The pious and politically correct are throwing a hissy fit this morning over (a conservative radio talk show host I’m not familiar with, named) Bill Cunningham referring to someone currently active in politics named Barack Hussein Obama:
Juan Cole gets out his portable soap box, and starts rhetoricizing:
(Barack) is a name to be proud of. It is an American name. It is a blessed name. It is a heroic name, as heroic and American in its own way as the name of General Omar Nelson Bradley or the name of Benjamin Franklin. And denigrating that name is a form of racial and religious bigotry of the most vile and debased sort. It is a prejudice against names deriving from Semitic languages!
Well, not really. If Jewish and Arabic identities were both Semitic and just the same, why, Israelis and Palestinians would doubtless be living happily in peace.
It’s true that many Biblical names, like Benjamin, are popular personal names used by Christian Europeans and Americans for centuries, and some Biblical names are used in cognate forms by Muslims as well as Christians, but both Barack and Hussein are not Biblical and therefore have no real resemblance to Benjamin.
Both are Arabic names. The press has been confusing Barack (barraaq) “flashing, bright, shining, glittering” with Barakat (barakaat) “”blessings, good fortunes, prosperities.” Hussein (diminutive of Hasan) means “beautiful.” *
General Bradley was doubtless named for Omar Khayyam, the Persian author of the Rubiyat, which was extremely popular in the Edward Fitzgerald translation in the Victorian era. A one-shot use of the name of a Persian poet does not demonstrate a vital and indigenous American tradition of the use of Islamic Arabic personal names.
America is, it’s true, a nation of immigrants, but we do not have any established, familiar naturalized population of Luos from Kenya. People have been elected president whose ancestors did not arrive on the Mayflower, but, in fact, Americans have not actually elected any representatives of most well-known immigrant groups to the presidency at all. American presidents have all been of English or Scots Irish descent, with three Dutch, two German, and one single Irish Catholic exception.
No Swedes, Poles, Italians, Finns, Danes, Czechs, Slovaks, Ukrainians, Norwegians, Belgians, Lithuanians, or Jews have ever occupied the White House.
The contributions to America in war and peace of Jews and Roman Catholics have not been small, and yet there has been a single Catholic president and not one Jewish one.
Mitt Romney’s Mormonism proved a serious obstacle to his securing support in many parts of the United States, and his background is clearly considerably more conventional and familiar than Obama’s.
The left has a natural interest in drawing a line forbidding raising the question of Obama’s background, or poking fun at it, as Eric Zorn tries to do, and wants to arrange that anyone violates their taboo at peril of being ostracized and designated a bigot. But Barack Hussein Obama is alarmingly unknown, has campaigned in deliberately vague and obfuscatory style, and has successfully gotten a lot farther than normally happens by slick marketing and superficial glamor. He can hardly expect to claim an affirmative action presidency as a massive national gesture of racial compensation, while evading all scrutiny and discussion, and forbidding derisive mockery, of his alien names and exotic personal and political background.
Romney’s Mormonism was evaluated, for good or ill, by the public freely, and people made up their own minds how they felt about that. The same thing is going to happen with respect to Obama’s Islamic personal names and his Islamic childhood and education in Indonesia, and it should. Attempts to erect a protective barrier of political correctness to preclude discussion, or joking, about Obama’s exoticism will fail.
*Salahuddin Ahmed, A Dictionary of Muslim Names, New York: New York University Press, 1999.