U.S. Intellectual History Blog

revisionist history from Mike Huckabee

The liberal blogosphere is all atwitter (ha!) about Mike Huckabee’s claim that President Obama grew up in Kenya. (Huckabee has since issued an implausible disavowal of the statement.) No, Obama did not grow up in Kenya, and yes, that’s a stupid thing for a major political figure to say. But what is of far greater interest to me are the historical presumptions that underwrite Huckabee’s rehashing of Dinesh D’Souza’s claim that the president’s intellectual worldview is centrally motivated by an anti-colonialism inherited from his Kenyan father.
Mike Huckabee, from his website
On a conservative radio show, Huckabee raised the point about Obama’s childhood in order to express concern that the president’s agenda, and its attendant philosophy, is entirely foreign to the worldview of the average American. “And one thing that I do know is his having grown up in Kenya–his view of the Brits, for example, [is] very different from [that of] the average American. When he gave the bust [of Winston Churchill] back to [the British, this was] a great insult to the British. But…his perspective growing up in Kenya with a Kenyan father and grandfather–their view of the Mau Mau Revolution is very different from ours, because he probably grew up hearing that the British were a bunch of imperialists who persecuted his grandfather.”
I want to put aside several items of concern with Huckabee’s statement: the notions that most contemporary Americans have the same attitude toward the Mau Mau uprising (or, for that matter, any view of it at all); that the viewpoint on this subject of someone with Kenyan heritage might not, in fact, be richer or better-informed that that of someone without that background; and that it’s important and valuable that no one deviate from the consensus opinion. Instead, as an historian, I am interested in the claim that Obama’s “view…is very different from ours because he probably grew up hearing that the British were a bunch of imperialists.”
I’ve got to admit that I grew up in Indiana hearing pretty much the same thing. And, well, isn’t it true? Weren’t the British a bunch of imperialists? If the British Empire does not represent the very pinnacle of imperialism, then I guess I need to have Mandy Patinkin explain to me what the word actually means.
I claim no expertise on the UK, and this blog focuses on the United States, but Huckabee’s implicit point strikes me as the worst kind of Orwellian historical revisionism. Is he actually suggesting that the British Empire was not an imperialist project? I have a hard time imagining any reasonable person would take such a position. But I also cannot see any other way to read his comment.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I agree, Mike, that this is bizarre…but it’s also pretty typical. There’s enormous Churchill worship on the right these days. And anti-anti-imperialism has become something of a shibboleth among conservatives.

    But it is ridiculous revisionism. So why is it so commonplace?

    Off the top of my head, there are at least a couple things going on here.

    First, there’s a faint echo of Niall Ferguson’s view of America’s place in the world that got a lot of play among supporters of our Iraq misadventure in the early days of that war. Ferguson at least had the honesty to call an empire and empire and declare himself to be “a fully paid-up member of the neoimperialist gang.” But most neoimperialists refuse to call themselves that. So they have to settle for denialist anti-anti-imperialism. They’re not imperialists, mind you. But nobody else is either. And anyone who disagrees is a socialist!

    Secondly, this is a not-so-veiled racial dogwhistle.

  2. It makes total sense if the underlying map is race. Obama’s blackness, for Huckabee, is amplified by his Africanness. The Africanness is counterposed to civilizing whiteness via Mau Mau.

  3. Whenever I read a story like this, I am just amazed at how far people are willing to go to try to win. Why the need for the lies and the revisionism? If you’re platform is the better platform than run on that, and if it’s not, than accept it and lose, but I’m sick and tired of these red herrings that these politicians are using. And I agree with both commenters above, this is totally a subtle reminder to the racists that Obama is “different from us”.

  4. For my part, I think that liberals are often a little quick to accuse conservatives of dog-whistle race-baiting. There is a danger here is substituting the desire to take the moral high ground for actual evidence. (If we’re all talking about it on this blog, then the dog-whistle can’t be that good.) While I agree that some conservative rhetoric doesn’t fare well under a “close reading,” the dog-whistle claim has to show that such statements are being heard by the intended audience in the same way that it’s being heard by the liberal critic, and that these listeners are amenable to this argument. I haven’t seen that supporting evidence presented nearly as often as I’ve heard the initial claim.

    Moreover, the idea that conservative rhetoric masks racist arguments doesn’t line up with my anecdotal and personal experience. The Tea Parties, for example, strike me as very sincere in their desire to cut taxes and balance the budget–their strong motivations seem entirely comprehensible to me without the need to ascribe a deeper, secretive, more sinister cause to them. The same observations hold true for the (admittedly few) conservative friends that I have had throughout my life.

    Finally, 21st century conservatives have gotten a lot of mileage out of “othering” their opponents. The movement has successfully transformed the liberal brand into one marked as effete, coastal, overeducated, influenced by foreign (usually European) ideas, and secular, in contrast to all of the opposite–presumably more American–qualities. This strategy has been pretty successful, and Obama embodies this stereotype as much as any Democratic politician, so I think that conservatives are pretty happy to stick with that game plan. To my mind, the most politically successful epithet that conservatives have hung on Obama is the completely insane “socialist” tag. This is coded as foreign, certainly, but black? I don’t see it.

    When Obama was running for president, Chris Matthews asked one of his guests, “What’s going to be Obama’s big problem: south side of Chicago, or University of Chicago?” He said he think it would be the latter, and I think so far he’s been right.

  5. “The architects and administrators of the British Empire were imperialists? Perish the thought.” This from someone who has really different “views from the average American”: George Will!

    In the same column (this morning’s), Will also offers support for the claim I made in my comment above: conservatives are perfectly happy to lambaste Obama for being a “typical” liberal. “To the notion that Obama has a ‘Kenyan, anti-colonial’ worldview, the sensible response is: If only. Obama’s natural habitat is as American as the nearest faculty club; he is a distillation of America’s academic mentality; he is as American as the other professor-president, Woodrow Wilson.”

    My suspicion is that the mainstream of the conservative movement thinks that it has such a good thing going with this image of Obama that it is more afraid of extreme characterizations than embracing of them.

    This conclusion, however, would contradict what I wrote in the earlier comment. If Will’s statements do represent, in fact, an attempt to marginalize or squelch the “anti-colonial” murmurs of D’Souza, Gingritch and Huckabee as potentially alienating to moderate swing voters, then this might suggest that Will himself sees these claims as racially-coded dog-whistles.

    And if George Will, of all people, sees such interpretations this way, then I would most definitely stand corrected in considering such interpretations as unfair to conservatives. Were I to restate my point, I think I would want to de-emphasize my claim to know the intentions of these writers, and instead suggest only that I might see racism as less central to the conservative message than perhaps do the earlier posters.

  6. I was about to make almost exactly the same set of remarks about the Will column, Mike. Great minds, etc!

    More generally, I was going to reply to your earlier comment that, while I agree that attempts to explain all of contemporary American conservatism as nothing more than thinly disguised racism are off the mark, that doesn’t mean that some conservative arguments are not, in fact, thinly disguised racism. And, as I say above, I think Huckabee’s anti-anti-imperialism is, in fact, thinly disguised racism (and, like you, I think George Will agrees with me, though he doesn’t quite say so).

    [An example of a situation in which racism has been misused as an explanation for conservatism: I recently read a fellow Oklahoman suggesting online that the fact that Oklahoma voted more heavily for John McCain in 2008 than every other state but Wyoming is 100% the result of racism. In fact, Barack Obama and John McCain respectively received nearly identical percentages of the Oklahoman vote in 2008 as John Kerry and George W. Bush received in 2004. This suggests very strongly the race is not the major, let alone the sole factor, in explaining why Oklahomans so strongly prefered McCain to Obama two and a half years ago.]

  7. I would also not reduce “race” to “racism.” Race plays a role for many people as a way to organize and interpret the world, and I would think that an intellectual history blog would be a place to pull those threads apart. Perhaps not. Both Mike and Ben seem to be taking aim at claims that I see nobody making here — that Huckabee’s statements can be reduced to racism or race-baiting, or that contemporary conservatism can be reduced to racism (a claim that would be especially idiotic). And of course this over-reaction merely repeats the nervous, jumpy way that “race” gets handled in the US — either you don’t mention it at all, or if you do, you’re assumed to be making the most extreme accusation possible, which can then be dismissed on account of its extremeness.

  8. I can’t speak for Mike, Colin, but I was reacting to Mike’s initial reaction to my suggestion that Huckabee’s statement is largely about race. I was simply affirming that I wasn’t making the broader claims that (at least at first) Mike seemed to be suggesting that I was making.

Comments are closed.