Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

A whiff of forgery

The latest wrinkle in the Obama birth certificate controversy has caught my attention because it reminded me of a couple of past incidents in my own experience. (For those who aen't aware of it - there is no serious controversy about the time and place of President Obama's birth, in Hawaii 48 years ago yesterday, as verified by his birth certificate and contemporary newspaper records; the controversy is over how dangerous we should consider the risk to be from those who maintain that he was actually born in Kenya, which would make him ineligible for the office of President of the USA.)


What prompted this post was the publication by Birther leader Orly Taitz of an obviously bogus birth certificate purporting to have been issued by the "Republic of Kenya" in early 1964, attesting to Obama's birth in Mombasa (hundreds of miles from his father's home town, but what the hell). Kenya did not in fact become a republic until December 1964, a year after independence, having spent the interim as a Dominion under the nominal rule of Malcolm MacDonald as Governor-General. This is not the only bogus element of the latest fake document in the case, but it is the most demonstrable flaw.

I was impressed by the amount of wishful thinking visible in the Birther community about this. A line of defence being peddled on some blogs and websites starts with the premise the Kenyan government really wanted to be a republic all along - which is certainly true - and therefore moves to the conclusion that Kenyan birth certificates in early 1964 were being issued on pre-printed forms in the name of a state which did not yet exist - a conclusion for which there is no evidence whatsoever apart from the bogus birth certificate. Indeed, with every other transitional state I have researched (and I have researched a lot of them) the problem is more usually the opposite - that the official forms take some time to catch up with the new designations. The Birther theory of Kenyan Anticipated Republicanism requires Jomo Kenyatta i) to have demonstrated an aggressive administrative ability beyond the capabilities of any other state which I have seen dealing with this problem, and also ii) to have challenged London by issuing documents in the name of a not-yet-existent Republic. Kenyatta has a very good reputation, so I guess that i) is not outside the bounds of possibility, but if he had attempted ii) there would certainly be plenty of records of it - being a republic or not was a very big deal in those days.

I find it very reminiscent of the debates I used to have on Usenet with people who thought that someone else wrote Shakespeare. Having gone into it with a relatively open mind, I soon realised that the Oxfordians and their rivals just were not interested in actual evidence; any data point at all was either co-opted to the theory or dismissed as obvious forgery, based entirely on the writer's prejudices rather than on any other factors. I found Karl Popper's analysis of why science is different from religion rather a helpful intellectual tool in those debates.


The other point that occurred to me is that the forgery itself is not actually intended to convince anyone other than the already convinced; indeed, it could even have been designed as a poison pill to damage the Birthers (though it is more likely that it was simply designed to make money from the gullible and deluded Ms Taitz).

I may have had experience of such a poison pill forgery myself. A few years ago, I came into possession of what purported to be a secret report by intelligence sources of a Francophone country about an Eastern European person who was a small part of a much larger research project on which I was then engaged. The report more or less repeated the gossip that was current about its subject, but of course was on official headed paper, stamped and signed by a senior government official.

Several things seemed a bit off about the document. The content was, in fact, nothing I did not already have from other less official sources. The name of the senior official who signed it seemed to be a combination of common names from the purported source country, and it was not easy to check whether someone of that name had ever occupied that position. But most crucially of all, the French was very bad, and consistently formed the perfect tense with the verb "être" rather than the verb "avoir". Nobody with more than a very basic knowledge of French would make that mistake; "être" is used for the perfect tense of a handful of verbs, but this document used it for all of them.

As it happens, many Eastern European languages (most notably but not only Russian) form the past tense using the verb "to be" and the past participle, rather than the verb "to have" which forms the perfect tense in both English and French. The conclusion was clear: someone hoped that I would use the document as evidence about its subject, so that it could then be exposed as a fake and discredit me. I admit that I had a moment of wishful thinking, hoping that there might be some local dialectical usage of "être" which could mean it was still genuine. But that wishful thinking was rapidly replaced by astonishment at the forger's audacity. They knew I was interested in the person in question, and if my desire for the document to be genuine had over-ridden my common sense, I would have fallen for it.

(For fairly obvious reasons, I am not going to give any further details about this incident, on or off-line.)


I feel a little sorry for Orly Taitz, whose desire to feed her deluded beliefs has clearly over-ridden what common sense she ever may have possessed. I am not sure whether or not to admire the forger. It is clear that not only Ms Taitz, but also many of her followers, are in fact convinced by the forgery, so unless the forger comes forward to expose it, they are buttressing and supporting the extreme views of a group of very insane people; some of whom are armed and dangerous. If whoever it was is out there reading this, the joke is over; it was a good one, and the point has been very well made, but it's time to 'fess up.
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