Thursday, April 28, 2011

Making (Racist) Stuff Up

George Duncan's editorial in the Lake Placid Journal this week leads with an unnamed source that slams Barack Obama's father's moral compass. Readers might reasonably expect an explanation to follow. Instead, Duncan's second paragraph wanders to a C.S. Lewis comment regarding the "self explanatory" nature of a "Christian hospital" (garbling the original). Now, readers might reasonably expect the discussion to turn to hospitals. That doesn't happen, either.

The substance of Duncan's column turns out to be a pat on the back for a fine organization serving migrant families, an organization that is neither a hospital nor related to Barack Obama's father.

Duncan's editorial segue adds up to xenophobic code for his anti-Muslim, anti-Obama message wrapped in a weird form of pious self-congratulation. Readers can see the clip below the fold.

But before clicking, a side note: Old Word Wolf telephoned Duncan yesterday afternoon to seek his help in tracking down his unnamed "British biographer." Duncan said he could not remember who the author is, did not have any notes , and did not know the name of the book. A little prodding from OWW elicited that Duncan had not actually read a book. He had heard an interview on cable television but couldn't remember when.

With that, OWW located March 20, 2011 BookTV clip in which historian Peter Firstbrook discusses "The Untold Story of an African Family" with interviewer Dinish D'Souza.

Listening to the interview, OWW finds Duncan's editorial does three things to the original. First, Duncan uses only half the biographer's quote, stripping it of context. Next, Duncan invents half the information -- Firstbrook never says anything about Christian altruism. And third, the discussion is about Obama's paternal grandfather. For whatever reason, Duncan chooses to attribute a lack of Christian sensibility to Obama's father.

We have a technical term for this: it's called "making stuff up." We also have a word to describe the editor's deliberate exploitation and mischaracterization of a 19th century Kenyan in order to deliver a covert political message: racist.

Transcript of the Firstbrook interview (approximately minutes 54.00- 58.00)

Interviewer: You explore in the book that while Obama's father --actually his grandfather -- converted to Islam and took the name Hussein , that in fact Obama senior, the president's father .. and this is also true of his stepfather later in Indonesia: They were born Muslim but they were really atheists. Obama's mom herself, we know, was also an atheist. There is a lot of speculating that Obama is some kind of a Muslim ... say a word about that. Is Obama a Muslim, is he a Christian?

Firstbrook: I can say that I find absolutely no evidence that he was a Muslim, but let me just explain how the Muslim faith got into the family. Onyango, the grandfather, born in 1895, was born into the traditional Luo religion. They worshiped a man named Niacia, and it was basically a traditional African animist religion. When the missionaries came, he did for a brief while convert to Christianity and took the name Johnson according to Sarah Obama. The first missionaries that came to that part of Kenya were actually Seventh Day Adventists. In fact most of the Obama family out in Kenya are still SDA. Then in 1914, when Onyango was drafted into the British army into the King's African Rifles, he served with the British in their portage call.

After the first World War, he moved onto Zanzibar, where for the first time he was exposed to Islam, and he came back in about 1920 to his village a Muslim. I said to a lot of them, "What was it about Islam that appealed to Onyango?" There were two explanations. One was that Onyango could never understand the Christian sense of compassion. And, he saw the world in black and white and that the simplicity of Islam appealed to him. And the other thing that seemed to appeal to him was the fact that you could have five wives. And he liked the idea. He was very much a ladies' man, and people would joke and say he liked the idea of having five wives under Islam.

Interviewer: Doesn't Islam allow only four wives?
Firstbrook: I thought it was five. But actually in Kenya there are [garbled]... very liberally interpreted. But that's how Hussein -- he then took the name Hussein -- Onyango, when he converted to Islam. He ended up having five wives, and actually all the wives except the president's grandmother were Islam. Akumu, who was the president's paternal grandmother, was born a Christian but she had to convert when she married Onyango. So that's how Islam got into the family. Barack Obama senior, the father, was brought up a Muslim but he left home, as you say rightly, renounced any religion. And by the time he got to Hawaii, and as far as he was concerned Islam, all, was mumbo jumbo ... there wasn't any really significant religious influence in the president's life until he went to Chicago ... the churches were a political organization ...

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