Not Even Wrong

I missed this story when it first appeared, but apparently Rush Limbaugh has been saying that Barack Obama’s father was actually an Arab from “an Arab part of Africa”. Look, why bother with real places at all, if you’re comfortable saying this sort of thing in public with millions of people listening? Just say that Obama’s father was a Calormene from Tashbaan and his mother was a Ferengi who ran a bar for Denebian slime devils.

But this does show you something about the persistence of culture, though. There is a kind of thermodynamics to narratives and rumor that achieve a certain degree of initial circulation. They can be created, but they’re almost impossible to destroy. What I think some village idiot on Limbaugh’s staff (or some other deranged partisan workshop) pulled out of the cultural substrate of the last two hundred years is a kind of mutant offspring of the “Hamitic myth” plus a hazy fragment or two of the history of Swahili society in East Africa.

The “Hamitic myth” was a proto-imperial view held by some European travellers and observers that African societies, particularly in East and Southern Africa, could be distinguished by whether they were original to Africa or composed of alien and more ‘evolved’ outsiders who came from the Middle East. The basic historical picture drawn by the myth was wrong, and its imagined racial hierarchy even more so. However, East African societies over the last two millennia were shaped a great deal by successive migrations of different linguistic and cultural groups and forms through the region. Some of those migrations passed through from west to east, or northwest to southeast, some from north to south, and some back in the other direction. Particularly at the northern end of the region, there were some connections to the historical world of the Middle East and the Indian Ocean. The Luo people (Obama’s father was Luo) speak a Nilotic language, which connects them in diffuse ways with other people spread through East and Northeast Africa. Also, the Swahili coast of East Africa (which is not where Luo-speakers come from), has long been shaped by cultural and economic interaction with the societies of western India, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.

Saying that this in any way connects Obama to the Middle East through descent is like saying that my heritage is partly French because the name Burke in Ireland came originally from Norman invaders, or that my heritage is Spanish because de Burgos or de Burca was a Hispano-Norman surname. You can’t slap contemporary national and ethnic labels down on histories where those labels make no sense at all. Actually, it’s not even that close. It’s like saying that because my great-grandfather came from Ireland, and Ireland was sometimes invaded by Vikings, and Vikings were connected to Germany, and the Mongols defeated Teutonic Knights in 1241 and probably there was some interbreeding involved in all those connections and hence I am probably at least a bit Mongol.

Many white Americans like to imagine a loose, affectionate connection to one or several ethnic or national “original” identities connected to one or more immigrant ancestors. That often gets looser and more imaginary the further people get from the historical moment of immigration. So the Ireland that a group of Irish-American families I grew up with could imagine was built from Darby O’Gill and the Little People, lots of Chieftains albums, and occasional boozy donations to the IRA made in pubs or when someone passed a hat at a party. That’s ok: I honestly don’t think people mistook that for reality, or made strong claims based on the more or less harmless and romantic images involved. (Though obviously that trickle of money to the IRA had some real meaning in the world, if it actually ever got to them.) This is the same kind of historical register that encouraged people to account themselves 1/16th Cherokee, or after Roots, that engendered new rememberings of descent from stolen royalty in Africa for some African-Americans. This is often a good, creative use of history, a way to try and locate oneself and one’s family in time and space. In American society, it’s a subtle counterbalance to the relentless pressure to constantly reinvent oneself, to fit into changing places, changing needs.

But this kind of memory can become a rotten, decomposing foundation for self-understanding when it starts to believe too much in the fixity and stability of the past it has set its eye upon. When any “European-American” forgets (or never knew) how much the making of “Europe” is both recent and how much movement of people, goods, ideas and culture in, out and through the borders of what we now think of as Europe has been involved over the long haul. The same goes for any European (or other) nationality that one wishes to claim as heritage. The pleasant (or even grim) heritage you may think about as your roots is almost certainly a far more recent and shallow thing that you know. But precisely because many Americans regard heritage in a somewhat romanticized, somewhat imaginary way, as a set of selections off an a la carte memory menu, this kind of gibberish coming from someone like Limbaugh may sound plausible in some sort of way.

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4 Responses to Not Even Wrong

  1. Minivet says:

    You’re sure he didn’t just say this because Obama is light brown instead of dark brown?

  2. One of the things that’s impressed me most about Obama is the thoughtful and open-hearted but unromanticized perspective he has on his heritage. It may be taking something of a beating from political expediency, but it sure comes through loud and clear in Dreams from My Father. I’ve spent a lot of time in Kenya, and the parts of the book set there are wonderfully evocative of the real place and the real human beings who live there. It’s a pleasure to hear that kind of sensitivity to Africa as it is from a mainstream figure. That makes Limbaugh’s scaremongering all the more revolting.

    Kenyans would laugh at the idea that the Luo homelands in Western Kenya are “an Arab part.” The coast still has its Arab enclaves–a few years ago on a flight from Mombasa to Nairobi I ended up sitting next to a young woman with a Mediterranean complection and hands covered in beautiful hennaed patterns. She was interested in my daughters (they’re a striking pair, believe me) and asked if she could give them a piece of candy (she could). Then she explained in halting english that she was going to Muscat to meet the man she was supposed to marry. I had a thousand questions and at the same time I worried that she could get in trouble for talking to me (of course it was patronizing to imagine she didn’t know what she was doing).

    But she is to contemporary Kenya more or less what a Hasid from Brooklyn is to America, though her people are more central to Kenya’s history than the Hasidim are to ours. That’s my little window on how wrong Limbaugh is. But as you say, it seriously understates the problem to say that such a wild figment of hateful imagination is wrong and leave it at that.

  3. In fairness to Limbaugh’s staff — I can’t believe these words are coming from my keyboard — but the idea doesn’t seem to originate from them. It goes back to at least February and probably longer; at least one report I saw mentioned that this has been swirling around via email. I suspect that the root of the confusion is the conflation of Muslim and Arab, but you know that; Limbaugh’s been called on the carpet for racism before, but you can still get away with an awful lot of anti-Arab rhetoric in this country.

  4. cjlee1 says:

    Limbaugh aside, I don’t think this is romance with heritage is necessarily American. South Africa has its own component, particularly within the Afrikaner community (reading the first chapter of De Klerk’s autobiography is fascinating in this regard, with his active invocation of a genealogical connection to a 17th century Malay slave appearing as a cynical attempt to link himself with South Africa’s “non-white” community….). In Great Britain, the PRO is frequented by a number of people seeking family genealogical history. And so on.

    In the US, I am particularly struck by new organizations using DNA analysis to locate the “ethnic” origins of African Americans, an effort that has involved people like Oprah Winfrey and Henry Louis Gates, as well as Linda Heywood and John Thornton at BU…. it’s become quite commercial, in addition to being political.

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