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The Critical Browser: Anti-Obama Chain E-Mails

A literary reading of the nutso ravings your uncle is forwarding at this very moment.

Relatives are wonderful. You can count on them to forward you all kinds of interesting political documents--especially, these days, letters about Barack Obama and his sinister intentions. There are quite a few of them making the rounds; some focus on his connections to Islam, some try to dig up examples of him showing open disrespect to Mom and apple pie, some retouch or recaption photos to make him look stupid or dangerous. Obama's mentioned them himself, and called them "a dirty trick that folks are playing on voters."

They vary in levels of smeardom, from attacks on his policies to simple character assassination to allegations that he may be, oh my God, who knows, an actual assassin. But a few themes recur: The deepest fears of the "forward this to all your friends" crew seem to be that Obama is somehow un-American, that he's actually a Muslim and therefore by simple logic wants to blow us all up, and, most of all, that he's one of those terrifying low-class dark-skinned types. (A photo going around of Obama in 1986 with members of his extended family identifies a black woman in a striped dress as "Washeteria.")

One of the more interesting emails, which seems to have surfaced in mid-April, concerns the idea that Obama is personally behind electoral unrest in Kenya. Now, the assertions in the message credited to Celeste and Loren Davis are all kinds of false; you can go to the generally reliable for a thorough debunking, although Loren Davis, questioned about the message by PolitiFact, stood by it. Snopes has a useful page of Obama-related rumors; word is also going around that the Senator was sworn into office on a copy of the Quran--nope--that he hates "The Star-Spangled Banner"--false--and that the "Book of Revelations" describes the Antichrist as being Obama-esque--sorry, but thanks for playing. (In the words of the British satirists Half Man Half Biscuit: "If you're going to quote from the Book of Revelation/Don't keep calling it the Book of Revelations/There's no S, it's the Book of Revelation/As revealed to St. John the Divine.") And, as it turns out, the Davises have written some things promulgating highly unusual viewpoints before, such as that the five-pointed stars on the American flag are part of a Satanist plot.

Still, the more closely you read the Davises' message, the more clear it becomes that its real meaning is not literal but literary. It's a sort of mock-prophetic prose poem, whose narrative voice is a set of minds displaced in time, leaping from past to future and passing through alternate realities, desperately trying to communicate a message that comes out in horrifyingly garbled form, sort of like the schizophrenic, time-traveling superhero Star Boy, who lost his mind when he accidentally passed through a religion-obsessed parallel Earth. The first clue is the opening line: "Thanks for sending out an alert about Obama." (The first-person-plural narrators proceed from the assumption that we have already forwarded the message we are about to read for the first time.) "We are living and working in Kenya for almost twelve years now and know his family (tribe) well." Aside from the caution-unreliable-narrator-ahead race-baiting gambit of claiming that Obama's family is a "tribe," the shift in tenses mid-sentence should tip the reader off; so should the similarly tense-damaged phrasing and eight-year shift a few paragraphs later: "We have been working with them for 20 years this July!"

With that established, we can try to ferret out the true, science-fictional meaning of the Davises' letter. The narrators claim that, in Kenya, they're "fighting ... takeover from the outside to fit the new world order," and note that "Jesus Christ is our peace but the new world order of Globalism has infiltrated the church and confused believers into thinking that they can compromise and survive." Then, after a glancing reference to Jimmy Carter that appears in only a few variants of the text--perhaps a veiled allusion to his shared initials with Christ--they reverse themselves: "It won't be so."

Now, that "new world order" certainly isn't quite the Gorbachev/Bush Sr. version, and it may look at first more like the tinfoil hat version; the emphasis on Obama's bloodline--"[we] know his family (tribe) well"--above his actual actions and professed beliefs fits in neatly with the schizophrenic belief of the speakers that they're the only ones who can see reality and everyone else is a mindless pawn of heredity and conspiracy. But consider this: Perhaps what the Davises are speculating about is less a takeover of the U.S. government by a dangerous potential commander-in-chief and more the risk of Obama being replaced by an evil doppelgänger who looks exactly like him but is actually a ringer from a topsy-turvy alternate universe.

Keep that in mind, and the message's apparent errors and inconsistencies start to fall into place. In the seemingly counterfactual, hateful sentence "Obama IS a muslim and he IS a racist and this is a fulfillment of the 911 threat that was just the beginning," the slashless "911" isn't a reference to September 11, 2001; it isn't even slang for "emergency." It's a reference to the total number of parallel dimensions. The "Obama" they're talking about here isn't, of course, the Christian politician from our world who gave the "A More Perfect Union" speech in March; it's the alternate-universe version, who is naturally our Obama's opposite in every way--sort of like Ultraman, the evil Clark Kent of Earth-3. He also comes from a universe in which "Muslims" are some sort of bloodthirsty invaders who support the dimension-resequencing scheme, a bit of meaning-reassigning linguistic play along the lines of Tom Stoppard's Dogg's Hamlet.

In a brilliant extratextural reference to other Obama-rumor emails, the Davises throw in proof that the Obama their fiction discusses is the parallel-universe one, since his name is spelled slightly differently: "By the way. His true name is Barak Hussein Muhammed Obama. Won't that sound sweet to our enemies as they swear him in on the Koran!" Perhaps this is an allusion to the Biblical general Barak; it's hard to tell from the context. (Throwing in the extra "Muhammed," though, is a little over the top.) In any case, this is an amusing and cleverly constructed work of sci-fi; I'm grateful to the Davises for contributing to the ongoing parade of absurdist political fan-fiction to entertain Democrats in this exhausting electoral season, and I'm sure I won't have to wait long for them or others to circulate further installments via everybody's great-aunts and second cousins.

Douglas Wolk is the author of Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean and Live at the Apollo.

By Douglas Wolk