Many a strange tale has been told — and believed — about Barack Hussein Obama.
The most prominent is that Obama was born outside the United States, and thus may not be a legitimate president. Prominent politicians and media figures, including at least one major Republican candidate for governor, have publicly flirted with, if not embraced, the story.
That’s in part because it has a good number of believers. According to a recent CBS poll, 32 percent of Republicans believe Obama was born somewhere else, and the tale is more popular still among those who align themselves with the tea party. The poll reports that 59 percent of the tea party movement say they are at the very least unsure whether the president is a native-born American.
The tenacity of that belief, even when confronted with overwhelming evidence to the contrary, makes no rational sense. But looked at another way, the birthers tell a story that is 100 percent accurate.
Don’t get me wrong — their story doesn’t tell us a thing about where Obama was born. But it does reveal a lot about the state of mind of those who believe and spread the stories that he was born in Kenya, that he is a secret Muslim or some kind of Marxist plant.
Such stories are not intended to function in the world of reality, which is why they are immune to refutation by evidence or logic. They operate instead as fairy tales and political folklore, and like traditional fairy tales and folklore their truth is not literal but metaphorical.
Such tales tell a truth about those who tell them. They are myths, and as Joseph Campbell put it, “myths are public dreams … vehicles of communication between the conscious and the unconscious.”
Another good example would be the “whitey tape” rumor of 2008. According to reports on Fox News and elsewhere, Michelle Obama of all people had been captured on video with Louis Farrakhan expressing her deep, visceral disdain for all white people.
Ridiculous as it seems today, that tape was quite the buzz for a while, with many people expressing absolute certainty that the tape existed and that, released at the proper time, it would save the nation from the threat of an Obama presidency.
Again, the fabricated story told us nothing about the future first lady. But just as the story of Little Red Riding Hood tells us nothing about reality, but a lot about the medieval fear of wolves and forests, the “whitey” story revealed a lot about the secret terror that Mrs. Obama and her husband inspire in some quarters. It served, as Campbell put it, as “a vehicle of communication between the conscious and the unconscious.”
The same is true of the claim advanced by Sean Hannity and others that Obama — a Columbia grad with a Harvard law degree who served as president of the Harvard Law Review — couldn’t possibly have written his own best-selling autobiography, that it was instead written by ’60s radical Bill Ayers.
Again, the complete absence of facts to support such a claim was far less important than the fact that to some, the story just felt right. It gave an outlet to their fears that Obama could not be what he claimed and must in fact be a puppet of larger, nefarious forces.
Even after Obama was elected, the stories didn’t stop. They just took on another form. Right away, a claim began to spread through the right-wing network of talk radio, Web sites and e-mails that the newly sworn president was plotting to outlaw gun sales, confiscate handguns or somehow ban the sale of ammunition.
The bizarre story offered millions of people a way to justify the unease and fear that they felt, and it also gave them a means to act on that fear. The rumor produced an historic surge of gun-buying, with the shelves of some gun shops stripped clean of ammo.
That was followed by the Fairness Doctrine conspiracy, which insisted that once in power, Obama intended to silence his opposition in conservative talk radio by resurrecting a law abolished more than 20 years earlier. That in turn was followed by claims that he was secretly creating a “civilian national security force” under his personal control, a tale embraced by U.S. Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia and others.
The only thing real about that and other such fairy tales is the fear that motivates them.
But in the dream state that is modern American politics, that is sufficient.