Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Object-Driven History

If I’d been tasked with the assignment of examining the greater pop cultural significance of birth certificates, say, in 2007, I wouldn’t have thought there was any at all. Birth certificates in political discourse? No way. Then things got ugly during the 2008 election cycle. Mud was being flung in every direction and Barack Obama, young political phenom from Chicago, had his citizenship called into question via the validity, or lack thereof, of his birth certificate. Was he secretly a Kenyan, not an American? Was it illegal for him to run for President of the United States? Conspiracy theorists first claimed Obama had no certificate at all. Once the Obama camp provided a Hawaiian certification of live birth, the document’s legality was then interrogate. Claims were bantered about that Obama’s documentation was forged. Why wasn’t the state seal visible? (Turns out Obama’s was stamped on the reverse and only the front of the document was scanned; the stamp didn’t render well for this reason.) The Obama camp blacked out the certificate number when they released the scan as proof of his citizenship. This was taken as sure proof the document was a fake. It couldn’t have possibly been an attempt to protect the future President’s privacy. Verifications of Obama’s legal citizenship came from all corners: judges ruled in his favor; the Hawaiian government confirmed he was born in their state; the Honolulu Advertiser and Star-Bulletin offered up the Obama birth announcements published in their papers in 1961. Obama was proven an American citizen, but birth certificates earned a place in pop culture and political history. Obama launched a still-running “Fight the Smears” website with a page dedicated to the validity of his documentation. Popular internet myth-busting site Snopes.com has an extensive page defending Obama’s status as an American. A simple Google search for “birth certificate” gives extensive results regarding the Obama birth certificate controversy. However, no matter how many voices join the chorus to proclaim Obama’s American citizenship, conspiracy theorists cling to the idea that Obama’s presidency is illegal.

Birth certificates represent the responsibility of a government toward its citizens. If one can prove one was born in a particular nation, one is entitled to certain government privileges and services. Birth certificates prove one has the full rights of citizenship in the issuing country, thus making a forgery a valuable thing in places like the United States. A real birth certificate, however, is a basic building block of one’s identity, a symbol of rights and privileges, even status. As is the case with Amy’s birth certificate, the real thing means different things to different people and even has the power to validate one’s person. Or not.

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