Intellectual Integrity and the Birther Conspiracy

Intellectual integrity is under assault in America.

Posted Sep 20, 2016

I am listening to a course on Elementary Particle Physics and in so doing I am being reminded why intellectual integrity is one of the values I hold most dear. The author explains why the development of “the Standard Model” in particle physics is one of humanity's greatest achievements, and it demonstrates what humans can do when they follow the value of intellectual integrity.

Intellectual Integrity is defined by the following characteristics: 1) seeking and valuing the truth; 2) being an honest and truthful person who attempts to live up to one’s values; 3) being someone who explores the world and is guided by a worldview; and 4) being a critical thinker who is willing to change one’s view of the world in light of new information.

Unfortunately, intellectual integrity is under assault in America. As a country, we used to value intellectual integrity. Indeed, one of the things most often deemed as praiseworthy of our founding fathers (i.e., Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton) is their intellectual integrity. (And, of course, we are obliged to note with some dismay that they often lacked intellectual integrity when it came to racism/slavery and other modern social justice issues).

When people in power have no intellectual integrity, horrible consequences can emerge. This was wonderfully illustrated in George Orwell’s novel 1984. Written in 1948 at the height of the cold war, 1984 offers a powerful portrait of the dangers that arise if the government systematically undermines intellectual integrity. This is a deep concern because we can see precisely such dangers in modern day countries like North Korea, and in past nations like Nazi Germany.

I believe that the value of intellectual integrity is central to the psychological health and well-being of the country. As such, I am compelled to report that Donald Trump’s blatant and complete distain for intellectual integrity was once again on display this week in his handling of the birther conspiracy.

The birther conspiracy pertains to questions about Obama’s actual birthplace and involves conspiracy theories that claim that Obama was actually born outside the US (e.g., Kenya) and thus he is not a legitimate US President. As Colin Powell put it in his privately hacked emails, the symbolism and implication of attacking our first black President as being illegitimate is crystal clear in its racist overtones.

Donald Trump repeatedly and boldly stoked the birther argument. Over the course of many years, he issued public statement after public statement questioning Obama’s birth certificate. Here is a list of over 30 tweets making the claim between 2011 and 2014. Indeed, one can legitimately argue that Trump launched his 2012 Presidential run by stoking the fires of the birther conspiracy.

This past week, on September 16, 2016, Trump informed the media that he was going to make a major statement about the birther issue. The implication was that Trump was finally going to state that the birther conspiracy was a lie.

Let’s take a moment and think about this from the vantage point of intellectual integrity. If you have intellectual integrity and you have been attacking someone with a damaging claim that has clear racist overtones, you feel guilt, shame and dishonor. You are lessened and you are compelled to deeply apologize for adding to the chaos, misinformation, and hate of the world. Indeed, investing in and promoting claims that are both false and damaging to others is perhaps the most painful thing for someone who deeply values intellectual integrity, and it is an act that deserves punishment and reprobation.

So what does Trump do? He first holds the announcement in the context of opening a new hotel. Second, he invites veterans who support Trump to the event and shares the stage. And then, finally, he makes his statement and only this statement about the issue:

Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it. I finished it. You know what I mean. President Barack Obama was born in the United States. Period. 

One could not generate a more clear 1984-like example of a complete inversion of the truth. Instead of a shameful apology for smearing Obama repeatedly and for years, we are now supposed to be thanking Trump. He is the "finisher", for whom we must all be grateful for clearing up this issue. And it is Hillary Clinton--who in actual fact, refused to allow her campaign to promote this issue--who is the villain. 

These events are facts that require very little interpretation.

And since it suggests that 2016 is shaping up to be 1984, let’s end with a couple of classic Orwellian quotes so that we can see where we are headed:

War is peace.
Freedom is slavery.
Ignorance is strength.

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently.

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