The Orientalism of Barack Obama

by Terry Scambray

New Oxford Review

Of course the documentary movie, 2016: Obama’s America, was timed by the conservative, Dinesh D’Souza, to discredit the president. Nonetheless, there can’t be much doubt that the president’s vision of America is driven by his attitude toward the perceived sins of European colonialism and his fear that America has now assumed that mantle. The film offers evidence that this is Obama’s vision while suggesting what America would look like by 2016 should the president win re-election.

To support this portrayal of Obama, the film begins by showing how he returned a bust of Winston Churchill which was given by the British to President George W. Bush after 9/11.

According to President Obama, his Kenyan grandfather was tortured and imprisoned by the British though David Maraniss, a sympathetic Obama biographer, discounts that story. Nonetheless, Churchill was Britain’s prime minister during a later uprising which led to Kenyan independence so D’Souza argues that this bad blood caused Obama to hate colonialism and especially the British. This hatred was passed on to Obama through his father, Barack Obama Sr.

But the president’s father deserted him and later only saw him during one month long visit. Besides that, psychological explanations, especially from so long ago, are always tricky, permitting observers to come to opposite conclusions often based upon exactly the same evidence.

A simpler and more direct explanation is that Obama’s attitude toward colonialism was influenced by his professors and the intelligentsia, that herd of independent thinkers who passionately share the same view and around whom Obama has spent his adult life.

The film, for its part, does name the individuals who helped shape the geopolitical outlook of the young Barack Obama, one of the most important of whom is Edward Said whose book Orientalism continues to be an enduring influence in the academy. The book’s theme is that the West has created a mythology about the peoples of Asia and Africa which portrays them, in any final analysis, as inferiors; consequently they have an inferiority complex. Though Said’s book begs to be taken seriously as a complex explanation of what divides East from West, this is its theme plainly put. A couple of essays by Orwell, say “Shooting An Elephant” and “The Hanging,” make the same point with so much more compression and clarity!

Though 2016 spends too much time making the case for the influence Obama’s father had on him, the film does open to a wider audience the reasons why Western Civilization and America are reviled by the intelligentsia. As the argument goes: the Third World is impoverished; therefore, such conditions were caused by richer countries with histories of colonialism. “Inequality” within America, a comparison the film tidily bundles together, is also explained by such poor logic.

This argument is illogical because such impoverished conditions existed prior to the colonialists arrival. That is, if the underdeveloped world was that way before colonialism, some entity besides colonialism must have “underdeveloped” it.

So too slavery existed for hundreds of years before the Europeans arrived, and slavery continued in Asia and Africa long after it had been abolished in the West.

One fact stands out: All societies had slaves, but only the English, at great personal and financial risk, destroyed slavery in their territories which led to the worldwide abolition of it.

Such is the guilt that has been laid on England that this prodigious fact was not even alluded to in its Olympic opening celebration in London this past July!

Yes, the colonialists did exploit and brutalize native peoples as the Belgians did in Central Africa and the Portuguese in Angola. But, just as in many comparable situations, “blame” exists because the European colonizers did not live up to their own Judaic Christian standards. Certainly by the standards operating among the subject peoples, the West did nothing wrong because such standards didn’t exist in the various tribal societies who themselves saw slavery as well as exploiting others and the environment as normal.

If the critics of colonialism were sincere, they would be critical of, say, the Turkish Ottoman Empire which lasted over 600 years and engaged in incessant wars of aggression and genocide. Nor does the Soviet empire ever seem to be included in this discussion with its policies of starvation, torture, mass murder and enslavement of millions of people.

Ignoring the savagery of others while demeaning the West is but another example of the way in which “hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue”; that is, hypocrites acknowledge virtue each time they rely on it as a standard against which to measure vice.

For neither the Ottomans, the Soviets nor assorted others contributed a religious ethic, a democratic system, or technology which improved the lot of their subject people. In fact, nobody would even expect these evil empires to be measured by such a standard! By contrast, Western colonialism was like the bee that takes nectar from a flowering plant, but in doing so it also deposits pollen which insures the fecundity and productivity of the plant.

This point is made in the most intriguing scene in the film when D’Souza interviews the president’s half-brother, George Obama, who lives on a few dollars a month in a hut in Nairobi, Kenya. George Obama, himself an author with a mellow sense of irony, argues in his book, Homeland, that Kenya would have been better off by staying longer under British rule. And he points to Malaysia and Singapore as more economically advanced than Kenyabecause they remained as colonies longer.

Another memorable part of the film is a re-enactment which shows a young D’Sousa departing from his native India to come to the United States. We see him hugging his parents and others, getting into a taxi, and as the taxi moves away, waving soberly back at his family and friends, closing that chapter of his life forever.

Though the scene is a bit chalky, it stirs memories of how it was for our ancestors who left their families to come to America. And just as D’Souza’s attitude toward America conflicts with Obama’s, this scene intensifies this main conflict in the film, a conflict between the hope and expectation in this farewell scene and those individuals in the rest of the film who hold a grudge against the West and particularly America.

As 2016 shows, America itself has a strand of anti- colonialism dating back to her Revolutionary War with the British. But the anti-colonialism explored in2016 is an alien concoction composed mostly of neo-Marxism with a smidgen of post-Victorian disillusionment, a left over from British elites who self-righteously presided over the decline of their colonial empire.

As for Karl Marx, he had no animus against colonialism, seeing it as merely another stage in society’s evolution upward to its inevitable utopian destination. But in order to survive, Marxism requires victims, and by the end of the 19th-century things were improving, especially in the United States where our ancestors were immigrating to by the millions.

By the 1920’s, Lenin, ensconced in the Kremlin, realized that his “worker’s paradise” was being upstaged by America’s “melting pot.” By then he had read John Hobson, one of those British intellectuals disillusioned with colonialism. Despite capitalism’s success, Hobson offered the thesis that capitalism was actually riding on the backs of colonized peoples. Needing some oxygen for his theories of oppression to survive on, Lenin seized upon these colonized peoples as victims of capitalism’s global reach. Others since then have parroted the same line.

Too bad Barack Obama is among them.

©2012 Terry Scambray

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