we are all Hussein
I don't know about you but I am sick of Republicans pronouncing Barack Obama's name like it was some sort of cuss word. It is a national embarassment that American political discourse stretches so far to the extremes of xenophobia and puerility that a candidate's name can become an object of propaganda. I'm not worried about the influence of such people. Like Bill and Hillary Clinton, the Republicans will learn that Obama is a bright, shining piece of rubber, and they are the glue. It just disappoints me to no end to hear it on the news day in and day out.
Jon Stewart made a clever joke about it when he reminded the audience at the Oscars of 'the ill-fated 1944 presidential campaign of Gaydolf Titler' (at 8.10 of this clip at YouTube). Shamelessly repeating his name over and over with seven months to go before the election will wear out whatever rhetorical force it might otherwise have in certain quarters. It's also a good example of what I like to call the 8 Mile defense, i.e. claiming one's own possibly vulnerable traits before one's opponent even opens his mouth, as in the Eminem film.
I think we can do even better than that. It's not just people named Hussein who are being insulted by the racist xenophobes among us. It's everyone who respects human dignity and who values things like courtesy and etiquette. There's a tradition on the left of identifying with the targets of injustice by saying, I am [those people you hate]. It shows up in popular culture sometimes disguised as comedy, as in the 1997 Frank Oz film 'In & Out' starring Kevin Kline. When Kline's character, a high school teacher, is fired after being outed as a gay man, his students rise to his defense, one after another, by declaring, 'I am gay.' More recently, and more apt in this case, Le Monde declared in its front-page editorial headline on September 13, 2001, 'Nous sommes tous Américains'.
'Dans ce moment tragique où les mots paraissent si pauvres pour dire le choc que l'on ressent, la première chose qui vient à l'esprit est celle- ci : nous sommes tous Américains ! Nous sommes tous New-Yorkais, aussi sûrement que John Kennedy se déclarait, en 1962 à Berlin, Berlinois. Comment ne pas se sentir en effet, comme dans les moments les plus graves de notre histoire, profondément solidaires de ce peuple et de ce pays, les Etats-Unis, dont nous sommes si proches et à qui nous devons la liberté, et donc notre solidarité.'
It's time for some good old-fashioned solidarité. With that in mind, I am changing my name for the rest of the campaign to Jeff Hussein Strabone, and I will urge others to do the same with their names. Between now and November 4, I will always try to include my new middle name, even when it might be difficult to do so.
In a broader sense, the law-haters have been coming for the Husseins for the past six and a half years. Right now I think we've got the haters on the run, but we can't let up. Many Americans can be proud of their activities in the fight for justice and the rule of law in this decade. If we recall the famous 'First they came' speech of Martin Niemöller, we can say that many among us did speak up and, if nothing else, at least put our money where our mouth was by giving to the ACLU and other groups. What if they came for the Husseins, and everyone was named Hussein?
In the modern era, we have an exaggerated sense of the fixity of names because of the legal exigencies of having definite, unchanging names. It was not, of course, always the case. Just a few centuries ago, people would spell their own names differently with each signature, as is the case with all of William Shakespeare's surviving signatures. If we adopted a more flexible approach to our names, we might be more awake to the possibilities of self-reinvention.
The name Hussein comes from the Arabic noun husn, which the Hans Wehr dictionary translates as 'beauty, handsomeness, prettiness, loveliness; excellence, superiority, perfection' and so on. Reader, do you feel beautiful? I surely do, and I invite you to feel the same way. For the next seven months I hope you'll join me in saying, 'I am Hussein.'
[Update: here are some pro-Obama sites that have reached out since I posted this blog entry. Check them out.
The Obama Minute posts action instructions and news for Obama supporters.
I Am Hussein is a proposal for YouTube videos of people adding Hussein to their names.]