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.
The history of the West is not exactly spotless, either. I wrote in the first “Spengler” column for Asia Times Online in 2000:
Item: After the conquest of the New World, Spain’s entire capture of precious metals went to India and China to pay for luxury cloth and spices. That did for approximately 90 percent of the indigenous pre-Colombian population.
Item: The African slave trade instituted by the Portuguese and later the British first produced sugar in Brazil and the Caribbean, to be turned into cheap intoxicants for the European market. Tobacco was a second absorber of slave labor. Cotton became important much later. Production of these vices did for a third of the West African population.
Item: In order to sell cheap cotton cloth to India, the East India Company arranged for Indians to grow opium and for Chinese to buy it. All the silver mined in Latin America, which two centuries earlier had passed to China to pay for silks, found its way back to Europe to pay for opium. That did for untold millions of Indians and Chinese.
Does the Internet shrink the world? How can we compare it to an earlier technological revolution, namely ocean navigation – including breakthroughs in astronomy, shipbuilding, time measurement, map-making? At the end of the day, silks, cottons, coffee, tea, spices, sugar, rum and tobacco ruined four continents.
College students chase fads to find “authenticity,” and may linger for a time in the neo-colonialist fad. Stanley Ann Dunham married into the Third World, twice. It left an indelible impression on Barack Obama, by his account in Dreams of My Father, who kept going back to
…my childhood, back to the markets of Indonesia: the hawkers, the leather workers, the old women chewing betel nut and swatting flies off their fruit with whisk brooms. … I saw those Djakarta markets for what they were: fragile, precious things. The people who sold their goods there might have been poor, poorer even than folks out in Altgeld [the Chicago housing project where Obama engaged in community organizing]. They hauled fifty pounds of firewood on their backs every day, they ate little, they died young. And yet for all that poverty, there remained in their lives a discernible order, a tapestry of trading routes and middlemen, bribes to pay and customs to observe, the habits of a generation played out every day beneath the bargaining and the noise and the swirling dust. It was the absence of such coherence that made a place like Altgeld so desperate, I thought to myself.
Like his senior counselor and Chicago mentor Valerie Jarrett, who spent her first five years in Iran, Obama did not merely study the colonial experience. He lived it.
For all its blemishes, the United States of America is mankind’s last, best hope. Americans are brands plucked out of the fire. We cannot save cultures that will not adapt to modernity. At best we can prevent their decline from hurting us. But Obama’s identification with the Third World, and the Muslim world in particular, is pre-rational; it is not an idea he learned in school, but an existential commitment. He will accommodate its irrationality and self-destructiveness to the point of absurdity, no matter what the cost to American security. He is no Jimmy Carter, who belatedly took a hard line against the Soviets after the December 1979 Afghanistan invasion. He has done more to undermine America’s standing in the world than any president in history, and the consequences of his re-election are horrible to imagine.