Obama: the 21st century tabula rasa

My personal feeling is that, while Obama may one day turn into a something, right now he’s pretty much a nothing: a very intelligent, but as yet untried man, with limited experience, and superficial views. What I’m gathering, though, is that on the Left, this very blankness is what makes him so appealing. He becomes a projection of everyone’s beliefs, hopes and desires. He’s a charming, smart, living version of Jerzy Kosinksi’s Chance the Gardener, in Being There.

An example of this projection is Steven Barnes’ conclusion that Obama’s appeal lies in the fact that he is not the descendent of slaves. Thus, Barnes believes that we Americans look at Obama and, because he is historically untainted by slavery, we are able to view him with internal conflict and guilt, allowing as to help him with his meteoric rise.

Actually, my view about Obama’s African heritage is quite different. I think it matters, but not because it means I can be guilt-free when thinking about him. I think it matters because he doesn’t have attitude. This was a boy who was never teased for “being white;” who was never raised to believe that, because slavery was labor, all labor is slavery; who didn’t look at white culture as an oppressive force against which he must fight — meaning he must reject the trappings of education and professionalism. Instead, this guy, raised by a white mother with a white ethos, and without the cultural baggage of most African Americans, was able to give free rein to his intelligence. In other words, his African-ness matters, not to us, but to him, in that it freed him to become an accomplished, successful man without a chip on his shoulders.* (You see, I do think he’s an okay guy. I just think he’d make a lousy president.)

I also found Barnes’ Obama essay interesting for a little statement that Barnes snuck right into his discussion about Obama’s upbringing:

He was born in Hawaii. His parents divorced when he was two and four years later his mother moved the family to Jakarta for four years before returning to Honolulu. In other words, he was surrounded by a truly multicultural society, and came to understand this as a natural, health thing.

I’m confused about the “multicultural society” bit. Where does that come from? Is Hawaii any more multicultural than any big urban environment in America? San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York — these are all swirly cities, with a vast range of ethnic diversity. When I was in high school in San Francisco, one of the public schools boasted that its student population spoke over 27 different languages. And Jakarta? Now that is not a multicultural society at all. The majority of the residents are Malayan, and the vast majority of the residents are Muslim. Non-Malayan, non-Muslim residents are treated as second or third class citizens, and always have been. (The Chinese, for example, used to be the Jews of Indonesia — they were the merchant class and were subject to extreme discrimination, something that may still be true for all I know.)

So what it really boils down to, I think, is that in Barnes’ vocabularly, multiculturalism means “not white.” This is a far cry from it’s boasted definition, which is “a mix of everything.” I like the latter meaning; I, as a white person, have problems with the former.

Barnes’ essay also struck me because he makes such a huge deal about knowing your family lineage. Maybe this is just the blank emotional side of my brain, but I still don’t understand why that matters so much. My family history, to the extent I know it, is amusing, but much of my family’s pre-WWII history vanished in the gas chambers. My parents came to America and we began to make our American history. We are our hard work, our education, the communities we live in, the children we have. To the extent I have a “history,” it’s as an American and as a Jew — and both of these are not personal to me, but reflect my understanding of a shared cultural background with these groups. I don’t need to trace myself back to George Washington or to George Washington Carver to feel as if I matter. I’m an American. I matter.


*On the subject of African-Americans’ own struggles with their post-slave identity, I recommend John McWhorter’s Losing the Race : Self-Sabotage in Black America.

UPDATE: See Teri O’Brien’s American Thinker article about the anointing of Obama.

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  • JJ

    I wouldn’t necessarily even agree with your assertion that he’s very intelligent – have you looked into his book?

    An eight year old intellect at work.

    Okay, okay, I’ve heard he didn’t write it too, but presumptively he did have something to do with choosing the ghost and did have some level of approval over what appeared in the pages.

    Holy cow! Is there an adult in the room?

  • http://helenl.wordpress.com/ helenl

    I don’t think you’re “confused about the

  • Zhombre

    To me Obama — especially on the Time magazine cover — look like one of those CG images, so popular a few years ago, that is meticulously morphed to show a “multicultural” America in the future.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com/ ymarsakar

    You have quite a perceptive outlook on the shame culture that predominates black neighborhoods, Book.

    Such foolishishness and arrogance is nothing new, there have been many cultures and people that demonstrated such.

  • Carol

    I’m with you on the ancestry business, Bookworm. One of my sisters suffers from what Florence King dubbed “Tombstone Twitch” and she got it from other relatives, but I subscribe to Robert Heinlein’s view: anyone who is certain of his ancestry more than three generations back is taking the short end of a sucker bet. Doesn’t matter what the kennel papers say; you are what you are and who your great-grandparents were has no bearing on you other than how they treated their children, and how those children treated their children (your parents). Given that the records at the county courthouse don’t contribute any of that kind of knowledge, I don’t see the importance of knowing that your family came to these shores in the 1600s or the 1950s.

  • http://helenl.wordpress.com/ helenl

    Carol is decribing the melting pot; I prefer fruit salad.

  • jg

    helenl, you may be apt in your point, but not in applying it to George Washington.

    In fact, most of the historians I have recently read (Ellis, McCullough are two) say Washington was
    was essential. He was the Republic. Why?

    He was first. He set the most important precedents for his office. There were some, maybe many, who would have acceded to a form of monarchial leadership for America. Washington led us otherwise.

    People of his time, most people (the 13 states were a variegated bunch, more so than we today) trusted Washington. Revisionists today may ask why? but the fact remains. Easily his most important asset was his character. That’s unimaginably different from today’s politics. His was unimpeachable.

    John Adams gloomed that men formed a Washington deity; it was almost that. We needed such. The country was a wobbly entity during the formative years after the Peace Treaty of 1783. Most of Europe was waiting for us to fail. Washington’s mere presence calmed a new country. One historian I consulted said that the Constutional Convention would possibly have failed without his presence. He would make the first Presidential tour and find crowds eager to march around him in every state. He was the symbol of American promise.

    As far as my own thinking about PResidents, many Americans of Washington’s time accepted the idea of Providence. Washington himself professed the term. When one looks at the twists and turns in our history, one might choose to join their thinking, especially as it applies to Presidents. From Lincoln, to FDR, to Reagan, to GW Bush
    , America has possessed a leader at critical times who answered the big question. Americans may quibble about the specific policies, thinking, or actions of each of the leaders. But, as was true with George Washington, each leader kept us afloat in a time when it mattered.

    I think that’s a mark we must set for Mr. Obama, as well as other pretenders. During the years after Kennedy, I feel American has suffered as a country when we have chosen weak, foolish leaders. Who will give us strength and character in our present time of crisis?
    That’s the big question.

    (BTW, John Ferling’s ‘A Leap in the Dark,’ chronicles the vicissitudes of the period. Might the colonies have sought
    separate peace agreements; I think Maryland tried. Might England have kept the South through her late war strategy, allowing only theother colonies their freedom? What about the forces who wanted a French/English West beyond the Appalachians, penning the struggling ‘free colonies’ along the Eastern seaboard, sooner or later to be snatched back by G. Britain. Fascinating glimpses of what could have been in Mr. Ferling’s study.)

  • Lulu

    Yes Helen, fruit salad is tasty as long as people remember the American motto, “y pluribus unum”, or “from many, one,” and live by it. The motto is clearly not, “y pluribus plurum” (my guess as to what the Latin would be). Our founding fathers wanted immigrants to forge an American identity. We all have cultural customs from wherever our ancestors or relatives hail from, but our country was made strong by the fact that wherever we came from we could become American. I prefer the melting pot. Immigrants choose to come to America, and therefore should embrace the American identity and value system they chose to come to, even while they continue to enjoy food, customs, etc from the old world. In other words, if fruit salad brings shariah to America, I’d infinitely prefer that it get melted down and vanish into the American value system rather than have shariah as just one more salad ingredient.

  • jg

    Woodrow Wilson likewise should not be ignored for his leadership in time of war. I’ve always admired him (I have a copy of his life of Washington).
    I just don’t know enough about him.

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