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Jack Gohn: Candidate Jack versus the Doubting Thomases

I recently put myself through the following mental exercise: Supposing I were running for president, what would the likes of Donald Trump make of my documentary history? That is, how would I fare if people took a skeptical attitude toward my own particular subset of the pool of public and semi-public documents that most of us rely upon to demonstrate who we are and what we have done? To my surprise, I concluded that the docu-skeptics would probably have a field day. I would really need to rethink whether I wanted to run.

Start with the birth certificate. I have one, but it is British, as my dad was Economic Attaché at the London Embassy at the time of my birth. Supposing someone questioned whether I’d even been born when and where I claimed. The Hammersmith deputy registrar of births and deaths, Freda Annie Gwendoline Batchelor (only in England!), who executed it in July 1949, is not likely among the living, and if she is, still probably wasn’t in the room when I was born, and wouldn’t remember a birth that far back. My mother and father are dead. I would be hard-pressed to summon a single percipient witness.

Unless one is prepared to cede a certain degree of faith to Ms. Batchelor’s handiwork simply because it is obviously official, there’s really no basis for concluding that I was born when and where I claim. Let’s face it, even I have no substantiating memories of my own.

Then too, I’d have to show that I was an American citizen. For that you’d need my State Department Form 240, Report of Birth: Child Born Abroad of American Parent or Parents, created after a birth certificate is shown to consular personnel. But when doubters stopped and thought about the process that created that form, they’d realize how shot through with possibilities of fraud that was. To receive it, my dad didn’t have to exhibit me, just the piece of paper Ms. Batchelor signed. And apparently James C. Powell, Jr., the American Consul, simply took Ms. Batchelor’s say-so on faith. If someone were trying to manufacture a bogus American identity for a child, this would have been an ideal moment. And of course Mr. Powell is no more likely to be among the living than Ms. Batchelor.

With the birth certificate and the Form 240, it’s not even necessary to show that the documents are forgeries to sow the seeds of doubt. All you have to do is raise a question of whether the people who created them knew what they were doing. Genuine document, but not necessarily genuine me.

What about my subsequent history? Well, of course there are still people who remember me from my school days. But what about my grades? (You may recall that there have been suggestions that our president lacked the grades to get into the elite institutions of higher learning from which he graduated.) I don’t know whether my grade school, which still exists, maintains its own records going back to the 1950s. But I’m quite skeptical that anyone could locate grade records from my non-public high school, which closed its doors forever the year after I graduated. I could probably scrounge up some old report cards and a transcript from my family’s files, but they could be forgeries.

As we get closer to my present, authentication of both the documents and their contents grows progressively easier — but only, I think, because computer records start to exist side-by-side with paper records. That is, I have a contemporaneous law school transcript and the law school computers would probably confirm its contents.

Oddly, though, as we get further into the computer era, such double-confirmation becomes less available. As records increasingly become nothing but computer entries, as we leave paper behind, our records can command no greater faith than do the underlying computers. And we know or fear that computers can be hacked or gamed, or simply fail. That is, for instance, one reason computer voting machines inspire such discomfort. And this was apparently the problem with Barack Obama’s short-form birth certificate: that it was essentially a computer printout.

And even when there is a satisfactory-looking paper document, we all know that amazing things can be done with Photoshop. So there’s some basis for anxiety even if the documents seem to confirm what the computers say.

The end result, as this little experiment with my history demonstrates, is that there is some basis to distrust just about anything. Skepticism about public records and their non-public near-equivalents (private-school transcripts, baptismal records, newspaper announcements and the like), these records we live by, is not entirely irrational.

What is irrational is losing all sense of perspective, and not resigning oneself to treating public documents with some quantum of trust. True, utter certainty is not attainable now, any more than it ever was. (Surely it happened from time to time in the Middle Ages that someone faked the king’s seal.) And maybe Ms. Batchelor and my parents really were in on a plot to pass off a British child as American. And maybe the moon really is made of green cheese.

On the other hand, if you truly believe the moon is mere morceau de fromage vert, I’m sorry to have to tell you that you have a screw loose. You lack the judgment to perceive when the theoretically possible is overwhelmingly unlikely. The recent flap over the president’s back story is of that order. Of course the theoretical possibility exists, and can never be eliminated, that Obama’s entire identity and history is a fabrication. But acting as if it were remotely likely is the sign of some kind of willed lack of judgment.

It is no doubt tempting to lose oneself in such a game of make believe, all the more so because we are all lied to so regularly. But lies of that sort don’t usually infect multiple ancient public records. These are actually among the more reliable guideposts. And obviously the more lies those records are supposed to conceal, like the slew of them that would have had to be involved in the president’s supposed alternative history (born in Kenya, dual citizen, academic underachiever who was somehow smuggled into Columbia and Harvard), the crazier it is to entertain such a notion.

Worse, a determined skepticism about public records hurts us all. Aggressively pushing the view that all documents are forgeries, all history is made up, and anyone who says otherwise is a patsy or a traitor, damages a part of the commons, the social infrastructure. Public records are a legacy from each generation to its successors. Our parents and our ancestors went to a lot of effort to bequeath us tangible evidence of who we are and where we came from. Birther madness spits right in the eye of the old archivists, insults them for their trouble, and devalues their contributions.

It is hard enough to know who we are, as individuals and as a people. Hence, unless there are strong reasons for so doing, we should greet the help we’ve received with some gratitude, not the third degree.

Jack L.B. Gohn is a partner with Gohn, Hankey & Stichel LLP and a former member of The Daily Record’s Editorial Advisory Board. The views expressed here are solely his own.