Blood, birthright and belonging: Obama’s birth certificate and the royal wedding

The ornate rituals in Westminster Abbey, and Donald Trump’s investigation of President Obama’s birth certificate have something in common that threatens modern power, and it isn’t very modern.
Heather McRobie
2 May 2011

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that we’re living in enlightened times.  Two of the major news headlines this week, echoing around the globe (because, from the many millions around the world who watched the wedding, there’s no denying we’re globalised, just not enlightened) seemed joined beneath the surface by a potent thread: blood.  In the twenty first century, heritage is still destiny. Who your parents were, who your ancestors were, whether you are part of the tribe, whether you belong in the empire: this is what matters about you.  Or at least, so the news last week seemed to say.

The royal wedding was, of course, laden with many symbolisms simultaneously, the iconographies complementing and competing with one another: the symbols of the British empire, the codes of state sanctioned religion, the symbols of the heterosexual unit of marriage – even down to Kate Middleton’s wedding dress, a self-conscious reference to Hollywood iconography; Princess Grace of Monaco, a twentieth century legend.  The strange fascination with Kate Middleton’s status as a non-aristocratic ‘commoner’ brought into focus the complex bee-hive structure of modern class differences and the historic interplay between the mercantile middle classes and the landed gentry.  The inclusion of non-aristocratic celebrities on the wedding list – Victoria and David Beckham, Elton John – showed the post-Diana, post-Blair pact the aristocracy have made with the new celebrity elite, to participate in each other’s worlds and rituals, thereby reinforcing each other’s power.

Reluctantly watching the wedding ceremony, I felt bludgeoned by motifs, rites and representations of power, even just watching the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ being sung in the church of the British monarchy. It may be an obvious point, but the fact this quintessentially English hymn is named after a city in the Middle East struck me anew as surreal, the absurdity of identity and the powerful constellations of empire and Christianity, enacted in the twenty-first century by an elite congregation in Westminster Abbey and watched around the world.  That Blake’s lyrics are a call to rebuild a ‘city of God’, a metaphorical Jerusalem in England, through Christian virtue, does nothing to strip the sight of it sung in Westminster Abbey of its assertions of domination, and modern power: England rebuilding a ‘holy’ empire, taking on the mantle of this holiness, which in turn legitimises its chosen-ness, to be an actual mercantile empire - not the ‘spiritual’ or metaphorical empire of God but the British empire. Englishness, Britishness, state Christianity and the empire were being married together again in the ceremony on Friday, as simultaneously, a woman, a ‘commoner’, married into the royal bloodline, securing the legitimacy of her future children from this marriage to the property and titles of the crown.  If she has more than one child, their gender and order of birth will be what determines their likelihood of one day assuming the role of head of state.

Modernity’s funny like this.  But, never mind, these were just the bizarre and esoteric rituals of a monarchy of a little island that was once globally important.  Though the argument that the monarchy does not affect our politics doesn’t hold up, and the idea that the tourist money generated by the Windsors somehow compensates us for being ‘subjects’ instead of ‘citizens’ doesn’t hold up either, not economically nor as a logical reason for keeping this family as the head of state. Nevertheless, the pageantry of the royal wedding could be dismissed as a side-show, revealing little of how modern power functions.

In America – the great republic where all men are created equal, America the real seat of modern international power - identity is constellated differently.  If you believe in the distinction between civic and ethnic nationalisms, America, like France, and unlike Britain, epitomises an enlightened, civic nationalism in which allegiance to principles, not the blood in your veins, is the mark of belonging, and professional competence is what qualifies you for public office.  This is often what makes the modes of exclusion in America and France so interesting: how the boundaries of belonging are drawn, from the Dreyfus affair to France’s recent banning of the burqa to - this week - a white man, born into considerable wealth, metaphorically parading around the President’s birth certificate.  In the domestic political landscape since Barack Obama came to office, the underside of this attempt at civic American identity -  the very real hope of meritocracy and equality of opportunity - has also shown much of America’s fascination with blood, heritage, belonging.  As Donald Trump boasted of his ‘pride’ at securing the publication of Obama’s birth certificate, like a patriarch displaying bed-sheets the night after a medieval wedding, the message was clear: we don’t trust this President, dark, alien and other; we want to know where he comes from.  We want to know about his heritage, his blood.  The long history of black Americans being asked to ‘show their documents’ to prove their eligibility to vote or work is hard to ignore. Obama’s response, to express his “bemusement”, and mock Donald Trump’s image as a second-rate conspiracy theorist might have been the best way to respond to the situation: depict it as an embarrassing, marginal view.  But while Obama dismissed it as “silliness”, the implications are serious.  Note that other conservative commentators promptly took it upon themselves to speculate whether the birth certificate should have read ‘Negro’.  These are the modern times we live in.  People want to know whether a President is fit to govern based how his family’s ethnicities are described on pieces of paper.

Of course, much has been written on the complexity of Barack Obama’s identity, as, with his Kenyan father, he doesn’t have ancestors who were slaves in America.  Michelle Obama’s heritage is therefore the more classic African-American narrative.  The question of Barack Obama’s ethnicity cuts across many of these identity lines.  In his autobiography and during the 2008 election campaign, Obama drew on what was seen as the ‘complexity’ of his heritage as a symbol (or credential for) his ability to bridge the stagnant social and racial cleavages of America through his ability to operate in different worlds, empathise with those from a variety of backgrounds, almost literally to speak in different voices.  During the ‘Hope’ era of the 2008 Presidential election campaign, the complexity of Obama’s heritage was drawn upon to say: we all have this complexity, we all have complicated heritages and experiences, the binary definitions do not work.  Obama’s 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention was felt, in 2008, to be the speech of our times.  It’s worth listening to it again now to hear how different the tone is to the current political discourse in America. 

Since his assuming power, those with a vested interest in these binaries - the ‘red states and blue states’, the ‘culture wars’ - have sought to reassert this understanding of the world.  And, in doing so, asserted their allegiance in the racist identity-lines on which the nation was founded: African-Americans, Donald Trump’s actions seem to say, will never really be American, will always have their allegiance, their heritage, and their right to participate in public life questioned.  

Back to the royal wedding, and - as was endlessly noted and analysed - the parallels between the ritual on Friday and Diana and Charles’s wedding was evident, and the spectre of Diana hung over the event, from the paparazzi to the guest list to Prince William’s facial features. As a republican (in the British sense), I find it hard to care about the sex lives of the aristocracy, laced as it always is with sexual double standards: who Diana and Charles did or didn’t sleep with during their marriage doesn’t interest me.  But the speculation about Diana’s affairs that dominated the tabloid press in the 1990s wasn’t just the usual prurience: it was also about blood, heritage, and the fact that - for all the rituals of Christianity and empire, and all the laws and regulations of legitimacy and primogeniture - you can’t ultimately, completely, control who a woman has sex with. You can’t completely secure the bloodline, or who inherits power.  While the wedding on Friday was in many ways a more modern marriage - Kate and William are educated to the same level and lived together before they married - the ritual of their marriage does not make sense without the idea of property and title. In this context, for all my own belief in love and two people freely choosing to spend their lives together, the comments that Kate was the “demure” and gentle “perfect princess” seemed sinister, laced with very pre-modern ideas of how women should be.

The ornate rituals in Westminster Abbey, and Donald Trump’s triumphant boasting seemed in this way to align the aristocratic elite in Britain and the white American capitalist elite: it revealed a very pre-modern fixation on blood as a marker of belonging, and heritage as a prerequisite for legitimacy to rule. And that two of the things modern power still finds most threatening are black men and female sexuality.  This is the enlightened, rational twenty-first century we live in.

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