Evidence, shmevidence

A UC Davis professor assures that secrets, lies, legends and rumors live on despite facts

Urban legends are those wild, and occasionally fun, stories that usually have no basis in fact but are also nearly impossible to debunk. Dr. Patricia Turner, vice provost of undergraduate studies and English professor at UC Davis, specializes in folklore and urban legends&8212;so she can help make sense of these tales. Turner is also the author of several books on urban legends, rumor and folklore, including Crafted Lives: Stories and Studies of African American Quilters.

How do urban legends relate to political rumor?

Urban legends are stories usually that are very narrative in structure&8212;they usually have a beginning, middle and end&8212;and the story explains something that people are curious about. I think what’s key with the “birther” urban legend is that it’s the sort of story that, even when evidence that it’s not true is presented, the story itself speaks to such an underlying worldview that it gains in credibility anyway. Another one of these urban legends about Barack Obama is that he’s Muslim. Even though there’s evidence that he’s not. …

I wrote a short paper about the similarities between the urban legends about Barack Obama and Snapple, the fruity tea drink.

Oh, you’ve got to tell me about that.

Well, in both of these cases, they’re commodities that came on the scene very quickly. One day you don’t know it exists, and the next day it’s everywhere. If you’ll remember, a lot of people had never heard of Barack Obama until he gave that speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. And Snapple just suddenly appeared on the drink landscape, it came out of nowhere and was omnipresent suddenly. …

Both had very interested advertising strategies. Early on, Snapple relied on talk radio. They didn’t run any print ads at all, which isn’t the typical beverage-advertising strategy. Barack Obama was the first real online candidate. He had an early Web presence and used the Internet to leverage small individual contributions. Political pundits just dismissed him; they said the next nominee would come from well-heeled major donors, which was the traditional financial base. Obama was the first to target small donors, a very unorthodox approach.

They also both developed a very sudden, very real popularity that was described by others as almost cultlike. There were people who pegged Obama as a presidential candidate after that single national speech.

Is the birther claim fundamentally different than other rumors?

It’s different from the political rumors about specific policies and individuals. It’s different from hearing, for instance, that Bill Clinton is going to be the next secretary of state, where the course of time will demonstrate if they’re right or wrong. There will be a point in time when we’ll know whether that’s true or not.

But this kind of rumor—related to identity, ideology, actions in the past—doesn’t lend itself to easy verification, and it really hits the button for people who are predisposed to dislike the person. These kind of urban legends are very tenacious and very difficult to make go away entirely.

Orly Taitz was just on TV after the release of the long-form birth certificate, claiming that the president had used a fraudulent Social Security number on his Selective Service registration.

Yes, exactly. There’s this notion that all of our records and identities are concrete and inviolate. So people criticize the short form for listing his father’s race as “African.” People say that’s wrong; Africa is a continent, not a race. But it was 1961, and the person typing it in could use whatever made sense to them. So all of the things that reveal the imperfection of our record keeping actually give leverage to people who are just looking for a way to keep this thing going.

What makes people want to believe this stuff?

People want to have an identity for themselves that is current, that is “I’m not a racist, I’m not a bad person, I judge people on their merits.” But they really find it intolerable that a black person is president, so claiming he’s not a citizen becomes a proxy for what they’re really struggling with. …

And I want to reinforce the caveat that there are some people who legitimately disagree with him. They’ll say, “He’s too liberal,” or “I don’t like the way this country is going.” But those who continue to cling to a disproven rumor are probably struggling with something else.