Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Bernie and the Birth Certificate

One of my favorite undergrad instructors back at Antioch in the 1950s was a guy named Bernie Weisbesrger, who taught Intro to Western Civ. He was not the sort to dress up in costume, but he did do a marvellous rendition of Martin Luther in German to show us, as he said, just how argumentative those Protestant reformers could really sound. That sort of thing.

Bernie's introduction on the first day of the first semester, was an introduction to the historical method.
Good morning, my name is Bernard Weisberger. At least I think it is Bernie Weisberger. Indeed, I sincerely believe it to be so, but of course the sincerity of my own belief is no evidence at all for the truth of the proposition at issue. Aside from my own belief--my mother told me my name was Bernard Weisberger. She perhaps had the attributes of a good witness, but she might have been mistaken, or she might have been lying. I have also seen a birth certificate saying that I am Bernard Weisberger, but of course it might have been forged, or it might not be really mine at all...
You can see where this is going. We were off on a merry romp through the jungles of critical judgment, laced with the darker menace of phyrronism. That, even more than the bare substance, became the agenda for a truly memorable undergraduate course. The lesson, at least as I understood it, was twofold. On the one hand, nothing is certain--certainly not your mother nor the state. On other hand--and I think this was perhaps equally important, if easy to obscure--on the other hand, life goes on. Nothing is certain but we make judgments and act upon them, all the time recognizing that we really do not, in the strict sense, have any idea what we are talking about it.

I think of this whenever I try to follow the allegations about how the holocaust was a fantasy, or that the moon landing was a smoke-and-mirrors show, or any of the rest of the catalog of fantasies in the Rough Guide to Conspiracy Theories (a delightful book, by the way, highly recommended). Strictly speaking, I suppose it is possible that, e.g., umpty ump pretended survivors gave consistent false testimony on the attempted eradication of the Jews. But I don't think it is even remotely likely and I have long since relinquished according the idea any but the most transitory thought.

Still, one remarkable and easy-to-ignore fact about virtually all conspiracy theories, together with urban legends and suchlike, is that they respond to real human concerns. The idea that those nice Germans would do something so awful to all those Jews is just too awful to bear (and besides, you know, those people are such whiners!*) The thought that a bunch of incompetents in Washington could execute anything as complex as intergalactic travel is just too distasteful to contemplate, etc. There's a wonderful novel by André Gide, now largely, it seems forgotten, called Les Caves du Vatican, aka Lafcadio's Adventure, about a gaggle of con men who undertake to disencumber prosperous Catholics of their wealth on the premise that the real Pope is being held prisoner in the basement--because no real Pope would utter all the pernicious nonsense we are hearing today!

The model for Gide's novel may have been Leo XIII, propounder of the (only very mildly) reformist encyclal De Rerum Novarum. It's easy to imagine Rush Limbaugh (say) reading that line about "
"the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class" and oofing his cookies. Surely, surely, this paltry shadow of a real pope--surely he must be an imposter!

So it is hardly surprising that some segment of the population sincerely entertains that the proposition that the incumbent President was not born in the place where the (alleged) birth certificate or the (putative) newspaper from that day and place says he is. And they may be right. For all I know, he was born in Kenya; hell, for all I know, his middle name is Murray and he arrived full-blown from the planet Zyrcon. The only surprise, I suppose, is that the cause is taken up by prominent people in a party that wants to be taken seriously as part of government--that people who look like grownups will struggle so hard not to be seen as such.

Afterthought: Come to think of it, has anybody ever seen a birth certificate for Rush Limbaugh?


Update: He's alive! And, I hope, well, I hope enjoying a hard-earned retirement after a long and distinguished career.


gary daily said...

Thanks for this Underbelly and thank you Bernard Weisberger.

LonewackoDotCom said...

This post is being linked to by Brad DeLong, and both comments I left on his entry about this were deleted. That's happened to me and several others before, and in fact I predicted he'd delete the comments.

Click his name if you want to see what he doesn't want his readers to see.