Thursday, August 13, 2009

"Towards a Philosophical Understanding of the 'Birther' and 'Deather' Movements"

Like many Americans tuned into current political debates, I have been attempting to figure out just what is going on behind the “Birther” and “Deather” movements. It was Sarah Palin's recent Facebook comments, however, that finally provided some breakthrough inspiration as to the reality behind both movements:
Sarah Palin: “The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil...”
Ms. Palin's comments contribute directly to building up the “Deather” movement, and provided inspiration for the following working definition:
Definition: Factually deficient, fear-mongering "critics" who "criticize" imagined things that don't exist in reality; things that only exist in a conjured-up fantasy realm of abstract emotions. Statements are usually delivered through the spoken word, on radio or television. These statements from the Deather movement are laden with an ontological / existential weight of fear/terror/angst, but are devoid of any epistemically rooted 'facts,' as facts are commonly understood. Deathers often confuse statements saturated with the emotion of fear as being "the truth" – a failure to distinguish between an ontological / existential notion of "truth" (i.e. “it's true because it feels so true”) and an epistemic notion (i.e. evidence is available to support a claim).

While on the subject of definitions, let's also put on the table a working definition of the “Birther” movement:
Definition: People who cannot / refuse to accept that a person with a multi-faceted personality and a multi-positional identity (Barack Obama) could actually rise to a position of prominence and power in their conception of the United States of America. The president is the political leader of America; they are Americans; but yet they cannot accept a Barack Obama as a leader – their leader. The reality of the President's identity threatens the deep rooted (but out of touch with the contemporary world) individual and collective identities of the Birthers. The resultant cognitive dissonance is too much to maintain; the only options for moving forward are to either assimilate or deny the identity of Obama. Birthers, by definition, choose to deny the reality of Barack Obama as president by denying the validity of one of the most basic facts of his identity, his place of birth, which Birthers claim is not America. This, in a subjective sense, is true, for the Birthers' abstract, idealized, and – dare I say – 'bleached' concept of America could not possibly have a President Barack Obama as its native son. However, a substantial degree of disconnect exists between Birthers' subjective conceptualization of "America" and concrete historical and geographical fact.

(Note: The term 'bleached' as used above does not exclusively refer to skin color or race. Rather, it refers to an idealized conception [of something] that is impoverished, deficient, blanched, non-holistic, and selectively reduced from the thing as it exists in the fullness of its reality.)

How do these working definitions help us to deal with the reality of the “Birther” and “Deather” movements as we encounter them in current political debate? My initial response is to charitably consider Birthers and Deathers as people in need of further development through gentle yet increasing exposure to epistemically-grounded facts and the reality of America as it exists today. On the other hand, however, I am reminded of another small, yet significant fact connected to the reality of life in contemporary – and historical – America: Some Americans possess weapons. As a subset of America, some adherents to the Birther and Deather movements also, naturally (and legally) possess weapons. My concern is that the constant drum beat artificially (re)produced by the voices on corporate talk radio and cable talking-head shows might unnaturally contribute to the over-inflation of the emotional state of some Birthers and Deathers – particularly those in possession of weapons. A new question now arises: Should these voices on radio and television be held morally and legally accountable for any role they play in pushing a Birther or Deather “over the edge,” into violent action?

A healthy, functioning democracy requires open discourse of epistemically-grounded ideas, not endless shouts of fear-inducing 'preaching to the choir'. Fear and anger, as emotions, are things experienced by all of us. But as we know, for healthy adults, fear and anger usually run their course and then subside. My concern is that the constant chatter of voices (and notice that it primarily is “voice” – spoken on radio and cable TV – rather than the printed word) from the corporately-funded mouthpieces on the self-proclaimed “conservative right” daily (re)produce and maintain a state of perpetual fear and anger in Birthers and Deathers. No person can live in a state of constant fear and anger without eventually suffering serious psychological and emotional consequences. So we must ask: Are these voices, through the amplification of their media megaphones, responsible for committing mass emotional and psychological abuse, on a scale of which has never been seen before?

It is not enough to merely sit back and, in a detached way, analyze the philosophical aspects of the Birther and Deather movements. If the extent to which each of these movements exists is a result of mass media inflicted abuse, do we not have a responsibility to intervene in healthy and helpful ways? The wide-spread presence of this type of abuse in our society is not healthy for any of us.

So what healthy and helpful methods of intervention exist? A top-down, end-product focused, extreme version of a “Fairness Doctrine” that determines who can speak on the airwaves and what they can and cannot say? I would reject such a notion, for its potential for abuse is far too great. Rather, a different approach might be found in bottom-up, process oriented critical media education. All “consumers” of media messages should have some background in deciphering the content and broader context of the messages that are delivered to their ears (and eyes), and an ability to sort out messages of dubious validity. Let me be absolutely clear: this is not about telling people what to think; that would be an end-product (the “what”) centered approach. Rather, this type of approach would center on educating people in healthy, constructive, and well-rounded means of how to think (the “how” is the procedural aspect). The end goal would be to equip each individual person with a means of understanding and interpreting the fullness of meanings behind messages that appear very (emotionally) appealing on the surface. People would, in a sense, be “inoculated” from the direct reception of the fear contagion as it is transmitted through mass media mouthpieces.

In sum, the existence of the Birther and Deather movements can be understood in educational terms as the result of a mass media delivered pedagogy centered on the (re)creation of perpetual emotional states in its 'students'. It is only fitting, then, that an alternative educational approach be offered as a more healthy way forward.


Frank Schaeffer said...

Frank Schaeffer here: I have written on this subject too. I want to say that I think this is a brilliant piece and very important. We are at a crossroads for American democracy. A few more steps down a road paved with lies and the public debate will slide to violence.

Anonymous said...

ha... i loved this piece... got here thru ur link on Hartmann's FB... i'd love to re-post the definition of Birther on my FB page::)... let me know if thats cool with u