City of Brass

City of Brass


apology to Daniel Larison

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

Daniel takes rightful issue with an off-hand comment of mine, that he was putting a “positive spin” on Birther nonsense:

As Aziz and other long-time readers must know, I am not normally in the business of providing positive spin for Republicans. Given my criticisms of the dangers and problems of nationalism for conservatives and for America, and considering how unsympathetic I am to partisan tribalism, I would have thought it was clear that I was not saying anything very flattering about Birthers by saying that this obsession was a function of blind partisanship and nationalism. As I thought I made clear, this obsession is a more exaggerated, bizarre expression of equally baseless fears about Obama’s insufficient Americanness and his supposed lack of devotion to Americanism. These fears continue to prevail among most mainstream conservatives and Republicans, and they inform a large part of the conventional Republican criticism of Obama’s conduct of foreign policy. If this is my idea of positive spin, what would the negative spin look like?

Agreed, and the implication that I thought Daniel was giving Birthers some kind of pass is regrettable. I apologize. My point of disagreement with Daniel here is that he thinks nationalist tendencies are the primary cause, whereas I think it’s essentially racism (and a variant of the Obama = muslim meme). Daniel goes on to argue (read his post in full!) that my assumption of racism relies on sterotypes about southerners and conservatives, and fails to take into account post-9-11 political nationalism.

I don’t dispute the existence of the Americanism he has (as a true patriot should) been warning against for years, but I think that all of what he describes can be necessary for Birthers to exist, but still not sufficient for them to exist. Again, I invoke my own counterexample not of John McCain (which Daniel raised in his earlier post) but John Kerry – had Kerry won in 2004, and had similar birth circumstances as either McCain or Obama, would the Birthers exist? How you answer that hypothetical will probably be a good predictor of whether you think racism is a primary factor in Birther-ism or not. I do not see how you can answer “No” to it and still fail to conclude that racism is their primary motivator, however – though if that is indeed what Daniel would argue, I am eager to see his reasoning.

I cant agree with Daniel that my opinion that Birthers are racist is grounded in stereotype of southerners. Yes, Birthers are geographically concentrated in the South and in predominantly Republican strongholds; my argument that Birthers are racist just means that racists find a hospitable environment therein, but that isn’t a blanket condemnation of the people there as a whole. Its politically-opportunistic racism, to be sure – but Republicans are after all the party of Alan Keyes, Bobby Jindal and Michael Steele.

However, (to echo Daniel’s own point about Americanism) it’s not Obama’s skin color so much as his blatant and proud foreign affiliation that generates the racist response. Obama is authentically Other in a way that Daniel has also acknowledged Jindal is not. I wonder if Jindal were from Pakistan rather than India, and had photos of him wearing traditional “muslim” garb in circulation, whether he’d still be immune to Birther or “crypto-muslim” smear campaigns. Obama affirms and repeatedly references his Kenyan heritage and quotes the Qur’an to the muslim world; Jindal for want of a better phrase has expunged all traces of his ethnicity from his public persona. To put it bluntly, Obama rubs his Otherness in everyone’s face whereas Jindal tucks it away out of sight. In many ways, Daniel’s own observations about why Jindal is immune only serve to support my primary claim of Birthers’ racism – racism is sometimes colorblind, too.



  • Jason

    Aziz, I think you are right on the money with your theory. I will add that both racism and this birther movement are based on the same premise, ignorance. I am not using the word “ignorance” as a slander towards anyone in particular, but in reference to anyone who are willfully deficient in the knowledge, truth, and understanding of a particular matter. It seems apparent this is the case regarding these issues.

  • Bill H

    had Kerry won in 2004, and had similar birth circumstances as either McCain or Obama, would the Birthers exist?
    Hard to say for sure. My guess is that if John Kerry had French parents and spelled his name “Jean,” a lot of the same nonsense would have occurred. As it was, his foreign (African, even!) born wife was a favorite target.
    But, of course, the two explanations are not mutually exclusive. While it’s the extreme nationalism that Larison describes that is perhaps the main fuel of the birther movement, nationalism isn’t above appeals to race when the opportunity is right.

  • forestwalker

    “it’s not Obama’s skin color so much as his blatant and proud foreign affiliation that generates the racist response”
    I’m really having trouble interpreting your argument overall, but especially here. You label them racist instead of nationalist because their “racism” is generated by Obama’s lack of nationalist fervor instead of by his racial identity? Huh?
    The word “racism” has thirteen or so different meanings in just the few paragraphs you’ve written here. The word’s meaning (here and nearly everywhere) has slipped nearly as badly as “Nazi” and probably more so than has “Socialist.” Words which have degraded to the point where they mean little more than “poo-poo head” in general discourse should probably be avoided in serious discussion.

  • Charles Cosimano

    Racism is one of those words that just make the eyes roll and gets the “there they go again, ha ha” response so I cannot say if the Birthers are racist. I think, however, that I can say that they are simply idiots.

  • razib

    most racists may be birthers without most birthers being racists.

  • hallo

    most racists may be birthers without most birthers being racists.
    Going on nothing but fact-free gut assumption, I think the opposite is closer to the truth.

  • Steve

    Racism or nationalism? Here’s another take… Remember the crazy stories that circulated about the Clintons when they were in office? (Had murdered people while governing Arkansas, the ‘Arkansas Mafia’, etc.) These stories were circulated by the same ultra-right-wingers that are circulating the Obama stuff. I think the formula is fairly simple: all left-wingers are evil (trying to destroy American virtues, etc.), so it’s just a matter of time until they reveal their true colors. When a story emerges that appears to reveal that ‘dark side’ to their lives, that story takes on immediate credibility with this crowd. ‘See, I told you — they ARE evil, and this proves it.’ Any attempt to disprove the story simply fuels the flames – ‘It’s a coverup, that’s what evil people do!’

  • Alicia

    The circulation of the stories and the willingness to believe them are all ways of saying, “He’s not one of us.” Here’s my idea for a riposte. When you encounter someone who is “a Birther” instead of trying to refute them, ask them to prove to you that they are not secretly a member of an alien species that has come to Earth to take it over. Refuse to accept any evidence to the contrary. See how they like it.

  • matoko_chan

    lawls.
    racism just colonizes the same neuro-memetic substrate as nationalism, fear of the Other.
    The GOP has a looooooong tradition of racism.
    But overt racism is socially and electorally unacceptable in the 21st century.
    We know racism is still endemic in the GOP….the michelle obama gorilla-relatives incident, the Magic Negro song, the watermelon patch, the blackface mount rushmore…..
    Empirical data that the undercurrent is strong still.
    The birthers are subliminating their racism into birtherism because racism is unacceptable in 21st century society.
    this is correct, I think.
    “50 years ago we shouted nigger, 30 years ago we talked about States Rights, now we ask to see the president’s birth certificate.”
    I don’t see what Larison pretending it doesn’t exist does for the problem.
    Lance the boil or dwell in the wilderness for 40 years.

  • matoko_chan

    Here’s my “apology” to Larison.
    Old fat white scared angry racists.
    The guy that got in a fist fight with the door guards was carrying an Obama in joker whiteface socialism poster.

  • Chauhdary

    Dear all,
    I believe President Obama appears to be honest , genuine and sincere about his roots and his exposure to different cultures specially with Muslims shows his appreciation for other planet dwellers : Muslims are followers of a great religion and in fourteen centuries have commanded respect of knowledgeable people who have some exposure of history science culture and other fields : whereas Jindal seems to be more like an opportunist and wants things at any cost; generally speaking (historically) Indians have proven to have mastered the art of hiding their real feelings since they have practiced this science for centuries under foreign rulers and master the art of public and home life behavior as two separate modes of conduct and Jindal is no different from any other.

  • Matt

    I think your example aptly illustrates Daniel’s point – if Kerry had won (disregarding any hypothetical about his birth) I have no doubt that Americanists would have continued to question his patriotism, allege that his war record was concocted and find ways to construe his foreign policy as appeasement – regardless of his actual policies. There may be a racial element to their hatred of Obama but in some sense I think it can be seen as coincidental – if he looked like and had the background of Kerry they would be unable to use his otherness as a criticism but they would hate him just as much and simply find different ways to attack him. What makes him fundamentally un-American is that he is an inner-city liberal ‘elitist’.

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