Americans can't/won't understand?

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