You are viewing a read-only archive of the Blogs.Harvard network. Learn more.

Who’s Hussein?

Switch your name on Facebook, and the New York Times will declare a national movement.

Maybe that’s not exactly how it happens, but a recent Times article suggests that changing your Facebook moniker may actually be far more significant than, say, uploading a new batch of photos. The June 29th piece, which made the front page of the Times website, traces what appears to be a trend among young Obama supporters, some of whom have informally adopted the middle name Hussein to show loyalty to their candidate. Their object is twofold: first, to reject opponents’ attempts at making Obama’s middle name a campaign issue and second, to demonstrate that, in the words of blogger and Obama supporter Jeff Strabone, “We are all Hussein.” This statement is meant to be a declaration of solidarity in the vein of “I am Spartacus,” a 1960 film in which Roman slaves attempt to protect one of their number from solitary execution by declaring that they, too, are Spartacus. To this end, some Obama acolytes have not only adopted the name on Facebook, but have also begun to sign their checks with it or to have their friends append “Hussein” when addressing them. The trend only goes so far, however. As the Times reports, “Legally changing names is too much hassle, participants say, so they use ‘Hussein’ on Facebook and in blog posts and comments on sites like, and, the campaign’s networking site.”

What’s to be made of all this unofficial renaming? Is it a revolution, as the tone of the Times article seems to imply? Or is it, as the title of one critical blog suggests, only so much hot air? It’s hard not to be skeptical. The article consists mainly of testimonials from those who have already adopted the name Hussein, omitting any alternative viewpoints that might lend some perspective on the trend. To be fair, reporter Jodi Kantor does throw in one mitigating phrase about halfway through — “The movement is hardly a mass one, and it has taken place mostly online, the digital equivalent of wearing a button with a clever, attention-getting message” — but because she presents no sources or statistics to buttress it, the statement seems like an afterthought. And really, what does changing a username prove, other than the fact that you have internet access?

My initial fear in reading the article was that Kantor’s coverage only substantiates what Mark Bauerlein and others have already alleged – that today’s youth are the “Dumbest Generation,” a demographic that equates activism with fashion items and the Facebook causes everybody puts on their profile but never actually contributes to. Indeed, responses to a handful of blog posts critical of the article include such choice lines as “What a bunch of dillweeds” (at HotAir Headlines) and “Just stoopid kids” (on Sweetness and Light). The piece itself does little to counter this impression: the five newly-minted Husseins in the accompanying photo are posed more like a rock band than a group of political volunteers, and the arrangement of the subjects suggests the photographer was particularly concerned with showcasing the most photogenic members of the group. The article also dodges a more significant point – that adoption of the name among young people reflects both growing acceptance of Muslims and a rejection of the anti-Islamic sentiment often promoted by critics focused on Obama’s middle name (and yes, to say it again, Obama is Christian, not Muslim).

It appears to me that the Mark Bauerleins and Jodi Kantors of the world, despite their divergent impressions of young people, are all guilty of the same thing: oversimplification. Their portrayals of Digital Natives gloss over the legitimate and difficult work youth are doing to address a variety of international and domestic issues — whether launching NGOs like TakingITGlobal, which promotes youth activism in various social and political arenas, or running national grassroots organizations like ObamaWorks, which organizes community-oriented service projects.

Teenage frippery, which usually involves toying with identity, has always gone hand in hand with youthful idealism and achievement; nowhere is this combination more pronounced than online. As danah boyd notes, young people today are no different from the youth of generations past, and much of what they do online (hanging out, listening to music) is normal, real–life behavior that has simply been transferred to a digital space (albeit with additional opportunities and risks presented by the new medium). Just as these activities take place both online and off, so too do youth activism and political engagement. It seems that both Kantor and the advocates of the “Dumbest Generation” argument have been misled by the blurring of young people’s private and public faces, confused, perhaps, by the fact that teenagers’ shallow and serious tendencies are expressed simultaneously in the enduring public space of the web.

Kantor and reporters like her would do well to acknowledge this balance and to cover stories in a way that reflects what young people are really doing in the world today: defining themselves, determining their loyalties, and doing much more to bring about change than just tweaking their usernames.

Nikki Leon