Mr. President, Your Papers Please: The Birther Inquisition

The President of the United States is an undocumented worker. That is what the fuss about his birth certificate is really suggesting.

Here’s what is really happening here: traffic cop Trump, who is working at a police roadblock, has just made a routine stop and demanded to see an identification card. But what he sees makes him suspicious: dark skin, and a very strange name. He now intends to take a longer look at that card. He asks the man he has stopped to step out of his car, and to accompany him to his own vehicle, so that he can get on his computer and do a more thorough background check.

The dirty secret of all such stops is that once you are in the system, it is very hard to get out. There is always one more document or fact to check. It is investigation that simply breeds more investigation, world without end.

I’ll say it again: the actual claim here is that the President of the United States is an undocumented worker, and he is currently undergoing a never-ending background check. It is the equivalent of police harassment, and that is how the President should name it. I know he is trying to rise above such things. But his opponents are not, so he’s in the system whether he wants to be or not. And he should call it what it is.

Papers, Please…

We should place this debate in the context of a political culture where the implicit or explicit fixation on categories of identity bleed into questions of documentation and of rights. It is a battleground with an ever expanding front: laws that require photographic identity cards for anyone who wishes to vote; laws empowering police to demand identity papers from persons they deem suspicious; laws empowering citizens near the Mexican border to arm themselves and protect the frontier of their homeland from foreign workers who are invading. All of this passionate anxiety about identity has been brewing just beneath the surface of a debate that is only allegedly about the President’s birth certificate.

When the President noted yesterday that he had listened to this debate with curiosity and bemusement, I believe him. The New York Times Sunday Magazine explained the story all over again this past weekend, with some moving photos of the young boy and his mother. He was born in Hawai’i, and at age six his mother moved him to Indonesia. Period. But those facts won’t make this debate go away, and neither will the President’s birth certificate. The President should think a bit harder about that, about what is really being said—about him and about this nation—so that he can make these links explicit and then attack them at the roots. This he has failed to do.

The cause for greater concern is what I have just observed: the production of the birth certificate will not make this debate go away. Candidate du jour Trump has already made that clear, as soon as he stopped crowing about this moral victory, noting that the new document will need to be examined more closely now.

How to Run an Inquisition

There is a lesson to be drawn from religious history in this. It has to do with that same subtle linkage between identity, documentation, and rights with which I began.

When Jews were forced to convert in various places in Europe, this did not end either their problems or the problems that non-Jews had with them. It simply upped the political ante. All Jewish conversion did was to create a new level of anxiety. The anxiety of identity categories is unresolvable once they have been asserted in a particular way. What the conversion of the Jews ultimately created was an Inquisition.

The reasoning runs like this: force a Jew to convert. But now you worry that he or she did not really convert; they simply said something they didn’t really mean, and are probably continuing to practice their old religion in secret. So now you need an Inquisition, to determine (under duress) whether what they claim they are now is really the case. The only way to be certain often involved torture and death.

So the half-hidden logic runs through four dizzying and dismaying steps:

1. Pressure to convert (you need to become more like us)

2. Anxiety about that conversion (I’m not sure you can be like us)

3. Inquisition (I suspect you still are not like us, and probably do not like us)

4. Death (you are not like us because we are still alive, and now we are sure that you do not like us).

And thus the real desire hidden within the stated desire for conversion becomes clear in the end: we wish to eliminate this group altogether.

That is the same subtle logic at play in these debates, I am afraid. The real endgame is the fantasy world in which there are no foreign peoples anymore. This may well be a part of the swan-song of the WASP, but the logic of the thing is inquisitorial. The President would serve himself and the rest of us better if he said so.

Mainstream Republicans claim to be suspicious of centralized power that cannot be held accountable, and they are to be commended for this. But their current actions contradict what they say. Persons who are stopped, asked for papers, or summarily deported are quite properly the suspicious ones.

The President should use this nonsensical debate that will not end as a way to stand more firmly with such persons and such democratic principles.