February 28, 2008

Prejudice Against Middle Names?

By Jack Kemp (not the politician)
 
Recently, a conservative talk show host Bill Cunningham in Cincinnati was raked over the coals for using  Barack Obama's middle name "Hussein" in a rally for John McCain. Even McCain himself publicly apologized for this act.
 
But last December, Maureen Dowd, in her NY Times column talking about Sen. Obama's visit to New York Times headquarters, reminded us that:
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/02/opinion/02dowd.html
 
'In The Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan lays out what he sees as Obama’s ``indispensable`` capacity to move the country past baby-boom feuds and the world past sectarian and racial divides. ``It’s November 2008``, he imagines. ``A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man, Barack Hussein Obama, is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm.``
 
Let me get this straight. When Andrew Sullivan and Maureen Dowd mention Sen. Obama's middle name, it is "kosher." When a conservative talk show host mention it, it is "racism."
 
But does that mean conservatives can turn the tables on and now call Maureen Down and Andrew Sullivan racists for mentioning his middle name?
 
And, as many posters on blog sites have pointed out, when someone is sworn in as President, they often state their middle name. Presidents Reagan and Clinton did it. I doubt Barack Obama would consider it an insult to use his middle name, if he were to win in November.
 
Speaking of cultural tropes, when was the last time you heard mention of the classic children's story author Hans Christian Andersen on television?
 
If a presidential candidate had a middle name of "Christian," I bet it would be mentioned on the air repeatedly - and at times derisively - as well as used in NY Times articles. No member of the mainstream press would consider its' mention as prejudicial in an anti-religious way as an "article of (liberal) faith."
 
Perhaps I'm arguing two vastly different situations here, that of the commentator and the candidate who has much more to concerned about. In that what constitutes a non-insult in intellectual discourse is often seen by regular people without extensive formal educations as an emotional insult to their identity. Witness the results of former Sen. George Allen using the term "macaca" in his last losing campaign. I'm sure Sen. McCain hasn't forgotten the  the resulting fallout from that. It was prominent in his mind when he apologized for Bill Cunningham's remarks.
 
But for the rest of us, not running for president or other public office, mentioning Sen. Obama's middle name - particularly when combined with a factual discussion of his background - is not out-of-bounds. Last December, Maureen Dowd wrote extensively and critically on Mitt Romney's Mormonism ("Mitt's No J.F.K." http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/09/opinion/09dowd.html ). If she can discuss beliefs related to family religious backgrounds in print or in private, so can the rest of us.
 
Jack Kemp

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