Photo from his Flickr photostream, which is cool
Barack Obama is a bit of a strange candidate for America, but very natural in a way. Half-Kenyan, born in Hawaii, living in Indonesia, and representing Illinois, he is not your prototypical American leader. American leaders often either are or purport to be ‘sons of the soil’. There is also a strange dynastic streak running today. If Hillary Clinton was elected that would mean at least 24 years of consecutive rule by either a Clinton or Bush. Presumably in 2020 Laura Bush will find an aged Bin Laden, just as W found Saddam for his dad. Obama is entirely out of that metric, however, as a walking embodiment of globalization. His success is a testament to the true inclusiveness of America, and its status of a nation of change.
Obama is in many ways like myself, a product of the modern age of communications and international travel. By a different shuffle he could be Kenyan, Indonesian or any number of things, but he ended up in Illinois. His sister married a Chinese/Canadian, making his identity that much broader. In many ways this seems un-American, one thinks an American is white and landed in the MidWest, but that is just the temporary view from what is actually a moving entity. America is a nation of immigrants, and in the future it will be a minority white nation. It is also at the center of international commerce and travel, and it is in many ways the natural home for globalized citizens like Obama.
In many countries globalized is a bad word. In many parts of Sri Lanka foreigners cannot buy property, they cannot become citizens in much of the Arab World, and many are simply not allowed into countries like North Korea. It is, however, a natural fact of this world that people will move, intermarry, be born in odd places and move again. One place at the nexus of travel and work is America, and it’s sorta fitting that Obama has emerged. He is a representative of that settlement hope of America, and of the world.
In an age where national borders mean less and less, many culture react by drawing inwards. Trying to freeze one particular moment of their history and saying ‘this is us’. Like Sri Lankans saying ‘we are Sinhala Buddhists, we eat this, we wear this, and we are this’. This neglects one core fact of Buddhism itself, which is impermanence. Any picture of a culture is just that, a momentary photography. Sri Lanka’s people, religion, food and identity are imported, modified and are only distinctly ‘ours’ in the snapshot view. All nations are, in fact, temporary islands in the stream. There is far more that binds us than tears us apart, but the illusory permanence of the nation state causes much suffering in the world.
America is the de facto leader of the free world, by virtue of economy, history and chance. Not elected in any sense, unless you could the dollars flowing that way. As such it is chance that you get a bunch of Germanic/Christian derived white guys messing with the Middle East, but that’s the way things turned out. America is active globally, but its leaders have not been in any way representative. Few have lived abroad, spoken foreign languages or have had to deal with ‘foreigners’ in the very real sense of family. This is not to say that scholarship and the work of statesmanship don’t go along way, but America is still identified as an other. This trend was deeply exacerbated by the aggressive and incompetent foreign policy of Bush, and now America’s image has dropped tremendously across the globe. To quote the Pew Global Attitudes Survey,
Favorable opinions of the United States have fallen in most of the 15 countries surveyed. Only about a quarter of the Spanish public (23%) expresses positive views of the U.S., down from 41% last year; America’s image also has declined significantly in India (from 71% to 56%) and Indonesia (from 38% to 30%).
However, America is still far preferable to that other coming pole of power, China. China represses religions and AIDS activists, harvest organs from prisoners, and backs the worst regimes in Sudan and North Korea. They are a bankrupt shell of ideology, driven more by money and growth than any underlying strength of Constitution. America still has work to do as a global leader, and Obama could do a lot for that with just himself. His father was raised Muslim, his middle name is Hussein (the honored grandson of the Muhammed) and his face could be a great many races. And yet, through all that, American white bread voters seem to like him. I don’t think he’ll hold up in the conservative Democratic primaries, but he is a hope for the future.
Also, as these passages indicate, Obama is something of a blank slate that people project upon. In terms of policy and ideology he’s precious thin, but he does seem to listen, and he does seem like a nice guy. I dunno if that is enough to carry an election, but I certainly think that he would be good for an America struggling to understand itself and its place in the world. America is called the leader of the free world, and Obama certainly has the biography to lead it. Whether he can win an election in America, however, is the question.