Tuesday, May 3, 2011

We Have More Problems Than We Even Knew We Had

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about the birther phenomenon. Many commentators, including Rachel Maddow, have labeled it for what it is: racism. Somehow we have to delegitimate this president without actually saying out loud "A black man can't do that." So we cast aspersions on the details of his birth. Shameful enough.

But I think there's another phobia going on. Let's think back to the 43 presidents who came before Mr. Obama. Yes, all men. All white. Yes. But there's something else about them. What were their names? Washington, Lincoln, Grant, Johnson, Madison, Jefferson (I know, they're way out of order), Jackson, Taft, Wilson, Truman, Bush (x2), Clinton. Do we see any commonality here?

Every one of these names can be traced back to the British Isles. Only three presidents (by my reckoning) had names that were non-Anglo: two Roosevelts and Eisenhower. And two of them were war heroes (TR in the Spanish-American War, Ike in World War II) and the third had extensive experience in state politics, had a connection to an earlier Roosevelt, and was endowed with great charisma of his own. By the time FDR ran for the White House, "Roosevelt" had become less a Dutch name than a good American name.

And you can count those presidents with non-Anglo names without going to a second hand.

As I was ruminating on the birther phenomenon the other day, I wondered whether the same grief would befall a president whose father had been here in the States on a student visa from, say, Spain or France. The candidate would look like all previous candidates (read: white) but the name would be foreign and the story would have been the same. Would the birthers in this country have been more accepting?

At first I sputtered "Of course!" But then I began wondering. The story goes that when Pierre Mendes-France ran for the office of president of France in the 1950s, this Jewish candidate faced the ire of his conservative opposition, who announced that their candidate was "a *real* Frenchman," this despite the fact that Mendes-France's family had been in France for five centuries. Apparently, according to some, you couldn't be in France long enough to be "real" if you were Jewish.

So then I started thinking about a President Ramirez. Or a President Chen. Or (God help us) a President Al-Fasi. The closest we came was Vice President-almost Joe Lieberman. And if Al Gore had won the election in 2000 and Lieberman had decided to run on his on in 2008, he'd have had a good uphill climb that had nothing to do with politics.

We have more problems in this country than simple racism. We are a country of xenophobes. We are distrustful of anyone whose name places him or her outside the British world. And so it seems that our president has two strikes against him. In his own words, he's a "skinny black guy with a funny name." And that funny name causes a certain population in this country as much difficulty as the color of his skin.

When you think about it, this mistrust of people with funny names is ironic in a country that prides itself on being a melting pot. We are Latino and German, Polish and Russian, Jewish and Irish and Chinese and Vietnamese and Indian and Pakistani. Many of us came here with names unpronounceable and unspellable by the immigration authorities at Ellis Island. Some of us had our names changed, others just tweaked the spelling so our neighbors could greet us each morning. There is no such thing as a native American (except for those known as native Americans) in the same way there are native Frenchmen (or Frenchwomen), native Brits, native Russians. We are not ethnically homogeneous.

And yet we are suspicious of people whose names are clearly different. (And of course that "Hussein" in the middle of his name didn't earn him points with many Americans.) There would have been those who would have whined about the president's birthplace if his name had been Washington or Jackson or Powell or any other name rooted in the British Isles. But how much easier it is to get attention when the names spoken during the oath of office on January 20, 2009, were so foreign sounding.

We have a long way to go in this country. Enough people displayed common sense in 2008 to get beyond the name and the color of skin to make a decision based on Dr. King's "content of his character." But the fact that the birther issue will not go away tells us that these people with too much time on their hands have touched more than one exposed nerve. It's bigger than color. It's that Mr. Obama is different - Different - in so many ways that he can't possibly be really American. And in that opinion they demonstrate how little appreciation they have for this country, for what makes it great. It is precisely America's diversity that is its strength, and what makes our president remarkable (political choices aside) is how well he represents that diversity.

And as long as people can complain that Mr. Obama is illegitimate, and polls can reveal that a disturbing percentage of the voting public agrees, we will have more problems than racism to overcome.

1 comment:

Rosalyn Manesse said...

You are so right! I recommend to you a book about the conspiracy mindset: "Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flousishes" by Daniel Pipes