Back in college, the resident advisor in my dorm was a guy named Dave Ehrke. I'm guessing at the spelling (this was more than 30 years ago), but I remember it rhymed with "turkey, " a coincidence we frosh were quick to exploit.
We called him Turkey Ehrke and Dave Turkey and other bon mots that seemed clever at the time. Given that my last name is Pitts (as in arm, cherry, prune and the), I should have known better, but I was the ringleader of the motley crew.
Erkhe put up with our abuse for a few minutes, then dryly informed us that this sort of thing had been amusing the first time he heard it . . . back in fifth grade. For young college guys desperate to appear all grown up, it was a mortal blow. We slunk away feeling three feet tall.
Which brings us to presidential candidate Barack Obama. Or, if you insist, Barack Hussein Obama. Junior.
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Last month, he spoke at the 50th anniversary convention of his church, the United Church of Christ. In his address, he noted that, "Somewhere along the way . . . faith got hijacked partly because of the so-called leaders of the Christian right who've been all too eager to exploit what divides us."
Ann Coulter was invited to talk about the address on Fox News. She derided the Illinois senator for "making that little speech in a church . . ." And she added: "Anyone named B. Hussein Obama should avoid using 'hijack' and 'religion' in the same sentence."
Actually, Obama spoke in an arena, not a church. But put that little inaccuracy aside. Consider instead this obsession some conservative functionaries have with his middle name. Coulter is neither the first nor the only. To the contrary, right-wing bloggers have been flogging Obama's middle name for months, invoking it like some sinister incantation to imply a connection to terrorism or to that other Hussein who once ruled Iraq.
Never mind that in parts of Africa and the Middle East "Hussein" is said to be like "Johnson, " "Smith" or "Jones" -- ubiquitous. Never mind that Barack Hussein Obama Jr. was a teenager when Saddam Hussein took power. And never mind common sense.
The election of 2008 may well be the most important of our lifetimes. George Walker Bush will leave his successor a mess of astonishing proportions to clean up. Our moral capital is diminished. Our leadership on the world stage is distrusted. Our healthcare system is broken. Our people are dispirited. Our planet is sick. Our children are dying in a stupid, useless war.
And I'm supposed to give a rat's hairy hiney about Barack Obama's middle name? Give me a break! I wouldn't care if his middle name were Ignatz. I wouldn't care if it were Shirley.
Here's what I want to know: How workable are his healthcare proposals? And what would Hillary Diane Clinton do about the war? How would John Sidney McCain III fix the environment? What proposals does Fred Dalton Thompson have for restoring America's faded prestige?
And is Ann Hart Coulter correct in believing we are so sheeplike that we can be diverted from these important questions by a reminder that Barack Obama has a funny name? God help us if she is.
Former Vice President Albert Arnold Gore Jr. has spoken of "the assault on reason, " meaning the tendency of conservatives in modern political discourse to manipulate people based on emotion or fear, rather than to persuade them based on logic. Well, here is a clear and shameful example.
This is not about Obama. You want to vote against him? Fine. Do it because you don't like his ideology. Do it because you don't like his plans.
But to do it because you don't like his name? Are we that far gone? Have we lost that much capacity to be serious and intentional about our own lives and future?
If so, we're in a world of trouble, as sure as my name is Leonard Garvey Pitts Jr.