Justified By Other Factors

Due to prevailing norms of equality, most Whites attempt to avoid appearing biased in their evaluations of Blacks. … As a consequence, White prejudice is more likely to be expressed in discriminatory responses when these actions can be justified by other factors.

— quoted in The USA Today
from “Evaluations of presidential performance: Race, prejudice, and perceptions of Americanism
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology

In this week’s Sift:

  • Born in the USA. With the release of his long-form birth certificate, President Obama proved once again something that no one had any reason to doubt in the first place. The interesting question is: Why did he have to?
  • The Transformation of John Yoo. At precisely the moment when the White House passed from Bush to Obama, John Yoo discovered that the Constitution limits presidential power.
  • Short Notes. Bin Laden. Guantanamo. Atlas Shrugged tanks. Keith is coming back. The facts defeat a climate-denier. The WalMart business model creates a bad climate for WalMart. And more.
  • This Week’s Challenge. Tell me what I should be reading.

Born in the USA

Every story about President Obama releasing his birth certificate should start with this: There was never any reason to be suspicious about Barack Obama’s birth in the first place.

Now that it is out, the President’s long-form birth certificate agrees in every particular with the shorter certificate that he put on the internet during the campaign, and with every claim Obama has made about his birth. There was never any reason to suspect it wouldn’t.

Why not sooner? If you don’t start there, then you quickly fall into the next trap: Why didn’t Obama release his long-form birth certificate a long time ago? As the DumpTheDemocrats blog put it:

Perhaps the long delay in providing the longform certificate was to propagate and keep these folks in the foreground by allowing for just enough honest doubt to keep the thing going.

See? It’s his fault. Obama wanted Republicans to spread vicious rumors and make stupid accusations against him so that they would look vicious and stupid. (Karl Rove opined: “The president himself has hoped Republicans would continue to talk about it, thereby damaging their own credibility.”) He made them do it by only releasing one document to refute their baseless claims and holding back another one. See?

But everything looks different after you recognize that there was no “honest doubt”, because there was no honest question to begin with.

By law and tradition, candidates for public office are expected provide certain information. Beyond that, and absent any legitimately incriminating evidence, their privacy needs to be protected from fishing expeditions. Consider this analogy: If your prints are on the murder weapon, it looks suspicious if you have no alibi. But if you have no connection to the case at all, no one should even ask you.

The McCain comparison. An interesting borderline example was that of John McCain’s medical records. Typically, a healthy-looking candidate is presumed to be healthy; a simple thumbs-up from a doctor is sufficient. But McCain would have been older than any first-term president ever. Plus, he was a cancer survivor, and being tortured in the Hanoi Hilton probably didn’t do his longevity any good either. Nastier rumors raised questions about psychological scars.

In response, McCain did not post his complete medical file on the internet. Instead, he released a 5-page report from his doctors (not discussing psychological issues), and allowed “select members of the media” to examine the larger file for three hours, without making any copies.

Subsequently, McCain’s medical records did not become an issue in the fall campaign, and he didn’t reveal any more detail. So we still don’t know whether, say, McCain was ever treated for the clap when he was a young Navy pilot. We shouldn’t know. It’s not our business.

But given that there was much less reason (zero reason, to be exact) to wonder about the circumstances of Obama’s birth, why was he held to a higher standard?

What’s he hiding? The if-you-have-nothing-to-hide argument says that an innocent public figure would release everything anyone might ask for. The problem is that everyone has something to hide. That’s what privacy means.

Even if you have never broken the law, committed adultery, or burned ants with a magnifying glass, there is bound to be something you hope never enters the public record. For example, it is neither illegal nor shameful for married people to have sex with each other. But most of us don’t want a complete record of where, when, and how to appear in the newspaper.

If you are obliged to deny false reports, then your non-denial confirms true reports. So I am not going to publish a list of the drugs I have not taken, the diseases I have not had, or the people I have not slept with. You shouldn’t either, and neither should Barack Obama.

But if Obama has to publish his birth certificate in response to baseless speculation, then why not his student records? (Trump is already asking.) Don’t we have a right to know whether he was ever caught smoking in the boy’s room or making out behind the bleachers? How often did he skip class? And if he balks at releasing those files, doesn’t that prove they contain something embarrassing? What’s he hiding?

The comparable case here is George W. Bush and cocaine. He never denied the rumors, and yet his non-denial never festered the way the birth-certificate issue has. Why not?

Why Obama? Politico offers a benign explanation for the unprecedented aspects of the birther issue: We’re in “a new era of innuendo” in which there is “no referee — and no common understandings between fair and unfair, between relevant and trivial, or even between facts and fantasy.”

Lurid conspiracy theories have followed presidents for as long as the office has existed. Yet even Obama’s most recent predecessors benefited from a widespread consensus that some types of personal allegations had no place in public debate unless or until they received some imprimatur of legitimacy — from an official investigation, for instance, or from a detailed report by a major news organization.

… It’s hard to imagine Bill Clinton coming out to the White House briefing room to present evidence showing why people who thought he helped plot the murder of aide Vincent Foster— never mind official rulings of suicide — were wrong. George W. Bush, likewise, was never tempted to take to the Rose Garden to deny allegations from voices on the liberal fringe who believed that he knew about the Sept. 11 attacks ahead of time and chose to let them happen.

Politico blames “the decline of traditional media and the rise of viral emails and partisan Web and cable TV platforms” — and not anything personal about Obama. He’s just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

If that’s true, then the next white Republican president will suffer even worse. Anonymous Democrats will make up some baseless story about, say, President Romney. (Maybe he has a bigamous second family somewhere. Mormons do that, right?) They’ll flog it in viral emails, elected Democrats will wink-and-nod about Romney having only one family “as far as I know” while wondering “why he doesn’t resolve all this” (with, say, a paternity test). When about a quarter of the population starts to credit the story, Romney will finally give an independent laboratory a lock of his hair.

Does anybody really expect that? I think it’s absurd.

In 1999, some predicted that President Clinton’s troubles represented a new era of impeachment. The next Republican president would really have to be on his toes, because Democrats would be out for blood.

Instead, Clinton’s ordeal protected Bush. (“We don’t want to go through all that again, do we?”) Bush has confessed to ordering warrantless wiretaps and the torture of prisoners, either of which should have been impeachable (and are indictable now). But nothing happened.

No new era.

Double standards. As I see it, two things are going on: First, conservatives have — and liberals lack — both the will and the media machinery to create scandals out of nothing. (The closest conservative-victim parallel I can find is the Sarah-isn’t-Trig’s-mom theory, which even people as liberal as I am think is weird. No wink. No nod. It’s just weird.)

Second, the submerged racism of the American public makes it easy to raise baseless suspicions about blacks. When the two come together, you get ACORN, the New Black Panther Party, Van Jones, the attempted smear of Shirley Sherrod, and birtherism.

Republicans bristle at the charge that race plays any role in their thinking, but how else can the pattern be explained? An NYT editorial stated the obvious:

It is inconceivable that this campaign to portray Mr. Obama as the insidious “other” would have been conducted against a white president.

The University of Delaware’s Eric Hehman constructed a study (quoted at the top) to see if implicit racial prejudice (which can be measured like this) was related to suspicion of President Obama’s “Americanism”. To rule out simple political bias, attitudes towards Obama were compared to attitudes toward a closely related white politician: Vice President Biden. Conclusion:

higher prejudice predicted Whites seeing Obama as less American, which, in turn, predicted lower evaluations of his performance.

No evidence was required to start the snowball of suspicion rolling, because to many white Americans, blacks are inherently suspect.

The whole episode reminds Goldie Taylor of how her grandfather spent 21 days in a St. Louis jail for being black without carrying ID.

Tom Tomorrow has it nailed.

Slate gives a timeline of the birther conspiracy theory.

Stephen Colbert: “I’m just glad we can finally put to rest the crazy, fringe idea that this will end the controversy.”

The Transformation of John Yoo

Of all the extraordinary things that happened the day Barack Obama was inaugurated, surely none was more remarkable than this: At precisely noon, Republicans by the thousands and tens of thousands discovered that America has a Constitution limiting presidential power.

And of all those instantaneous conversions, surely none was more wondrous than that of John Yoo. Someday I expect Yoo’s Inauguration Day vision of the Constitution to be memorialized in great art, like St. Paul seeing Jesus on the road to Damascus, or the cross of Christ appearing in the sky above the Emperor Constantine.

Pre-inauguration, Yoo’s writings (mostly memos for the powerful Office of Legal Counsel in the Bush Justice Department) did not hint at any limits on the president’s prerogatives. President Bush, according to Yoo, could imprison people indefinitely on his own say-so. He could order them tortured, and if that violated the Convention Against Torture signed by Ronald Reagan, no problem — the president could implicitly abrogate a treaty just by disobeying it, without notifying either the other countries that signed the treaty or the Senate that ratified it.

Questioners tried in vain to get Yoo to identify anything the president could not do. Not only could the president torture a suspected terrorist, he could crush the testicles of the suspect’s child. When asked whether the president could order a suspect to be buried alive, Yoo replied only that an American president wouldn’t “feel it necessary to order that”.

Since Inauguration Day, though, Yoo has been a changed man. He may not have publicly repented or recanted any of the positions he took during the Bush years, but Yoo has frequently challenged President Obama for overstepping his constitutional powers.

Yoo’s latest broadside came in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, and denounced this dictatorial outrage: Obama wants to require government contractors to reveal their political contributions.

Since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, corporations have been able to spend unlimited amounts of money advertising for or against elected officials. They can even hide their contributions by funneling them through front organizations like the Chamber of Commerce or Americans for Prosperity. The Supreme Court’s ruling mentioned the possibility of requiring disclosure by law, but a Republican filibuster blocked such a law in the Senate. Now, by executive order, Obama wants to impose a similar requirement at least on companies that do business with the federal government.

So suppose Congressman Smith earmarks money to build a road, and then Americans for Safe Transportation spends massively to smear Smith’s opponent. Obama’s order might allow the people of Smith’s district to learn (in case they’re interested) that the money for the smear ultimately came from the contractors who built the road.

Not so fast, Tyrant. John Yoo won’t let you ignore the rights of oppressed corporations and their victimized CEOs.

If Obama’s order were carried out, people might start taking economic revenge on corporations they disagree with. If, say, you knew that Target was spending money to take away your rights, you might not shop there. And that would inhibit Target’s right to speak freely under Yoo’s newly-discovered Constitution — which requires that corporate political speech not only be as free and as loud as possible, but that it should have no adverse consequences to the corporation.

By contrast, Obama’s executive order threatens to move us out of the ranks of normal child-testicle-crushing countries and make us like Nazi Germany or something.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Yoo didn’t really change at all. You suspect he still believes in the power of Republican presidents to do the kinds of things Republicans want to do. Yoo’s Constitution only restricts Democratic presidents from doing the kinds of things Democrats want to do.

That’s a pretty cynical view, and I don’t blame Yoo for refusing to address it. What’s more, I don’t think there’s any way to make him address it — short of maybe having him buried alive or something. And to his credit, President Obama hasn’t felt it necessary to order that.

I confess to a small bit of poetic license: Yoo’s conversion actually happened sometime between the election and the inauguration. Two weeks prior to Obama’s inauguration, Yoo was already marking the proper limits of his power.

If you’re a TV talking head and find yourself onscreen with Yoo, try this line: “John, why don’t we continue this conversation in The Hague?”

Short Notes

Unless you live under a rock, you already know that Osama bin Laden is dead, killed in Pakistan by a Navy Seal attack on what an administration spokesman described as “a secured compound in an affluent suburb of Islamabad”.

At first I wondered why the Navy so quickly buried him at sea, but Time explains: In accordance with Islamic practice, the body was disposed of within 24 hours. No country had stepped up to claim Bin Laden, and the US did not want anyone turning his burial site into a shrine.

Of all the reactions, this one is my favorite.

WikiLeaks strikes again with Guantanamo-related documents. I’ll say more about this next week. Meanwhile, the best analysis is by Marcy Wheeler, starting here.

Keith Olbermann is returning to TV. His hour-long “Countdown” show will begin on Current TV on June 20.

The NYT editorializes on Republican-sponsored bills that make it harder to vote:

Kansas has had only one prosecution for voter fraud in the last six years. But because of that vast threat to Kansas democracy, an estimated 620,000 Kansas residents who lack a government ID now stand to lose their right to vote.

Overwhelmingly, the people who will now have to bring their birth certificates to government offices belong to groups that tend to vote Democratic: the young, the poor, the disabled, the non-white.

If you live in Texas and don’t have your birth certificate handy, don’t worry; your gun license will do. But your University of Texas ID won’t.

The free market has rejected the Atlas Shrugged movie.

Defenders of California’s anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8 want Judge Vaughn Walker’s ruling against the law vacated because Judge Walker is gay:

Prop. 8 supporters are specifically arguing that Walker’s acknowledged long-term relationship with a doctor should have been disclosed before the January 2010 trial because it would suggest he may have a personal interest in the right to marry.

Follow the logic through: If Prop 8 really does defend opposite-sex marriage, as its backers claim, then doesn’t a heterosexual judge also have a personal interest? Perhaps this case should be referred to a special judiciary of eunuchs.

Dahlia Lithwick stands on principle: Even a bigoted piece of crap like the Defense of Marriage Act deserves a good defense. King & Spalding may not be Atticus Finch, but nobody should have pressured them to give up the case.

Get out your crying towels: WalMart has had 7 straight quarters of declining sales. CEO Mike Duke complains that his shoppers are “running out of money”.

BuzzLightyear235 explains why: Too many companies have adopted the WalMart business model, in which you pay Americans low wages to sell stuff made (for even lower wages) in China. When one company does that, it prospers. But when they all do it, who are they going to sell to?

Oklahoma’s House just overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment to ban affirmative action. The measure will now go to the voters.

You don’t have to be racist to oppose affirmative action, but it helps.

Rep. Sally Kern, R-Oklahoma City, said minorities earn less than white people because they don’t work as hard and have less initiative.

“We have a high percentage of blacks in prison, and that’s tragic, but are they in prison just because they are black or because they don’t want to study as hard in school? I’ve taught school, and I saw a lot of people of color who didn’t study hard because they said the government would take care of them.”

Kern later apologized, sort of. She “misspoke” and was taken “out of context”. (The context she provides does her no credit.) And while she explicitly walked back her statement that women don’t work as hard as men (by saying “women are some of the hardest workers in the world”) she couldn’t bring herself to acknowledge that blacks work hard too. Instead, she used her membership in an inner-city church as evidence that she and her husband “love all people”. Even the lazy, shiftless ones.

If more Americans read novels, they’d know how perfect this metaphor is: The Snow Crashing of America.

A former climate-change denier admits that he has been “defeated by the facts“.

This Week’s Challenge

The main thing I do on the Sift is read stuff the average person doesn’t have time for, and call it to your attention if it’s particularly good or important. Help me do that: Tell me what blogs or web sites I don’t seem to know about, but should.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at gmail.com. Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift’s Facebook page.

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  • Mike Ignatowski  On May 2, 2011 at 10:45 pm

    I think calling the birthers racists misses something important. I suspect that if Colin Powell ran for president as the Republican candidate, Rush and Sean Hannity would sing his praises, and most birthers would gladly vote for him. He's someone they can identify with, a conservative American military hero, “one of them”.

    To cultural conservatives, Obama is “not one of them” in many ways well beyond race, and maybe more important than race. His father was not American, he didn't grow up in America, he's an intellectual who attended an elitist college in the northeast, he attended a church that is not “their kind of Christianity”, etc. It often seems as much culturalism as racism.

  • Doug Muder  On May 3, 2011 at 11:00 am

    If Colin Powell could magically be anointed as the Republican nominee, and go straight into the general election against a more liberal Democrat, I think you'd be right.

    But if he ran in the Republican primaries as a moderate, I think we'd see the conservative attack machine generate something about him, and it would be tinged with race.

    It's easy to underestimate the ability of the attack machine to make something out of nothing. Look at Dinesh D'Souza's book “The Roots of Obama's Rage”. Rage? Who could look at No-drama Obama before the campaign started and predict they'd paint him as enraged? Who could have foreseen that John Kerry's purple hearts would be used against him?

    What would they manufacture about Powell? There would be something, and race would be part of it. Maybe they'd paint him as a secret admirer of African generalissimos like Idi Amin. At the very least they would latch on to the idea that he wasn't “really” a Republican. On the surface the charge would be about abortion or taxes or some other issue, but race would be there underneath it all.

    I agree that it's too simple to say “The birthers are racists” and leave it at that. But there is no birtherism without race. It never gets started.

  • kimc  On May 22, 2011 at 3:27 am

    My partner says that the liberal version of racism (and sexism) is holding the person to a higher standard. The “left” seems to be doing that to Obama.
    the Republicans are certainly doing that to Obama, and more.


  • By One Week’s Worth of Crazy | The Weekly Sift on January 27, 2014 at 8:27 am

    […] Because, like, racism is so funny! And it doesn’t really exist, it’s just a word to throw at people you don’t like when they do humorous but totally understandable things like shoot innocent black teen-agers or concoct conspiracy theories about the president’s birth certificate. […]

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