Saturday, April 28, 2007

What's in a Name?

Xenophobia should never dominate the public sphere.

Yes, I just used the word xenophobia, and if I'm honest, that's probably the only reason I'm writing this post. Without quoting Webster, the word--usually put to use in a cultural context--basically means "the fear or hatred of anything foreign."

As I was reading the paper today, I came across an alarming statement that indicated the racial polarization and xenophobia that some Americans harbor. The two-sentence blurb, printed in the "Sound Off!" section of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer's opinion page, read like this:

Did you know that one of our presidential hopefuls is named Barack Hussein Obama? How does this sound--President Barack Hussein Obama?

Of course, the statement implies that an American president shouldn't have a middle name reminiscent of the deposed dictator of Iraq or a last name only one letter away from matching the first name the most notorious Arab terrorist in the world.

While I'm not a democrat or a supporter of Obama, I take issue with this statement because of the obvious fear and disrespect it fosters. It's understandable that Americans would have qualms about a name like this because we're fighting a difficult war against terrorists with predominately Arab names, but it's certainly not excusable.

This semester I took a class solely devoted to the question of free speech during wartime. While our country talks a big game about the liberties embedded in our Constitution, the reality is that the courts have a very spotty record when it comes to supporting these liberties during times of duress. Members of the Socialist party, a viable political institution at the time, were stripped of their liberties during the WWI era. Because of xenophobia, scores of Japanese-Americans were taken from their homes and shipped off to internment camps during WWII.

I could name many other offenses, but the obvious point is that for some reason, especially during wartime, we tend to have an irrational fear of the "other." Our country has come a long way in the past few decades, and it's good to note that violence toward Muslim-Americans has been minimal in the post-9/11 era. But we should go further by realizing that someone's name has nothing to do with their patriotism or their ability to serve faithfully in public office.

If Obama wins the democratic nomination, I'm not going to vote for him. But it will be policies and principles, not fear of the foreign, that guide my decision.

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