Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Who sayin’ “Hussein”?

The name game

It was the 1990s. My father found it amusing to poke fun at the name of the secretary general of the United Nations: “What kind of dumb name is Boutros Boutros-Ghali?” he'd ask. “It's stupid.”

How soon some people forget they got off the boat. If my father pronounced his name the way it was pronounced in the Old Country, plenty of patriotic nativists would be happy to tell him what a stupid name it was. I've schooled myself not to rise to Dad's bait too often, since he's seldom looking for an actual discussion. Affirmation of his prejudices is all he desires. His riff on the name of the secretary general, however, irritated me enough to snap off a reply:

“Yeah, it's pretty stupid, Dad. Exactly as stupid as Pete Peterson.”

My riposte gave him pause. Boutros is an Arabic form of Petros (“Peter”). He had obviously not thought about it before. Dad was probably channeling some contemptuous remark he had picked up from Rush Limbaugh. Talk radio has been calcifying his brain for decades now, but I still occasionally get past his guard.

The right wing is particularly fond of mocking ethnic names and treating them as worthy of contempt. We saw this with the rantings of Coulter-wannabe Debbie Schlussel, who argued last year that Barack Obama's middle name of “Hussein” means he's some kind of crypto-Muslim, merely pretending to be a Christian till he is in a position to unleash jihad on America. While the fuss over Sen. Obama's middle name is currently in abeyance—partly because the inept Schlussel made such a prat-fall out of her attempt to politicize it—we can expect it to be a recurrent theme, especially if Obama is on the Democratic national ticket. Racism is a trump card the right keeps up its sleeve and will not relinquish.

But what is the deal with Hussein? Is the reaction to it another example of nativist ignorance, just as with Boutros? In a word: yes.

The Arabic name Hussein is a popular variant of the name Hasan (its diminutive, in fact, as Bill is for William). Its popularity is manifest in such multiple examples as the late dictator of Iraq and the Jordanian royal family. Hussein means “handsome,” exactly as if a boy were named Beau or a girl Belle. Other related names for boys include Kevin (Irish) and Alan (Breton). There are plenty more.

Do we have any candidates with Kevin or Alan as middle names? Can we please make fun of them, too?

Mocking people's names is an activity worthy of the kindergarten sandbox. That's why I expect the Republicans to return to it. Be ready to laugh at them and mock them back when they do.


Felicia Gilljam said...

I wasn't able to find out if anyone tagged you already so I did. Tag!

No worries if you don't want to participate, of course.

malkie said...

In Scotland, I knew a woman who (seriously!) objected to the young man her daughter wanted to marry, the sole objection being that one of the young man's middle names is Patrick.

If you're Scottish, you already understand. For those unfortunate enough to have been born outside of Scotland (;=>, I'll explain: Patrick is a "Catholic" name, and the woman and her family claim to be protestants. (If they were more honest, they would admit that their religion is anti-Catholicism, not Protestantism.)

btw, the "young" couple have been happily married for over 50 years, in spite of the girl's family's misgivings.

Anonymous said...

With all due respect, Pete Peterson is a pretty stupid name.