There is a school of thought, ably represented by First Things editor R.R. Reno, that blames the leftward drift in American higher education for Barack Obama’s resentment of the United States, rather than his Third World upbringing. The estimable Dr. Reno, who is a friend and former colleague, called D’Souza’s film 2016 “misguided” in a recent post on the FT blog:
I was and remain unconvinced by the argument that Obama’s anti-colonialist father explains his governing mentality. By my reckoning, the emerging postmodern liberalism of Columbia University circa 1982 (where I was for a semester as a visiting student) explains Obama pretty well.
Not only do we not need to go to Kenya to find the sources of Obama’s worldview (the Ivy League will do just fine), but in fact the very realistic and at times cold-blooded sentiments of post-colonial Africans who wrested their futures out of the hands of their European masters cuts against the magical thinking that characterizes the sort of liberalism that the Obama White House represents.
Rusty’s got a point — I got a B.A. from Columbia a few years earlier at a time when you could read one book by Marx and one by Freud (as the joke went) and pass any course in the college. But D’Souza has a better point. My own reading has a minor difference with D’Souza’s (the key figure in Obama’s mind is his anthropologist mother rather than is absent Kenyan father), but we are on the same page: Obama is an alien intrusion into American political life, a Third-World anthropologist profiling us. D’Souza may not be not as smart as Rusty Reno (few people are) but he has an advantage: he grew up in the Third World and knows what it means to actually be there.
What’s the difference between growing up in the Third World, and taking an Ivy League course in neocolonial studies? It’s about the same as the difference between sex education, and sex. I’m an unabashed globalizer and modernizer (I wrote a book warning that the extinction of most of the world’s cultures was inevitable), but some awful things happen en route to modernity. I’ve spent a lot of time in poor countries of the Global South as an economist and banker, and there have been moments when I wished I was a Communist. One sees heart-wrenching poverty and humiliation, and there are days when it would do the heart good to put some people up against a wall.
I saw a three-year old girl caring for her one-year-old sister while her parents tried to sell chewing gum at a traffic light in Lima.
I saw a thousand elderly people gathered in an impromptu flea market in the dead of winter, selling pathetic pieces of used clothing for the price of a meal, a few hundred yards from the Kremlin.
I saw garbage pickers living atop toxic rubbish in half a dozen countries.
It’s one thing to read about this kind misery; it’s another to see it first-hand and frequently; and it’s still another thing to grow up with it. There are any number of good and decent people I know who hate the West for the misery it occasioned (although they know perfectly well that the local ruling class is more predatory than the worst Western colonialist). Some of them are friends and colleagues at Asia Times Online. Their point of view is understandable. The difference between them and President Obama is that they do not lie about what they believe.