October 14, 2008

The National Enquirer, wingnuttery, and “autobiographies”

Posted in Books, Literature, Politics, Wingnuts at 3:32 pm by The Lizard Queen

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: BlackThe 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.

Liss over at Shakesville takes on that nonsense quite well:

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.



  1. kaleokualoha said,

    There are at least four distinct disclaimers that indemnify Frank Marshall Davis from literal attribution of this novel:

    a. According to dictionary.com, “identity” means “condition or character as to who a person or what a thing is: a case of mistaken identity.” Changing name AND identities means changing names AND other “condition or character as to who a person or what a thing is,” which may include biographical data such as age.

    b. “Taken from actual experiences” does not mean they are accurate representations of actual experiences. It only means they are based on actual experiences.

    c. Edgar Tidwell, the expert on the life and writing of Frank Marshall Davis, says the book is “semiautobiographical,” which (according to dictionary.com) means “1. pertaining to or being a fictionalized account of an author’s own life. 2. pertaining to or being a work of fiction strongly influenced by events in an author’s life.”

    d. Further, scandalous memoirs such as “Sex Rebel: Black (Memoirs of a Gash Gourmet)” have been a literary genre for centuries. According to Wikipedia, such fictional novels are allegedly factual, but are largely invented. The title, alone, qualifies it as a “scandalous memoir.”

    In an honest evaluation, any of these disclaimers should protect the author from literal interpretation. The combination of all four should provide absolute protection from any culpability. Unfortunately, Davis’s accusers are dishonest. Like Mike Nifong, the disgraced ex-D.A. in the Duke lacrosse case, their campaign to demonize their target ignores exculpatory evidence in their reckless rush to judgment. In order to smear Barack Obama through guilt-by-association with Frank Marshall Davis, they are virtually lynching Davis by grossly misrepresenting his character and influence.

    In “Sex Rebel,” Davis’s Bob Greene (not unlike Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert) hesitates at a pubescent girl’s sexual invitation, but foolishly relents. Like “Lolita,” Davis’s faux foreword is written by a Ph.D impersonator who details the psychological significance of the memoir. Like Nabokov, Davis wanted to write under a pseudonym to shield his reputation, but felt compelled to reveal his authorship. As a result, however, Davis has been posthumously accused of pedophilia, while “Lolita” is “considered by many to be one of the finest novels written in the 20th century.” In 1998, it was named the fourth greatest English language novels of the 20th century by the Modern Library,” despite also being initially dismissed as pornography, according to Wikipedia.

    This deliberate misrepresentation is only the latest in a long series of falsehoods by AIM professional prevaricators. Their “specific misrepresentation” is documented at http://my.barackobama.com/page/community/post/Kaleokualoha/gGxdvX. I invite any person of integrity to refute my evidence against any of these AIM lies. If AIM had authentic evidence of Davis’s radical influence, they would not need to fabricate such evidence.

    For an objective report on “Sex Rebel: Black,” please see http://wxxxnews.blogspot.com/2008/10/sex-rebel-black.html

  2. Kaleokualoha said,

    Frank Marshall Davis wrote a scandalous memoir-novel under the pseudonym Bob Greene, one chapter of which is devoted to fictional character Bob Greene and his wife having sex with a thirteen year old girl. This fact was as accurately reported on August 24, 2008 by Toby Hamden on a British website
    (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/uselection2008/barackobama/2601914/Frank-Marshall-Davis-alleged-Communist-was-early-influence-on-Barack-Obama.html). From this kernel of truth, however, Hamden and other propagandists skillfully buillt a deceptive house of cards to frame Davis as a pedophile. To wit:

    1. FALSE ATTRIBUTION: According to Hamden, “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.”

    a. Please note that the fictional character Bob Greene, not author Davis, alleges that incidents were taken from actual experiences. Even Hamden’s travesty of journalism only stated that Mr. Davis confirmed that he was the author, not that Davis said the events actually occurred in his own life.

    b. Casual readers of Hamden’s story may not have noticed this sleight of hand (fallacy of equivocation) when substituting author Davis for fictional character Bob Greene as the subject of experiences in the book. In this one maneuver, Hamden cleverly shifted the identity of subject “he” from Greene to Davis, thereby indicating that Greene’s fictional story actually happened to Davis in real life. This deception, however, reveals Hamden’s intent to directly smear Davis and thereby indirectly smear Obama through guilt-by-association.

    2. ESCALATION #1: On the same day (August 24) Hamden’s report was published, so-called “Accuracy In Media” (AIM) published a new report citing Hamden’s story. (AIM had already published numerous reports defaming Frank Marshall Davis starting in February 2008.) AIM now reported that Edgar Tidwell, an “expert in the life and writing of Davis,” confirmed that Frank Marshall Davis wrote “Sex Rebel: Black” as a semi-autobiographical novel. Despite Tidwell’s expert opinion that the novel was SEMI-autobiographical, AIM escalated accusations against Davis by claiming he was a sex pervert (http://www.aim.org/aim-column/obamas-red-mentor-was-a-pervert/) based on Hamden’s same-day report. Kincaid falsely attributed the “pervert” claim to Hamden’s report.

    3. ESCALATION #2: On 14 October, AIM again escalated the charges by falsely claiming Davis was an “admitted child molester”

    4. SUMMARY: Evidence strongly suggests that Hamden and AIM worked together on this story before either post was published on August 24: AIM’s post referenced Hamden’s story although both were published the same day. Further, AIM’s false attribution of the “pervert” claim to Hamden’s story suggests AIM referenced Hamden’s draft rather than a final version.

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