Sunday, June 29, 2008

Rocking the Vote on the Hopey-Changey Tour '08

The Five Man Electoral Band -- "Signs"

What's in a name? Apparently a new variant on an old symbolic politic -- a not so subtle in-your face, back atchya form of feel-good protest. "We are all (fill in the blank) when we encounter discrimination." It starts with the personal declaration of defiance, which becomes the code for group belonging.

Jodi Kantor writes, in the New York Times, about a trend percolating under the radar. Some young Obama activists are unofficially adopting Barrack Obama's middle name as their own. The preferred medium for this subtle activism is distinctly "new" technology -- to wit, electronic communications and internet networking communities.

The middle name "Hussein" has been the focus of some cheeky punditry in certain quarters. Usually used to draw unwanted attention to the Muslim side of Barrack Obama's family background, or to try to imply through innuendo something more "sinister" or "concealed" about the presumptive Democratic nominee. Or perhaps it's just intended to create a psychological link in the minds of voters to the late dictator of Iraq.

Apologists for this brand of punditry will point to the common use of middle names when discussing other presidents, present or past -- George Walker Bush, William Jefferson Clinton, Richard Millhouse Nixon, Lindon Baynes Johnson, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, etc. -- but this seems somewhat disingenuous. Each of these figures, with the possible exceptions of Clinton and Nixon, commonly encouraged that usage -- it was (and is) a patrician convention. But Barrack Obama is not a patrician. He's nouveau riche. Clinton and Nixon were not patricians either, and tended to use their middle names primarily for formal swearings-in, and such. Should Obama become president, the same will surely be true for him.

Jodi Kantor's article introduces us to a variety of young Obaminable Obamaniacs, the new face of rock-the-vote politics. First we meet Emily Nordling, a 19-year old student from Kentucky, who adopted the name 'Hussein' on her Facebook page. Then there's Jeff Strabone of Brooklyn, who signs the 'Hussein' name on his credit card slips (although this could perhaps also give him an argument later on that he didn't make those purchases). Mr. Strabone also posted a "manifesto" entitled "We Are All Hussein" on his blog, and cross-posted at Or, how about Ashley Holmes of Indianapolis, who changed her name online to "show how little meaning" the name 'Hussein' really has. Apparently this trend of activism-lite has been growing slowly online since last autumn. According to Kantor, some young participants suggested that they were inspired by the 1960 epic Spartacus "about a Roman slave whose peers protect him by calling out 'I am Spartacus' to Roman soldiers." Or perhaps, I suppose, the crucifixion scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian might come to mind -- "I'm Brian and so is my wife!"

The result, notes Kantor, "is a group of unlikely-sounding Husseins: Jewish and Catholic, Hispanic and Asian and Italian-American, from Jaime Hussein Alvarez of Washington, D.C., to Kelly Hussein Crowley of Norman, Okla., to Sarah Beth Hussein Frumkin of Chicago."

Photo credit: picture accompanying NY Times article, Kirk Irwin.

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