Monday, November 5, 2012
November 5, 2012: Obama and America, Part One
[I’m writing these posts ahead of time, as is my wont, so I can’t say whether this week’s series will be an epilogue on a four-year journey or a middle chapter in an evolving story. I sure hope the latter. But in any case, here are five posts through which I’ve tried to bring AmericanStudies to bear on our current president and some of the many national questions to which he connects. Your thoughts, on the election or the distant past or anything in between, will be very welcome for a special weekend post with my own new thoughts as well as yours.]
On the stakes of 2012 for an American issue that can seem abstract but has plenty of very concrete and crucial effects.
Anyone who has read this blog for a while, or who has read my second book, or who has ever talked with me about anything American Studies-related, knows how centrally interested I am in the question of how we define “American,” of what that idea, that identity, that community, means. As I argue at length in that book’s Conclusion, I believe that the debates over Barack Obama’s “American-ness,” over the question (to quote a Time cover story from just before the 2008 election) “Is Barack Obama American Enough?,” have been central to our political culture for the last four years. You can see those debates in the Birther movement, in the Tea Party cry of “I want my country back,” and in so many other moments and issues in contemporary America. And Mitt Romney has been a part of those debates for just as long, dating back at least to his statement, during the 2008 presidential campaign, that “Barack Obama looks toward Europe for a lot of his inspiration; John McCain is going to make sure that America stays America.”
It’s easy to see this issue as less significant than many in this election year, and I’m not going to argue that it has nearly the immediate and practical relevance that they do. Certainly the question of where Obama was born, while incredibly frustrating to those of us in the reality-based community, would only be practically significant if one of the many Birther lawsuits managed to actually keep him off of a state’s ballot or the like. But I think there are any number of immediate and significant effects to each possible definition of America, from the most to the least inclusive; is there any doubt, to cite one ongoing current event, that the debate over a possible mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, depends entirely on whether we see Muslim Americans as part of “America” or somehow outside of it? Isn’t it clear, as Obama acknowledged in the speech with which he announced his DREAM Act executive order, that seeing its young beneficiaries as “Americans in their hearts, in their minds” is crucial to supporting that policy change? The second of those examples is without doubt more complex than the first, includes legal and governmental factors much more centrally; but both nonetheless hinge on precisely who and what we mean (and don’t mean) by “American.”
Yet there’s another, and to my mind even more meaningful, effect to these debates: what they mean for the identities and perspectives of each individual American. I’ve expressed before my admiration for Colin Powell’s answer, during his 2008 endorsement of Obama, to lies about Obama’s Muslim identity, his statement that while the correct answer is that Obama is not a Muslim, the “more correct” answer is: “Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is no. That's not America. Is there something wrong with a seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing he or she could be president?” If I had to express most succinctly why I think these debates over the meaning of “American” are so crucial, I would ask precisely the same question, writ large: how do you think it feels for a young kid—a Muslim American kid, or the child of undocumented immigrants, or a kid realizing he or she is gay—to be told, implicitly but often explicitly as well, that he or she is outside of “American” identity, is an other within his or her homeland? That’s the stake of these debates—and, I believe, one of the most fundamental stakes of the 2012 election, and many of our ongoing political arguments beyond it.
Next Obama post tomorrow (tomorrow!),
PS. What do you think?