How Obama Became American: Herodotus and the Rhetoric of Ethnos in the 2008 Election

What does it mean to be an American? This is something that many people have little understanding of—not because we don’t consider ourselves Americans or because we are ignorant, but because “American” isn’t and has never been a simple category of citizenship. It is an idea and so is as open to negotiation, manipulation and interrogation as any other idea. The way I want to approach the idea of “American” is through the concept of ethnos—this is the ancient Greek word from which we derive words like ethnicity. In ancient Greece it meant, variously, a group of people accustomed to living together, a tribe, a host (in the military sense) and a swarm or flock of animals. In the aftermath of Greece’s wars against the Persian Empire, though, ethnos came to mean something closer to what we might consider a nation (not in the modern sense exactly but close enough for our purposes today). Because of the regard in which Herodotus, the historian who first gives a clear and systemic definition of the concept of ethnos, was held by many of our Founding Fathers and early framers of our Federal system, it seems that how Herodotus went about defining ethnos filtered into their own vision of what America would be and who would be American. That understanding of what makes an American is restrictive and eschews the diversity that has been the real America from its inception and yet, in times especially of crisis or during elections, the narrow, idealist definition re-emerges as our officials contest over who is and who is not American enough to represent our nation to the world. President Obama endured such a contest and, seemingly, passed through.

What I want to argue through an examination of the history of this concept of ethnos and its mobilization in the election rhetoric of 2008, though, is that in order to pass through this contest over what it means to be an American, President Obama had to meld himself to the idea of American in more ways than he was able to stand outside of it. Thus when pundits and journalists and others make claims that we have moved into a post-racial society, they are ignoring clearly that the patchwork and diversity Obama seems to represent to them is, in fact, only skin deep. In order to become president, he needed to show (and will, indeed, need to continue showing) that he understands the American ethnos not as an expansive and inclusive type but as exclusive and closed.

I’ll start with quotations from a couple of well-known American patriots which should give us some insight into the early ideal of what it means to be an American. Then we’ll move to the ancient Greeks and then the 2008 election (and beyond). First:

With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people — a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs (John Jay, Federalist #2).


The whole continent of North America appears to be destined by Divine Providence to be peopled by one nation, speaking one language, professing one general system of religious and political principles and accustomed to one general tenor of social usage and customs. For the common happiness of them all, for their peace and prosperity (John Quincy Adams, Private Letter, 1811).

This idea that the United States was ever a nation united by language, religion and customs is a myth but one with a long history and rooted in 18thcentury notions of what it meant to be a nation. When Jay and Adams were both writing, at least 40% of the citizens of the young country were non-English speakers who were not of the Anglican or even reformed brands of Christianity and who did not necessarily share the same manner and customs. While they were all primarily of northern European decent, they were still not an ethnically united people. And yet this is one of the most enduring myths of our nation—even if it is one of the most problematic.

The idea that we are and always have been a nation united by shared language, religions and customs found its most enduring symbol in the myth of the melting pot which developed in response to the waves of immigration of the 19th century, at first from northern Europe and then predominantly from southern and eastern Europe. The melting pot myth comes to us courtesy of Israel Zangwill whose 1908 play called, of course, The Melting Pot examines the romance of a Jewish man and Christian woman, both immigrants to America, who are able to overcome the ethnic and religious divisions and hatred of their pasts to fall in love—something that could apparently only happen in America. Along the way to this happy ending, the play touts the virtues of assimilation and Americanization. David, the young man in love declares:

America is God's Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming! Here you stand, good folk, think I, when I see them at Ellis Island, here you stand in your fifty groups, with your fifty languages and histories, and your fifty blood hatreds and rivalries. But you won't be long like that, brothers, for these are the fires of God you've come to — these are the fires of God. A fig for your feuds and vendettas! Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians — into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.

A mighty vision of an America that never was and, still, is not. But where did such a vision come from? And what makes this ethnic unity—because this is what the melting pot envisions—desirable?

These are not new questions and over the last century, arguments have been made for both the value and the harmfulness of the melting pot notion which seeks to provide a metaphorical mechanism by which the ideal of the ethnically unified American promoted by the Founding Fathers could be realized in the reality of mass immigration. But, in the immediate afterglow of the election of the first non-white American to the presidency, pundits and journalists began sounding the cheer that we were entering into a post-racial world where the dream of being color-blind could finally be realized, where the melting pot would cease to be our dominant metaphor, at last, and the new image of the patchwork America cold begin in truth. One anonymous opinion piece being distributed by McClatchy (Jan. 23 2009), however warns us to remember the racial, ethnic and economic barriers that still impede us. But there is hope:

The president talked about a patchwork of America in his inauguration speech. That quilt includes many immigrants who are working to absorb the language, culture and customs of the United States. The political dynamite of immigration must be elevated to the national stage after the economy reaches relative stability.

Instead of a pot, we have a patchwork quilt—but it is still a unifying structure that requires those who wish to be called American to meld or be woven into. And the way that happens is through the absorption of or assimilation to a shared language and customs (and, as we shall see, even religion). Failure to be woven in is still a stigma despite (or as a result of) the multicultural movements of the last two decades. Evidence for this can be found in the attacks leveled on then candidate Obama during the election (and which continue to be leveled rather aggressively in some media outlets today). Some may say that Obama’s election despite these attacks shows that Americans have grown past this narrow definition of what makes as American. But the continued attacks on Obama on exactly the points of shared language, religions, government principles and customs, suggests that we are still not all past it.

But what is the origin of the notion that in order to be a people, united, we must share our language, religion and customs? Why and how have 300 years of American identity been shaped by seeing such absorption and assimilation as positive—despite at least 100 years of direct assaults on the notion. The answer is that it comes to us through a long history of classical education and through the love of a single text by many of the individuals who shaped our constitution and national myths. That text is the Histories of Herodotus, the first historian and ethnographer and he was, for reasons that should become obvious, beloved by many of our earliest statesmen [we know they read the text—at least in English translation—since they cite evidence from it in the Federalist papers, in their private letters and in their commonplace books].

The ancient historian Herodotus is the first person whom we know of to have defined a people (ethnos) as those who share a language, a religion and customs or traditions (nomoi). His Histories has two main trajectories—the narrative of the Persian Wars and the descriptions of the various peoples in the Persian Empire and the Greek world. Some scholars have seen these two aspects of the history as distinct going so far as to suggest that Herodotus wrote them separately and then tacked them together. In fact, both of these trajectories of Herodotus’ big book are necessary functions of the other and are integrated toward a single goal of demonstrating how a little, dis-unified place like Greece could defeat the Persian juggernaut. In essence, they did so because by their nature, which was manifested in their unified language, worship of the gods and shared customs, the Greeks were superior to the Persians—culturally, politically and militarily. Herodotus argues this point through the course of his Histories by presenting the varieties of ethnea united merely politically under the Persian Empire beside the ethnically unified and yet politically diverse Greeks. Herodotus explores the definition of ethnos within his history to expose as false the possibility of that any nation could, in fact, be truly unified, and therefore powerful if they did not share these fundamental characteristics.

So, what was it about Herodotus’ Histories that was so appealing to men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay and other Founding Fathers? It actually wasn’t the long descriptions of Egypt and the other territories of the Persian Empire but the narrative of the war between the Greeks and the Persians. This is the story of a small, freedom loving people who want nothing more than to be autonomous and free from the control of a great imperial monster. You can see how this might appeal to the revolutionaries. In fact, the culmination speech by the Athenians to the Spartans of their shared identity as Greeks at the hour of Greece’s greatest danger was the likely culprit in shaping their understanding of what an American would have to be.

Following the Greek victory at the battle of Salamis in 479 BC and the departure of the Persian army to winter quarters [Xerxes himself left Greece with the navy but left roughly 80,000 troops behind under his senior general), the Athenians were approached by Alexandros, a friend from Macedon, with an offer from the Persian general, Mardonius, of peace with Persia and rule over one other part of Hellas (8.140a). The Spartans, terrified that the Athenians might accept and knowing full well that they could not defeat the Persians without the Athenian navy, arrived at Athens to beg them not to betray their fellow Greeks. To this plea, the Athenians gave their famous reply:

It was quite natural for the Spartans to fear we would come to an agreement with the barbarian, but nevertheless, we think it disgraceful that you became so frightened, since you are well aware of the Athenians’ disposition, namely, that there is no amount of gold anywhere on earth so great, nor any country that surpasses others so much in beauty and fertility, that we would accept it as a reward for medizing and enslaving Hellas (8.144.1).

They then give the reasons why they would not. First, the Persians had burnt their sacred temples. This requires repayment. And second:

It would not be fitting for the Athenians to prove traitors to the Greeks with whom we are united in sharing the same kinship and language, together with whom we have established shrines and conduct sacrifices to the gods, and with whom we also share the same mode of life (8.144.2).

With this speech, Herodotus tells us the punch-line to a long built up theme that winds its way through his Histories: what makes a people (ethnos)? His answer is that it is made up by people who share the same language, religion and customs. When he has the Athenians declare this bond they share with their fellow Greeks, it is in between the two great victories of the war—Salamis and Plataea, one Athenian-led, the other Spartan—which would lead to Persia’s abandonment of their campaign. Despite the political divisions that he details in his narrative among the Greeks directly preceding these battles, in their darkest moments, these ties bind them together and give them the strength to fight.

Those necessities that John Jay and John Quincy Adams cite as the backbone of our nation: speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, are all present and accounted for in this heroic and dramatic moment in Herodotus’ history and are sharply set in contrast to the diversity of language, religion and customs of the Persians since such diversity, in the minds of the Greeks, could only live side by side under the harsh rule of a single tyrant (and this is something that we see discussed by foreign policy experts and others in discussions of nation building in places like the Balkans, the middle East, etc. It was especially discussed concerning Bosnia and in the aftermath of the Cold War. What Soviet dictators were able to keep in check (i.e. ethnic clashes) exploded once these restrictions had been removed).

So, for better or for worse, while they reveled in the victory of the freedom-loving Greeks, they also absorbed the anti-Persian, barbarian rhetoric of ethnos that framed it and this would shape our own ethnic policies both towards the native Americans as well as non-northern European immigrants in the 19th century and still has a great hold (because it has now become one of our own myths) in immigration debates. And, it is something that was brought to the fore in the recent election since one of the candidates, Barack Hussein Obama, is African-American with a Kenyan father, grew up in Indonesia and had a funny name that sounded to many people like he was of Arab decent and so possibly, in their minds, a Muslim. So, how did it work and how did Obama assure us that he was, in fact, American?

The most well known attacks on President Obama center of the issue of his birth and his early childhood. Although his mother is a Kansan and a Christian, his father is from Kenya and his step-father, Indonesian and Muslim. Rush Limbaugh was one of the earliest to begin attacking Obama on these connections. Limbaugh argued (blurring the figures of father and step-father) that Obama could not be African-American because his father was from an Arab part of Africa. Therefore, he must be an Arab-American. Also, because he was registered for school at the age of 6 or 7 as a Muslim, he could not possibly be a Christian. Even if he was later baptized—which some of his adversaries contested.

So what do we make of this line of attack? First, that Limbaugh and those who followed his lead, are a bit ignorant about Kenya since it is not an Arab nation. Although there were Arab and Persian settlements in Kenya dating back to the 1st century BC, the majority of the population now is of Bantu origin and the national language is Swahili (or English) and the majority of the population claims to be Christian (though there are Muslims and Hindu, among others, present). Limbaugh and others, however, emphasizing the “Hussein” in Obama’s name, found it convenient to fuse Indonesia (which has one of the world’s largest Muslim populations) with Kenya and could point to the fact that he was once registered at school as a Muslim. Thus, through a series of slights of hands, Obama becomes an Arab-American, conflating a "foreign sounding" name with being Muslim with being Arab--who can forget the little old lady at the McCain rally who said she couldn’t trust Obama because he was an Arab.

But how was this "charge" of being an Arab-American and not an Africa-American countered? And, why was it such a bad thing anyway? One of the most interesting aspects of this line of attack by the GOP and its media affiliates is that no one, until Colin Powell only a month before the election, countered by arguing that there was nothing wrong with being an Arab-American. McCain stopped the little old lady and said “He isn’t an Arab. He is a decent man whom I strongly disagree with on certain issues” as if being Arab and being decent were two separate things. 

Obama as well, remained relatively silent on the matter. His campaign responded to the allegation that he was a Muslim based on his school registration by simply stating that his step-father was, indeed, a Muslim and he was registered under the religion of his father though he himself was not. Many who, like Obama, consider the matter closed because it is a silly thing to accuse someone of being something because their parents may have been associated with it when they were children. My mother was a member of the Mormon Church when I was 6, but I never was since the Mormons don’t baptize that young. And yet, were I to run for office, I could be accused of being un-American (as has been suggested subtly concerning Mitt Romney) because my mother was once a member of a non-mainstream brand of Christianity (though some will argue that Mormonism is not Christianity—the Mormons beg to differ). It is an absurdity to hold a 7 year old to account regardless. but it is even more telling, that it was unacceptable and dangerous for the Obama campaign to even consider saying “Yes, he was once a Muslim but converted to Christianity at age 23.” Or, even more, “Yes, he is a Muslim and this is a land that espoused freedom of religion. So what is the problem?”

The fact is that candidate Obama could never have been President Obama because we (and you have all heard it) define our nation as a Christian nation—it is the shared ethnic marker of religion. In a land made of immigrants where there has never been a time when at least 40% of the population was not English speaking and Protestant, there have to be artificial boundaries and markers. The majority population projects their own ideal and the minority population must conform or remain silent. Something that also almost got Obama into trouble since even his brand of Christianity came under fire early on when his associations with a pastor, the reverend Wright, was almost used to brand him as un-American. Both Hillary, and later McCain, marked it as out of bounds but ONLY because they didn’t want to be accused of racism. Otherwise, Obama’s status as Christian, and so American, would have been open to attack from another angle since he could have been seen as not the right kind of Christian.

I’ll remain silent on the subject of language for now because President Obama is a native English speaker which no one could dispute (although much has been made of his apparent eloquence and adherence to standard grammar). But the issue of customs and adherence to shared political principles which was, for the Greeks, a sub-category of customs, were ever present in the election in no small part because of the presence of anti-gay legislation on the ballots of some states and, of course, the difference in opinion on how the economy should run—which becomes a matter of political principle here in the US since we often (intentionally or unintentionally) conflate capitalism and free markets with democracy.

The socio-cultural issues of gay rights that has been used in the past as a line of attack against more liberal candidates has been cast in recent times as a defense of the tradition of marriage, something which, as Americans, we feel we value more than others. Traditional values, family values—these are what we call “American values.” What this means is the myth of the nuclear family, of a man and a woman married with their 2.5 children, a dog and a cat and perhaps a fish. They have two cars, are homeowners and live in a nice neighborhood with a yard and a garage maybe. This dream, the American Dream, has been promoted for many decades now as what we all as Americans should want and should have if we want to be truly American. Opponents to gay marriage and gay adoption argued that any deviation from this “norm” (which we mostly recognize is only one among many variations in reality of “norms”) is an assault on it and somehow threatens the lives of those who have or desire to have the American Dream. It became a factor in the 2004 election but, though it could have been a huge wedge-issue this go-round, was relatively muted because the Obama campaign strategically stated that it supported civil unions without mention of supporting marriage for gays.

One of the more interesting tactics was that Biden, the running mate, was usually the mouthpiece for this support of civil unions, not Obama. Perhaps, it was because Biden was a well-known Christian whose life story showed a dedication to the America values of family so that he was less open to attack on this issue than someone whose mother had not one, but two bi-racial marriages, lived in Muslim countries and whose son was raised mostly by his grandmother in a non-traditional home. This alleviated a line of personal attack and helped relegate the questionability of Obama’s Christianity more since he could also stand silently and present his own solid marriage and perfectly happy children (a model of the American family) to the public. Thus, Obama is able to simultaneously be seen as a supporter of gay rights while still embracing most overtly the values of the American family. And it is this self-presentation and his avoidance of expressing openly himself that he supported gay marriage which accounts in [part for the fact that many Obama voters also voted to ban gay marriage. had Obama himself come out and said “I support gay marriage and so should you” it is possible that things would have gone differently. BUT, just as with the issue of religion, President Obama needed to appear and needs still to appear as if he shares the values of the majority of Americans and adhered to the same customs and traditions.

The final attack came on this front came in the late days of the campaign when we began to learn that Obama was a socialist. This attack was double pronged because socialism is considered simultaneously a political and economic system and it allowed those leveling the attack to not only claim that Obama’s policies would undermine our economic heritage of capitalism and free market but it would also undermine the democracy itself. Such a clever attack (though it failed to rile up enough people) is perhaps the one with the most lasting impression since the economic stimulus package has itself been attacked as socialist, reviving that last gasp of the campaign. Just as with the other series of attacks, this too, played on this notion that America and all Americans adhere to a certain set of governing principles that have come to include the notion of unfettered capitalism-the markets will regulate themselves, the markets, like our citizens, must be free. Obama’s response to this attack during the campaign was to make a joke, “Next thing you know, they’ll be accusing me of being a communist because I shared my toys in kindergarten.” But, his real response was to begin gathering around him and making it known that he was a group of well-respected capitalists. The most well-known of these economic advisors was Warren Buffet. Yet again, Obama surrounded himself in the familiar and acceptable in order to maintain his position within the fold of Americana.

In the end, the color of his skin did not matter because the president made it clear that in the categories that matter: religion, customs (including social and political) and language, he was as American as any other guy on the street, if not more. But his election made us feel good about our image of the melting pot or, in its new guise, the patchwork because on the surface, we appeared to have chosen someone outside of the norm and outside of our comfort zone. But throughout the election and in response to the attacks on his American-ness, Obama made it clear that he adhered to the restrictive and exclusive category of what it means to be an American that was shared by our Founders.

The United States, unlike most other nations in the modern world, was never made up of a single ethnic group. The early American citizens did not universally speak English, but a plethora of European languages. They were mostly Christians, but not the type of Christians (one of the primary causes of their leaving their homes to begin with) and the traditions of settlers from England differed from those of the French, Dutch, German and Spanish settlers. America is a country built on and by immigrants and yet, in our political rhetoric, we seek often to foster an artificial unity through the three factors of shared language, religion and culture. We do this, in part, because we have no single or even closely linked ethnic identity to fall back upon and yet still adhere to an understanding of what it means to be a united people that dates back to the ancient Greek world and was filtered up to our ancestors through an uncritical acceptance of the values and ideas of those ancients. Because of this and because of our refusal to question ourselves and how we define ourselves, we will continue to find it difficult if not impossible to re-think what it means to be an American in a way that can include everyone who holds the title of American citizen.