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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