Third World anti-colonialism as the key to the policies and decisions of the Obama administration? After reading the Forbes cover story by Dinesh D’Souza, “How Obama Thinks,” I found myself scratching my head.
In D’Souza’s account, the interpretive key to the Obama administration can be found in the anti-colonialist mentality that flourished in post-colonial Africa, a mentality that colored Barack Obama’s father’s way of thinking, as it also influenced so many Third World intellectuals at the time.
This way of thinking recognized that political independence after World War II did not lead to existential independence. The educated classes were cultural dependent on their former colonial cultures, and the economic well-being of the former colonies remained linked to the former colonial powers.
This ongoing dependency was much resented by the first generation of post-colonial intellectuals, which often led to anti-Western sentiments. America was demonized as a dominating economic and political power. The same desire to overcome Western influence led to a naive embrace of socialism as the key to economic independence.
It is entirely understandable that Obama’s father would embrace this way of thinking. D’Souza tells us his Indian relatives did so as well. After all, the American government had a long history of intervention in Latin American politics, and the term “Banana Republic” was coined to describe governments in the pay of the United Fruit Company. A covert operation in 1953 installed the Shah in Iran, a fairly typical episode in the back-and-forth of the Cold War when the U.S. and the Soviet Union treated Third World countries as pawns on a global chessboard.
But does our President think this way? Yes, according to D’Souza, and the evidence he gives is that Obama’s policies are best explained as motivated by anti-colonialism.
Take D’Souza’s first example—Obama’s commitment to “massively subsidize energy production in the developing world.” Last I checked, that was also Exxon’s policy. The oil company is investing in exploration and production all over the world. Because of a commitment to anti-colonialism? No, because that’s where the oil is.
One could go further. Obama is a typical member of the Democratic Party, which is to say beholden to voters very committed to environmentalism. This means restricting energy production in the United States, and since this domestic restriction will drive up energy prices, and thus hurt the American economy, these same Democrats, the President included, are naturally motivated to encourage foreign production to maintain adequate oil supplies (and moderate prices) worldwide.
Or take anther one of D’Souza’s examples—Obamacare reflects an effort to “decolonize” the health sector. I would have thought the old-fashioned liberal desire to task private enterprise to serve political goals a sufficient explanation.
Or another example—the debate about tax policy. Apparently, D’Souza thinks that the current debate about whether the top marginal tax rate should be 34% or 39% amounts to an “anti-colonial crusade.”
What really lost me was D’Souza’s observations about the goofy idea that NASA should contribute to international outreach by including Muslims to help raise their self-esteem. Last I checked, this way of thinking reflects the way most college administrators talk about “inclusion” in education. And in any event, the episode tells us that NASA is currently a government program without a purpose, not a tool of an “anti-colonial” agenda in Washington.
I can’t fathom what made Dinesh D’Souza ignore the obvious. Barack Obama’s policies reflect mainstream postmodern American liberalism, view of the sort one finds on nearly all college campuses in America, in the Nation magazine, and on the editorial pages of the New York Times.
And the influence of Obama’s father? In his biography, Dreams from My Father, Obama emphasizes the importance of his search for an African identity, which culminated in a visit to Kenya and his father’s grave. Obama testifies that his vision of his father inspired him, giving him clarity about who he was—or perhaps more accurately clarity about who he wanted to become.
D’Souza is determined to draw from this a tale of malign influence, which I think is both unwarranted and misguided.
We live in an increasingly rootless society defined by a mad scramble for the credentials necessary to climb the ladder of success—the SAT scores, the elite colleges, the elite law schools, the corporate jobs, and so forth. Both black and white, child of a wandering mother, I don’t doubt that the young Barack Obama knew how soulless this form of life can become.
By contrast, I imagine that Barack Obama, Sr., for all his flaws as a person, was like many Africans whom I have known—deeply loyal to his newly born country, anguished by the sufferings and failures of post-colonial Africa, and however misguided in his political convictions, willing to make personal sacrifices to try to make things better.
In his biography, Obama imagines his father upbraiding him: “You do not work hard enough, Barry. You must help in your people’s struggle. Wake up, black man!” Roughly translated: it’s not all about you and your climb up the career ladder. Stop being selfish and contribute to your community. Not a bad message.
In the end, I’m afraid I have an explanation of D’Souza’s implausible analysis that demoralizes me. D’Souza is determined to redescribe the standard issue postmodern liberalism that Obama embodies into anti-Americanism. It’s an old rhetorical trick, one that is the mirror image of the efforts of the Left to redescribe conservatism as racism and nativism.
But the trick won’t work. It is true that postmodern liberalism does have an anti-American, anti-Western component, but by my analysis, this “anti” component is an inner dynamic of both the West and the American project itself, which has a strongly universalist dimension. The “anti-Americanism” such as it is (I would prefer to call it ambivalent patriotism) should not be seen as an alien intrusion from post-colonial Africa.
It is stultifying, therefore, to play the “he’s anti-American” game. Instead, we need to be debating about the kind of American identity that will most likely sustain the common good.