The death of Birtherism … and the birth of Deatherism?

Last week President Barack Obama sought to bring an end to questions about his citizenship by releasing his long-form birth certificate. Dependably, Fox News reporters approached the document with close scrutiny, and in the end the so-called Birthers were more or less silenced. But with the demise of one conspiracy theory, it seems, comes the birth of another.

Obama’s Sunday-night announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden prompted a wave of jubilation across the U.S., particularly in New York City and Washington, D.C., but it was also accompanied by a quick surge of skepticism and a handful of conspiracy theories. Slate columnist David Weigel has suggested a name for this new phenomenon: “Deatherism.”

Some people have expressed their doubts about the terrorist leader’s prompt burial at sea, arguing that the operation was faked by the military or that the military was trying to hide something by disposing of the body. (Arguably, there were many reasons behind the decision to bury bin Laden’s body at sea, the most important being to avoid creating a gravesite on land that could be turned into a shrine by supporters.) Others have jokingly quipped on their Facebook and Twitter feeds, “Remember, Osama is not dead until Donald Trump has seen the death certificate!”

In addition to taking issue with the controversial burial, many people have also called for the U.S. government to release photos or other proof of bin Laden’s death. Government officials have been hesitant to release any images due to concern about their gruesome nature and the risk of sparking violent reactions from bin Laden’s supporters, but some, including several senators, have expressed support for releasing the photos. According to NPR, John Brennan, the White House’s homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, said they would do “anything possible so no one has any basis for doubting that we got bin Laden.”

Graph of trust in government (click for more)

The issues of Birtherism and Deatherism–the citizenship of our President and the death of a prominent terrorist leader–are oddly intertwined. By happenstance, they have both risen to prominence in public debate around the same time. And both issues have shined a spotlight on citizens expressing skepticism of their government.

Indeed, according to a 2010 Pew Research Center survey, only 22 percent of Americans say they trust the government “just about always” or “most of the time,” representing the highest level of distrust in half a century. (For an interactive graphic of trust over the past few decades, click here.) The report cited “a dismal economy, an unhappy public, bitter partisan-based backlash, and epic discontent with Congress and elected officials” as sources for distrust.

Our nation was founded by people who disagreed with their Old World authorities; perhaps it’s simply part of being American to be skeptical, to challenge what we’re told, to want to see things for ourselves. But if we can’t trust our elected leaders, or our military, or our fellow citizens, what hope do we have to come together and address the daunting problems of our time? Here’s hoping that we can rebuild relationships of trust between leaders, citizens, and each other–and leave matters of birth and death to hospitals and funeral homes.




  1. Ian Kinzel says

    It’s also useful to look at trust in government on the basis of partisanship. Polling exhibits a mild partisan gap from the late 1950s all the way through the 1970s, but this gap started to exploded under Reagan. As expected, Republicans trust government only when a Republican is president, and Democrats only trust government when a Democrat is president; independents. however, appear to live in a state of constant rage. (Oddly enough, Republicans seem to trust Republican presidencies more than Democrats trust Democratic presidencies – this might indicate tension between Democratic politicians and Democratic voters).

    I see one line that raises a couple questions – not criticisms, mind you, but questions: “…[I]f we can’t trust our elected leaders, or our military, or our fellow citizens, what hope do we have to come together and address the daunting problems of our time?”

    First is the obvious question: if the people don’t trust elected leaders or the military, whose fault is that – the people who don’t trust, or the institutions that are untrusted? Given my ideological predilections, I’m more inclined to blame the latter. I admit that it’s unfair to ignore the handcuffing effects of widespread distrust in the government; political establishment have a harder time solving national problems when the voters are constantly ready to “throw the bums out” (right after voting said bums into office). However, one has to take into account the context in which citizens feel such deep-rooted distrust: two drawn-out wars (at least one of which was waged on a basis that was controversial at best), a shattered economy, a halt to social mobility, economic decisions made by the wealthy for the wealthy, etcetera & so forth. Current levels of distrust are hardly unearned, in my opinion, but I welcome and look forward to a response on the contrary.

    Second, I want to know your basis for including “our fellow citizens” in that list. It’s not my intent to contradict that claim; rather, I haven’t seen any research on that question yet, and would find any such polling fascinating. My sense has been that most people in the U.S. distrust that big, bad government as some vague “other”: a remote, abstract force that has nothing to do with the American people (and they may in fact be right). I haven’t necessarily had as much experience of citizens trusting one another less, but I can see a case made either way by somebody who knows the subject better than I do.

    In essence, it sounds like you’re describing civic distrust as the citizens’ failure to follow, while I see civic distrust as an inevitable fault of representative democracy: such a system of government requires an active citizenry, but an active citizenry in turn requires a responsive government. Government becomes less responsive, however, given the rise of the multinational corporation and the centralization of economic power in the hands of said multinationals. (Well, to be more precise, government remains just as responsive as ever – just not to the general population anymore). To solve this problem will require a radical re-thinking of democracy, probably something along the lines of direct democracy – or, perish the thought, a radical re-thinking of economic power.

  2. Ian Kinzel says

    I realize I left a couple typos in there. Hopefully everybody can still make out what I’m trying to say.

  3. Holly Munson says

    Hi Ian,

    Thanks for pointing out the partisan factor of the Pew study—very interesting. Also, I think you’re right to imply that the lack of trust stems from the government actually behaving untrustworthily and from the less-than-ideal circumstances of the nation overall, and not from some sort of inherent paranoia on the part of citizens. As a former journalism major, I think it’s proper and necessary for citizens to monitor, question, and scrutinize their government.

    The mention of trusting our fellow citizens was, admittedly, unclear. You mentioned the idea of the “other,” and that’s precisely what I was thinking of—the tendency to mistrust, fear, resent, or otherwise scoff at someone because of their “otherness.” Perhaps it was an awkward fit for a post about trust, but I still think it’s a concern. I would argue that politicians and pundits (in both parties) have effectively exploited this sense of otherness to malign or trivialize those who disagree with them. I have even struggled with this personally—when I have a friend/acquaintance who holds very different political views from myself, it can be difficult to reconcile what I tend to think of people who hold that view (“They must simply be crazy!”) with what I know of that individual. In fact, there’s an interesting TED talk that touches on this idea of us vs. them, explaining that when someone believes something different from us, we tend to assume that they are either misinformed, unintelligent, or evil (see, minutes 9:58–12:35).

    I’m not aware of polling that deals with a sense of otherness toward people with different political beliefs, but there actually is a decent amount of research regarding otherness and Muslims, particularly in Scandinavia. If you’re interested in that, let me know—I could send you a ton of information about it; I think it’s fascinating. Or you could just google “Muslim,” “otherness,” and “Denmark” or “Scandinavia.”

    Anyway, I hope this provided some measure of clarity. Thanks for your insights!