We’ve got a looong way to go

It’s painful to follow the news these days, so I don’t blame you if you haven’t heard about the growing caucus of conservatives and conspiracy types–dubbed “birthers”–who think that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and therefore should be disqualified from being President. Um, yeah, you heard me right. And no, I’m not making this up.

The story has been gaining traction in recent weeks, fueled when a videotaped rant by a woman at Congressman Castle’s townhall meeting in Delaware was made public (the scary thing is not so much her vitriol but the response of the audience around her). Network and cable news outlets have been pushing the story because they love controversy. But some, like CNN’s Lou Dobbs, are actively trying to sow doubt about Obama’s country of birth. And recently Republican Congressmen introduced a bill in the House of Representatives requiring future presidents to submit their birth certificates.

Leave it to The Daily Show to do the most honest, investigative debunking of this bizarre claim in the media. It says a lot about the state of mainstream media when a fake news show does the best job of real reporting. Jon Stewart also eviscerates Dobbs for fueling the debate (warning: may not be suitable for work).

Conspiracies are a part of the human condition. They’ve been with us, across continents and cultures, for millenia. And we’ve all been guilty of almost, almost buying into one. It makes you kind of wonder if we’re genetically predisposed, some of us more than others.

When I was a teen, a favorite conspiracy among my friends was the theory that Paul McCartney died in 1966 and was replaced by Billy Shears, a look/sound alike. Friends found elaborate clues on album covers or by playing records backwards (yes, I’m dating myself–this was in the days before CDs or mp3s, and before the web) to bolster the claim. My fifteen year old mind loved it.

Looking back, I suppose you could say that my friends and I should have done more constructive things with our time. But then again, that was all innocent. This is not, and that’s why I find it news-worthy. No, not the “debate” about Obama’s place of birth, but the fact that we’re even having this discussion at all. And it reminds me, painfully, how long a way to go we have before we can have a real and honest discussion in this country about the state of the world. If we ever get there at all.

Those of us who are products of the Enlightenment (me included) tend to think that all we need is to make others aware of facts–that people will do the “right” thing and feel the same sense of urgency as we do once they are presented with irrefutable evidence. That may be how our minds work. But, for good or bad, we’re likely the exception. The “birthers” are not necessarily stupid people, or ignorant, or crazy. They are angry, and they are scared, and so they bend facts to suit the story they’ve concocted, rather than the other way around.

The Obama birth story will likely die in the national news, leaving a cadre of angry souls out there while the rest of us find some other sensational story to obsess over. But just imagine the anger, the misguided blame that will be cast when the stakes are far, far higher.

Tragically, we’ve seen this again and again over the course of human history. One need not reach too far back in time and space to bear witness to what we’re capable of when scared, hungry, angry, or baited into hatred. It’s going on right now in Sudan–genocide largely related to scarce resources. And I don’t have to travel far from where I live to visit the site of a Japanese American internment camp.

Sadly, this too we have in us, this kind of hate and fear.

As a kid growing up in Israel, I saw too much hate and too much fear, from both Israelis and Palestinians. My family left when it became clear that we’d have to choose to be victims or victimizers, or both. And my parents didn’t want to have to make that kind of choice. A few months after we left, my best friend was kidnapped and killed.

After graduating college, I went to work at The Shoah Foundation, a project started by Steven Spielberg to document the stories of Holocaust survivors, witnesses, and rescuers all over the world. (We wound up interviewing over 52,000 people in 60 countries.) For a brief period of my life, I lived and breathed the Shoah–ingesting hundreds and hundreds of heart-rending stories of loss, suffering, and cruelty that would otherwise be simply unimaginable. I now know that humans are capable of anything. Anything.

So you’d think that I would expect truly dark days ahead, as economic, environmental, and energy crises hit and amplify. But I really don’t. I fear them, but don’t expect them, at least not with any sort of resignation. That’s because the stories of the Shoah that stay with me most vividly after all these years are the ones of courage, of salvation, of peoples’ better selves. We’re capable of raw hatred and cruelty, but also great things. And that’s all of us, even these so-called “birthers.”

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