We met at a French restaurant in downtown Austin. He had given me two choices of places where we could meet for lunch, and I had picked this one thinking I would be able to just get some soup. When we arrived he was sitting at a table across from the entrance with a cup of tea. The waitstaff treated him, and by extension us, as honored family members – with warm, comfortable humor and ample graciousness. He had been coming there regularly since they had opened, 30 years ago. I asked him if he had always had conservative political beliefs and he began responding by telling me what life had been like in Brownsville, TX when he was growing up. The way he described it everybody in the town was in the same boat together together across lines of race, economics, and family background. All his peers had grown up speaking Spanish when they were together, English in school and then whatever language their family spoke at home. They lived in multiple cultures at once. He said that if as a kid you wanted to get drunk, you could just walk across the bridge into Mexico and they would sell you anything. But also across the bridge there wasn’t always even running water. So, he and his peers had direct experience with the benefits and draw backs of more and less regulated society. His father had immigrated to the US from Germany. He had grown up working in his dad’s shop helping him machine parts. But at some point in his teens his father had been hit in the head by a part flying off the machines and, was left seriously injured in such a way that slowly, over a number of years, had killed him. He tried going to college, but he didn’t take to it and it didn’t take to him. After leaving school he did well in all his professions, first as a waiter and then in the navy working on nuclear submarines, followed by a career the telephone company, and now he owns his own DVD production company.
When he was working for the telephone company he got an inside look into how much access the government has to whatever information it wants. He implied that after what he experienced he assumes that someone is keeping tabs on pretty much everything. He followed that by saying that since he is aware of how much the government knows it only makes him wonder even more why they would allow Obama to be president, since they must know that the birth certificate he released was faked. I was a little taken aback by this statement and tried to challenge him, saying that in my understanding that issue had been solidly refuted. He insisted calmly that there was clear evidence that the serial number on the birth certificate had been faked and that when you open that image file in photoshop it was obviously composed of multiple layers, not a simple photograph of the original document. I had not heard those claims and had no way to counter them directly. An unsettling feeling came over me sensing the distance between our two perceptions of reality and my inability to provide any argument that would bridge that divide. That feeling sat uncomfortably with me for the rest of our conversation, and beyond, right next to my admiration and respect.
I have since looked up his statements and found articles, even in the staunchly right news magazine The National Review, debunking the multilayered file claims. But there are still many, many people – even people who have read those articles, which should clear up these questions – who continue to find evidence to support their belief that the birth certificate is fake. Some people might find it easy to write off people who persist with these doubts, but what I wonder is which sources of information they consider to be credible and why. How has it happened that they believe those sources over the generally accepted consensus? Or am I mistaken in believing that such a thing as a credible consensus exists these days? At the end of our meal, after the wait staff brought us extra appetizers and desserts, the restaurant refused to even let us pay for the meal. It seemed like this was a common ritual between our host and the restaurant, seeing who got to have the chance to be more generous on each visit. Looking back on how much I enjoyed talking with and listening to this man, and how that appreciation has no bearing on whether we can agree on what to accept as evidence for our understandings of our country, leaves this conversation with a bittersweet taste.