May 19, 2008
To declare an interest, I should say that I have had some ancestors in this country, or more technically on this continent, for 370 years, one of whom helped found the town of Newburyport, Massachusetts, and most of the families I am descended from have been here longer than the Republic has existed, so when I read Kathleen Parker’s column about “yesterday’s Americans” that has been discussed so frequently I could understand what she was talking about when she referred to “a different sense of America among those who trace their bloodlines back through generations of sacrifice.” The “generations of sacrifice” bit may be a bit much, but it’s worth noting that Obama implicitly acknowledges the importance of this, which is why he never fails to mention that his grandfather fought under Patton in WWII. For what it’s worth he likely can trace his ancestry on his mother’s side back nearly as far as many others. It is unavoidable that someone who has ancestors in America who predated independence will think about America differently from how someone whose ancestors arrived more recently on these shores does. In my view, the latter tend not to have enough respect for the experience of the generations who inhabited this country before them. But this is one reason why I have never quite understood why so many of Obama’s enthusiasts have stressed his international ties, rather than his domestic roots, which he has in relative abundance. I have never quite understood why his supporters have spent more time talking about his Kenyan father than his Kansan mother, though I might guess, and this has struck me as remarkable not simply because it is politically disadvantageous to a candidate whom some of our friends here support so strongly, but because it almost true what Obama says when he says that his story is possible in no other country (there are other countries that elect the sons of foreigners to be President, such as France). It is remarkable that his supporters would be so caught up with the trivia of his foreign background when it is his American background that is so much more interesting, and not just to Americans. His father was a predictable, almost embarrassingly stereotypical anti-colonialist politician. His mother, on the other hand, was quite atypical and worthy of more attention than she has received.
Parker’s use of the phrase “yesterday’s Americans” was curious, since it seemed to concede that those whose ancestors had been here longest were necessarily representative of a previous era that was going to pass away, when the thrust of her column was fundamentally that it should not pass away. It seems to me that Parker’s column may be the product of someone who has been conditioned to believe in all of the “nation of immigrants” myths, but instinctively she cannot accept it when confronted with someone who would seem to be the personal embodiment of that idea. A “nation of immigrants” isn’t a nation, and indeed it becomes a nation only when it establishes some identity different from that of the immigrants’ former peoples.