Friday, October 10, 2008

700 Words—Thinking About What Matters

The articles I write for Small Town Newspaper have a word limit of 700. This series includes pieces I have written using 700 words but have not submitted to the newspaper.

What does it say about us when someone can use the name “Hussein” and mean it as a barb, knowing full well they will incite people to feel anger or fear or mistrust?

When political surrogates shout out Barack Hussein Obama’s full name, emphasizing “Hussein” with contempt as if it were equal to Hitler, or more directly Saddam Hussein, they insult not just Obama but all of us. It’s as if they suspect the public of being so ignorant and easily led that we’ll automatically associate the candidate with terrorists and threatening nations simply because of his name.

Barack Hussein Obama was given the name in honor of his Kenyan grandfather. He has this name not because he sympathizes with violent extremists or is weak on nations that support terrorism but because it is a family name. Simple as that.

The name Hussein, meaning “good” or “beautiful,” dates back thousands of years and has forms used in many ancient Middle Eastern cultures, not unlike Abraham or Joseph. It has significance in Islam because it was the name of Muhammad’s grandson, but it is also a name shared by thousands and thousands of secular men and women all over the world.

King Hussein of Jordan was one of our staunchest allies. We didn’t cut ties with him or his country because he shared a name with someone we grew to hate, someone we were led to believe represented an enemy we are struggling to fight on several fronts.

We also haven't purged our population of the many Husseins who call the U.S. home. Whitepages.com lists 300 Husseins representing entire households with the name. I wager the overwhelming majority of them are peaceable and responsible citizens, just as the majority of those who share my last name are not embedded here to overthrow the government on behalf of Brazil.

It’s human nature to be hesitant toward the exotic and unfamiliar. Personally, I am uncomfortable in situations where I don’t speak the common language or understand cultural norms. I remember feeling on edge in Salvador, Brazil because I didn’t speak Portuguese, and I needed help buying a simple sweater at the mall. When faced with eating a bowl of fejoida, I didn’t want to identify the unrecognizable pieces of meat swimming around with all the beans.

When I watch Andrew Zimmern on the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods” eating roasted Guinea pig or drinking a tonic made from cow urine, I am repulsed. I am inclined to retreat into a bowl of familiar beef stew or grab a comforting chocolate chip cookie.

Trusting the known and fearing the unknown is understandable, but this history-making presidential campaign isn’t about exotic food and foreign languages. We’re talking about serious issues and global dilemmas that require us to think at a higher level than whether or not we are afraid of the unusual.

I am not as bothered by the people on the campaign trail who use the name Hussein as a way to instill mistrust in the opposition as I am bothered by the reaction from the crowd. I have to assume the great majority of us are not fooled into thinking Obama is dangerous because of his middle name, but enough people cheer heartily and wave their campaign signs in response to it that it seems there are some of us who are easily influenced on such a simplistic level.

If you choose not to vote for Barack Hussein Obama because you think he is unqualified to be president or because you disagree with his political ideology, then you may have put reasonable thought into your decision. But if you choose not to vote for him because his name frightens you or you actually believe it signifies ties to the enemy, then you’ve got more thinking to do.

Back to the original question—what does it say about us when a public figure can successfully whip up a crowd by barking the name Hussein—I believe it says we are, or at least some of us are, lazy and irresponsible with our thinking.

Some of us would rather concentrate on something insignificant and simple than spend time focusing on issues and policies and what really matters.


Note: Read this article from the Washington Post (10/12) by Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns

7 comments:

dive said...

Regretfully, Americans do seem to have confused the words patriotism and nationalism.
A person should never be judged on their name; ask Manny Cohen where that imbecile strategy led to in 1930s Germany.
I have several close friends (and one blogpal) who share variations on the beautiful name Hussain, together with a fair smattering of Muhammads, but until now I have never given thought to judging them on their names (other than the fact that they are cool).

As for delicious feijoada; you were probably wise not to ponder too deeply, Robyn. We heathen Europeans enjoy munching pigs' ears and nether parts and consider things delicacies that you would blanch at (although you probably eat similar things every time you grab a burger).

MmeBenaut said...

Well said Robyn. Ignorance is the real curse in the world and the fact that some political campaigners take advantage of it is a disgrace. Good for you for highlighting it.

savannah said...

small town is fortunate to have you, sugar! well done. xoxo

Rich said...

“Bizarre Foods” I love that show. One time he (andrew) ate the heart of a snake...while it was still beating mind you.

Lulubelle B said...

Well said, Robyn.

A South-Asian neighbor introduced himself as "Moe". He didn't look to me like the short, bald, cigar-chomping, kosher-deli owning Moes of yore, but what the hey...Someone had to point out to me that his name was probably Mohammed.

Here in blogville, you can have any name you want.

lynn said...

I've not actually heard about this prejudice of his name before now!

Summer said...

Thank you for highlighting this disturbing practice so eloquently! I have seen footage of people at rallies saying Obama is a "one-man terrorist cell" or a terrorist because "he has the bloodlines." I have to believe that these people number very few, or else I wouldn't be able to sleep at night knowing I live in the same country as them. The true test is how the candidates respond to such inflammatory, inaccurate accusations.

I'm glad Sen. McCain corrected a woman at a MN rally who said Obama was an "Arab," but he did this by claiming he was a "decent family man." Can't people be both? I wonder how our Arab-American friends feel about such comments.