April 28, 2011
I think the birther issue is good for the country. A modern republic needs some simple and unimportant issues to keep its citizens invested in the process. The important issues of our time are far too complicated for the average person, and I count myself in that group. We need a few simple issues so we can be part of the political conversation without hurting anything. The last thing our system of government needs is regular citizens getting involved in Middle East strategy, healthcare reform, the budget, climate change, or anything else that might matter.
I’m entirely serious. It’s healthy that we average citizens have some sort of topic in the political realm that will keep us engaged while also siphoning off some of our activist energy. It reminds us that we have a role in government. It reminds us that we have a constitution. It reminds us that we’re in charge, sort of. And it gives the news media something to talk about on slow news days, which is important for keeping that vital institution in business.
Most citizens would lose all interest in government if there were no issues they could grasp. In a perfect world, the largely clueless citizenry, including me, would feel as if we’re part of the system while having no power to break anything important. The birther issue is sort of like letting your toddler have a toy steering wheel in his car seat. He feels as if he’s doing something useful and you don’t have to rely on him to keep you out of the ravine.
The birther issue also feeds our healthy sense of distrust. My view is that President Obama was born in Hawaii. But it’s an objective fact that presidents in my lifetime have been involved in covering up substantial lies. It’s good to keep that sort of mistrust in the fronts of our minds. What could be worse than a republic in which no one imagines that the president could be a crook?
The birther issue is educational too, as are many of the so-called distracting issues. The birther distraction teaches us that a president has to be a natural-born citizen. Readers of this blog already knew that, but I’ll bet a third of the country learned it recently with the birther issue. And Monica Lewinsky taught us a thing or two about impeachment.
Imagine a media that has no topics that can be understood at a sixth-grade level of reading comprehension. That’s the sweet spot for clear writing regardless of the reader’s education. As soon as you go above the sixth-grade level, you lose about two-thirds of the country, maybe more. The high end of the news industry couldn’t stay in business if it only reported on issues that require a high school level of reading comprehension to follow along. We need a well-financed news media to act as watchdogs for the government. Bloggers aren’t going to do it.
Now the media is beginning to focus on the issue of President Obama’s academic record. This is the very best situation that a healthy republic could hope for. I can’t imagine anything more useful than focusing on the educational achievements of the President. And when this issue gets old I propose we focus on the question of whether President Obama is still sneaking a cigarette now and then.
I feel sorry for the serious journalists that feel obliged to cover stories about the birther situation. Perhaps a healthy compromise is to label such issues as “citizen engagement” issues and acknowledge that they have an important role in educating voters and keeping people interested in the system.