Dog-Eating and Obama's Identity
What a careful reader will take away from Barack Obama's memoir Dreams from My Father is not only that the president used to eat dog meat, but more importantly, that he identifies with dog-eaters. He wants us to understand that he is one of them. Obama's most severe critics on the right think of Obama as a socialist, for example, Dinesh D'Souza, or Stanley Kurtz in his exhaustively-researched book Radical-in-Chief. Obama used to attend the annual "Socialist Scholars Conference" in New York, which was a hard-core affair; I went to a couple of them, and they weren't for the curious. But there is something far more visceral, more existential to the president's dislike of the United States, and that arises from his early residence in the Third World, and his identification with the people of the Third World whose lives are disrupted by the creative destruction that America has unleashed.
Obama is the son of a Kenyan Muslim father, the stepson of an Indonesian Muslim, and the child, most of all, of an American anthropologist who devoted her career to protecting Indonesian traditional life against the depredations of the global marketplace. Her doctoral dissertation, "Peasant blacksmithing in Indonesia: surviving against all odds," celebrated traditional cultures hanging on desperately in the face of the global economic marketplace.
Ms. Dunham was not only a Communist fellow-traveler, but the sort of 1960s woman who (as we used to say) "put her body on the line," first by marrying two Third World men, and then by spending her career in the Third World. It is no surprise that Obama considers the Third World morally superior to the United States. Consider this description of the Jakarta of his childhood from Obama's autobiography, Dreams from My Father: "And yet for all that poverty [in the Indonesian marketplace], 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 [the Chicago housing projects] so desperate." Obama had chances to compare the orderliness and regularity of traditional life with the rough-and-tumble of American capitalism, and chose to identify with the former.
One has to spend time in the Third World to appreciate how intensely Ann Dunham's boy dislikes America. Once in Lima, around the corner from the Finance Ministry, I watched a father and mother selling chewing gum at a stoplight. At the curb sat a little girl who couldn't have been more than four and probably was younger, taking care of her one-year-old sister. They were indigenous and probably spoke little Spanish. And they would spend the day at the stoplight to earn enough to buy sufficient calories and cooking fuel to keep body and soul together for another day. No wealthy Peruvian would think to fund a soup kitchen; they were more likely to get help from foreign charities, American evangelicals or perhaps the Catholic Church. But there wasn't much help to go around. I gave the four-year-old a few dollars in local currency; she took the money and ran to her parents to show them the manna that had fallen from heaven.
One sees things like this every day, a hundred times a day, in most Third World cities. If you grow up watching this sort of pain around you, and you are told by daddy and step-daddy and mommy that it is the United States of America that is to blame for the pain, you form the sort of attitudes that Obama represented frankly and without disguise in his autobiography.
Globalization -- which ultimately is a good thing -- may be unspeakably destructive for traditional societies in its path. Tens of millions of people are forcibly torn out of their roots. In Thailand, farmers become construction workers in the big cities, and the girls they would have married in their villages become prostitutes. Education and income and health all improve, on average, but the disruption of lives produces immeasurable hurt.
We laugh about it, but people in some Third World countries eat dog meat because they are poor -- not only so poor that they will consume almost any source of protein, but so poor that they cannot afford to enjoy the natural bond between human and canine that began almost 15,000 years ago. For a billion or so people, life is a daily struggle to survive. People who are that poor also sell their daughters into prostitution. Female flesh is almost as cheap as dog meat in parts of the Third World, and for the same reason.
I wrote in February 2008, nine months before Obama was elected:
America is not the embodiment of hope, but the abandonment of one kind of hope in return for another. America is the spirit of creative destruction, selecting immigrants willing to turn their back on the tragedy of their own failing culture in return for a new start. Its creative success is so enormous that its global influence hastens the decline of other cultures. For those on the destruction side of the trade, America is a monster. Between half and nine-tenths of the world's 6,700 spoken languages will become extinct in the next century, and the anguish of dying peoples rises up in a global cry of despair. Some of those who listen to this cry become anthropologists, the curators of soon-to-be extinct cultures; anthropologists who really identify with their subjects marry them. Obama's mother, the University of Hawaii anthropologist Ann Dunham, did so twice.
Obama profiles Americans the way anthropologists interact with primitive peoples. He holds his own view in reserve and emphatically draws out the feelings of others; that is how friends and colleagues describe his modus operandi since his days at the Harvard Law Review, through his years as a community activist in Chicago, and in national politics. Anthropologists, though, proceed from resentment against the devouring culture of America and sympathy with the endangered cultures of the primitive world. Obama inverts the anthropological model: he applies the tools of cultural manipulation out of resentment against America. The probable next president of the United States is a mother's revenge against the America she despised.
It really isn't unfair at all to bring Obama's canine consumption to public attention. The president isn't really one of us. He's a dog-eater. He tells the story in his memoir to emphasize that viscerally, Obama identifies with the Third World of his upbringing more than with the America of his adulthood. It is our great misfortune to have a president who dislikes our country at this juncture in our history.
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