Saturday, October 10, 2009

Birthers, babies and the politics of reproduction

by Christopher Moses

Recent and ongoing right-wing debates about Barack Obama’s birth—and in turn his ability to serve as President—belie a larger, darker fear about women’s rights and gender equity.

Race plays a definitive role, too. Though Obama himself has, I believe, made the brilliant, categorical decision to deny race as a factor in current political debates (the ‘I was black before I was elected’ line). With him we’ve all flip-flopped: liberals now espouse a color-blind, color-doesn’t-matter politics, while the right sees a conspiratorial rainbow overshadowing their white world. With Obama unwilling to engage, they either get cut off at the race-baiting pass, or end up saying things so absurdly racist that the President can just wink and nod.

This profound and consequential shift in debates about race deserves much more attention and analysis. But for now, a post more squarely about gender—though still with a tawny tinge.

Let the Birthers speak for themselves:

[Obama’s] mother perhaps believed color was not an issue in human relations. But her influence on him evaporated when she sent him back to Hawaii, and as a 10 year old, the feelings of abandonment festered. As nature abhors a vacuum, so does the soul. A race agitating, communist Frank Marshall Davis took this young psychologically impressionable boy and befriended him… Davis built up the young Obama’s sense of “Black Pride,” until he became more black than the 50% white of his birth.

However fascinating this analysis of racial ratios and darky disfigurement may be (aren’t these usually nature-over-nurture folks?)—instead the central issue here involves the power of patriarchy.

The whiteness of Obama’s mother couldn’t cut it, couldn’t persevere within this impressionable young man. The ever-greater power of personhood inherited from his father magnetized this racial rage until he became less white, less human, and, above all, less American. Back to the Congo—or woops, I meant Kenya—did the blackening boy go. (Geography gets hard with Africa one big continent of a mess of brutal barbarity and backwards savagery.)

How could a mother ever give to her son the things of greatest importance (race, rights, what have you?) Yet for all their faults, the Founders were reacting fiercely against an aristocratic culture of lineal privilege and patriarchal power. Birth meant a fresh start, not a bonded, stagnant status (except for slaves, but that’s another story). For people just as for the new nation, each day meant a call to make the world anew. Such was the rage of republican motherhood and women’s importance for raising a country of caring citizens.

American Democracy and the Constitutional provisions for citizenship undercut patrilineal decent. So the Birthers really are a self-contradictory and screwed up mess: ‘Dedicated to the rebirth of our Constitutional Republic,’ they might need to allow mothers a bit more wherewithal. (At least they’re on track with race and slavery.)

Giving birth and giving citizenship make women extremely powerful and, in turn, a rather dangerous threat . Birther absurdism may be just that, but as with the broader right-wing assault against reproductive rights, end-of-life care and individual freedom—their desire to reinstate a patriarchal theocracy—we need to keep fighting for the revolutionary promise of our Founding Fathers—and Founding Mothers. (Minus the slavery.)

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