October 14, 2008
The National Enquirer, wingnuttery, and “autobiographies”
The newest Obama-related scandal that the right wing is trying to push is the fact that a mentor referenced in Obama’s 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, is actually Frank Marshall Davis, who was a poet and writer, was accused by HUAC of being involved with communist organizations, and authored, pseudonymously, a book titled Sex Rebel: Black. The National Enquirer (…I know…) describes Sex Rebel: Black as a “hard-core pornographic autobiography” and a “shocking tell-all” in which “Davis admits to seducing a thirteen year-old girl, voyeurism, exhibitionism, bisexuality, rape and sadomasochism.” Erick Erickson at Red State translates this information into wingnut for us in a post called “Obama’s Special Relationship”:
The National Enquirer now suggests Barack Obama had an underage, gay affair with a pedophile. Yup. That Frank Marshall Davis guy Barry says was his good friend? Turns out he was a perv of the first order and liked young boys.
How many things are wrong with that single paragraph? There’s no such thing as an “underage affair with a pedophile.” Affair connotes consent, something a child cannot provide. Calling it a “gay affair with a pedophile” conflates pedophilia with homosexuality, one of the oldest smears in the book. Davis was one of Obama’s childhood mentors, not his “good friend.” There’s nothing in the Enquirer article that suggests Davis “liked young boys,” which doesn’t mean he didn’t, but, to come to that conclusion, one must connect “pedophilia” with “bisexuality,” without regard for the former being an aberrant criminal proclivity and the latter being a healthy sexuality. It is a true clusterfucktastrophe of erroneous conclusions and fucked-up (possibly deliberate) misunderstandings about sexuality and sexual assault.
But most awful is the breathless reporting which implies that the possibility Obama was sexually assaulted somehow reflects badly on him. What terrible judgment he has, to have had “an underage, gay affair with a pedophile” at 10 years old! It’s a sentiment similarly proffered by another prominent rightwing blogger (to whom you can get via Brad) who wants to know: “When is someone going to question how these associations must have warped Obama’s views and render him unstable, and unsuitable for the Presidency?”
That’s all well and admirably said. Those issues aside, however, I still have questions.
A brief tangent: One of my academic interests when I was in graduate school (and currently) was (is) the area where fiction and nonfiction overlap: books like W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, the roman a clef and memoirs of fictional characters, and so on. I find it interesting that we decide whether or not a book is true based on where it’s shelved in a library or bookstore, when it seems to me that the issue is so much more nuanced than that.
That said, then, by what criteria is the National Enquirer deciding the veracity of Sex Rebel: Black? I can imagine it’s written in the first person, but so are many novels, especially those written in the 20th and 21st centuries. Someone at the National Enquirer has purportedly read the book, while I’d never even heard of it before today, but I still wonder why they’ve decided that it’s the true story of Davis’s life, rather than the fictional life story of a character named Bob Greene (under whose name the book was published). Would these same people (both the folks at the NE and the wingnuts who are writhing in glee at this new information) believe that Humbert Humbert was actually a stand-in for Vladimir Nabokov, that Humbert’s life story was actually that of Nabokov? (I probably don’t actually want to know the answer to that question, do I?) Might it not be possible that Davis was attempting something in a similar vein?
The whole thing just frustrates me. And to be honest, I feel like a bit of a tool now for dignifying this rubbish with a response. Is this really what American political discourse has come to?
ETA: By following various links I came across this Telegraph article from August, which is apparently where the whole thing came up in the first place. It contains more information about Sex Rebel: Black, with the following passage probably being the most relevant (emphasis added):
In a surviving portion of an autobiographical manuscript, Mr Davis confirms that he was the author of Sex Rebel: Black after a reader had noticed the “similarities in style and phraseology” between the pornographic work and his poetry.
“I could not then truthfully deny that this book, which came out in 1968 as a Greenleaf Classic, was mine.” In the introduction to Sex Rebel, Mr Davis (writing as Greene) explains that although he has “changed names and identities…all incidents I have described have been taken from actual experiences”.
Now, I could be completely wrong on this. Sex Rebel could be the gospel truth of Davis’s life, and Davis might have published the book as Bob Greene for strictly practical purposes. But I remain unconvinced that this is not a situation wherein the author is being conflated with a character he created.