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Buce on the Birthers

From the Underbelly of Palookaville, CA:

Underbelly: Bernie and the Birth Certificate: One of my favorite undergrad instructors back at Antioch in the 1950s was a guy named Bernie Weisbesrger, who taught Intro to Western Civ. He was not the sort to dress up in costume, but he did do a marvellous rendition of Martin Luther in German to show us, as he said, just how argumentative those Protestant reformers could really sound. That sort of thing.

Bernie's introduction on the first day of the first semester, was an introduction to the historical method.

Good morning, my name is Bernard Weisberger. At least I think it is Bernie Weisberger. Indeed, I sincerely believe it to be so, but of course the sincerity of my own belief is no evidence at all for the truth of the proposition at issue. Aside from my own belief--my mother told me my name was Bernard Weisberger. She perhaps had the attributes of a good witness, but she might have been mistaken, or she might have been lying. I have also seen a birth certificate saying that I am Bernard Weisberger, but of course it might have been forged, or it might not be really mine at all...

You can see where this is going. We were off on a merry romp through the jungles of critical judgment, laced with the darker menace of phyrronism. That, even more than the bare substance, became the agenda for a truly memorable undergraduate course. The lesson, at least as I understood it, was twofold. On the one hand, nothing is certain--certainly not your mother nor the state. On other hand--and I think this was perhaps equally important, if easy to obscure--on the other hand, life goes on. Nothing is certain but we make judgments and act upon them, all the time recognizing that we really do not, in the strict sense, have any idea what we are talking about it.

I think of this whenever I try to follow the allegations about how the holocaust was a fantasy, or that the moon landing was a smoke-and-mirrors show, or any of the rest of the catalog of fantasies in the Rough Guide to Conspiracy Theories (a delightful book, by the way, highly recommended. Strictly speaking, I suppose it is possible that, e.g., umpty ump pretended survivors gave consistent false testimony on the attempted eradication of the Jews. But I don't think it is even remotely likely and I have long since relinquished according the idea any but the most transitory thought.

Still, one remarkable and easy-to-ignore fact about virtually all conspiracy theories, together with urban legends and suchlike, is that they respond to real human concerns.... So it is hardly surprising that some segment of the population sincerely entertains that the proposition that the incumbent President was not born in the place where the (alleged) birth certificate or the (putative) newspaper from that day and place says he is. And they may be right. For all I know, he was born in Kenya; hell, for all I know, his middle name is Murray and he arrived full-blown from the planet Zyrcon. The only surprise, I suppose, is that prominent people in a party that wants to be taken seriously as part of government--that people who look like grownups will struggle so hard not to be seen as such.

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