Jodi Dean Addresses “Birthers” and Political Secrets at Scripps

Political theorist Jodi Dean delivered a lecture entitled “The Real Secret of Obama’s Birth Certificate” on Wednesday in Scripps’ Garrison Theater at 7:30 p.m.The lecture constituted one of the final installments of Scripps’ “Secrets in a Democracy” program—a program which also consists of art exhibitions and a film series.Dean embellished her lecture with images and quotes from a PowerPoint presentation. The first image was of a smoking gun.“Somehow, we seem to have the idea that a secret is like a smoking gun … if we could find that one missing clue, that one last piece of evidence, our problem would be solved,” Dean said.She provided two figures often associated with the image of a smoking gun: Sherlock Holmes and President John F. Kennedy.The former, Dean said, arose from the first use of the term “smoking gun,” and thus embodied its mystery-solving qualities. The latter, however, undermined this understanding, given that, despite the discovery of a smoking gunwithin minutes of Kennedy’s assassination, a sense of closure surrounding the incident remains, for many, lacking.In modern politics, Dean said this view of secrets as “master signifiers” acts as an obstacle for those attempting to bring about an end to torture.“We already know detainees are being tortured,” Dean said. “The problem we face thus isn’t one of uncovering a secret: the problem we face is a lack of action.”Drawing from the terminology of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, Dean termed these “smoking gun” secrets “symbolic,” a categorization which she then differentiated from “imaginary secrets.”These secrets, she said, can be seen as tips which construct a never-ending network of means to gain and keep attention.As examples, she listed Men’s Health Magazine’s claim to have “Secrets from the Abs Lab” and Rhonda Byrne’s best-selling self-help book The Secret.Following this explanation, Dean transitioned to a discussion of the conspiracy theories surrounding President Barack Obama’s citizenship.She listed lawsuits filed by conservatives such as Orly Taitz, Phillip Berg, alleging that Obama was born outside the United States and thus is ineligible to serve as president.Dean presented images of billboards with the words “Where’s the birth certificate?” emblazoned across them—part of a campaign spearheaded by Joseph Farah, executive director of the right-wing publication World Net Daily.Dean said these claims “were raised all during the time when the McCain campaign was pushing the line of ‘Do we really know Barack Obama?’”Following this image, she presented the results of a daily Kos poll, showing that 77 percent of the United States stated that they believed Obama was born inside the country—with only 42 percent of Republicans thinking this was the case, and only 47 percent of Southerners thinking this was the case.Part of her PowerPoint presentation consisted of a video posted on Youtube by Larry Sinclair, a man claiming that in November 1999 he and Obama snorted cocaine—powder cocaine for Sinclair and crack cocaine for Obama. Sinclair claims that, while under the influence, he performed oral sex on Obama.She then began to illustrate the changing focus of the “birthers,” through tracing the comments of far-right bloggers.“In February 2008, the question was not whether Obama was born in Hawaii, but whether his father’s Kenyan citizenship made him a Kenyan citizen,” Dean said.This shifting focus, Dean said, continued after the Obama campaign released a Certificate of Live Birth online. Bloggers criticized this document, saying it was forged, did not exist at all, or that it was part of some elaborate cover-up.“If one claim is disproved, another one arises to take its place,” Dean said. “The very inconsistency of the Birthers’ arguments confirms what they are trying to deny: that Barack Obama is a U.S. citizen and is eligible to be president.”In these ways, Dean said, the conspiracies surrounding Obama’s birth certificate act as imaginary secrets.Dean then transitioned to a discussion of the role of ideology in these conspiracies.“Ideology employs more than reasons and arguments, it relies on images and effects,” Dean said. “We start to shift from the content of the claim to the intensity behind it … it has a kind of truth effect: [people think] ‘if these peoplecare so much about this claim, it must be true.’”Dean concluded her lecture by stating that the birthers true aim was not to uncover Obama’s secret but to end his presidency.“The real secret of Obama’s birth certificate is that there is no secret,” Dean said. “There is only an insistence upon his removal from the presidency.”Dean teaches political theory at Hobart and Will Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York.She also serves as Erasmus Professor of the Humanities in the Faculty of Philosophy at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.She has published extensively, authoring books such as Zizek’s Politics, Publicity’s Secret: How Technoculture Capitalizes on Democracy and Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace.Her most recent book, Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies, was published this September by Duke University Press.

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