Thursday, March 13, 2008

Obama's Real Tribe

I make occasional observations about the two Democratic candidates. Mostly, I consider the nomination process to be an internal matter for the members of that party, which I shouldn’t necessarily weigh in on. I do give myself permission to comment when more general social issues come up in the context of the campaign.

Barack Obama is a member of the Arts & Humanities Tribe. He does not transcend race so much as embodying two of the largest Democratic tribes, the A&H and African-American (other tribes in that party would be Seniors, especially ethnic, Roosevelt types; Union members, especially government unions; Single mothers). Americans may be transcending race by seriously considering him for the presidency, but he himself does not. He has week support among Hispanics and Asian-Americans.

Despite all the hoopla about his bigoted church, I think the A&H tribal loyalty is primary for Barack, African-American secondary. There are the obvious tells of Harvard law and Michelle’s profession, but those aren’t infallible signs. What people say in unguarded moments is often a better indicator. I don’t pretend to read his heart, but a particular comment has stuck with me as significant. It got some press two weeks ago when Obama said the change he is looking for is when a little girl can go abroad and be proud to say she is an American. Let’s unpack that statement a bit. Go abroad. It doesn’t say when talking with immigrants or tourists here. It is not the phrase one uses when serving in the military, being a missionary, or building houses with Habitat. “Going abroad” are the words we use when traveling for pleasure as tourists, or living in a foreign country for work or study. We don’t mean St. Kitts or Aruba, either, or Cancun. Mostly we mean Europe, though Cairo, Jakarta, Buenos Aires, or Calcutta also qualify. One goes abroad to destinations that have a certain cachet. The wealthy go abroad.

The Obamas have little girls, don’t they?

Every person who has ever mentioned to me being embarrassed or worried about being an American in another country has been an arts & humanities liberal. My favorite irony thus far has been the psychologist who denied that the US was in much danger from Middle-eastern countries (thus, we should never have gone to Iraq), but cautioned me about looking too American – for my own safety – when traveling in Eastern Europe. Where, I will remind you, they generally like Americans. Even the paranoid traumatised older Eastern Europeans who are suspicious of everyone don’t attack Americans – just refuse to serve them in restaurants.

Most Americans who go overseas aren’t embarrassed about us. Only the ones who go abroad are. Also, I don’t recall that there is a lot of pressure from the locals that Americans be embarrassed when they go to India, Japan, or even China. Certainly the Poles and the Bulgarians don’t ask us to apologize. Heck, I don’t think there’s a general resentment against American visitors in Saudi, the Philippines, or Senegal, though each have their pockets of hatred for us.

When Malia Obama’s friends take their junior year abroad, they don’t want to have to keep apologizing for being Americans. I submit that this is more than half of what Obama meant when he made that comment. They will be visiting A&H tribe members in other countries, and don’t want the associated odor of all the other Americans clinging to them like poor country cousins visiting their city relatives. The rantings of Rev. Jeremiah Wright blaming America for 9-11 and saying “God Damn America” fit with this. It is the one common cause that the movers and shakers of these two large Democratic tribes share – they don’t have much else in common.

To sell this idea to the other Democratic tribes which are generally not anti-American, the 20% of Americans who are progressives have to package it as hope/change/a better future. It’s best to keep that vague, as the change that social workers and comp lit professors are envisioning is rather different than the one the diner waitress with two kids is thinking of. Obama is a godsend to these A&H liberals. He is one of them, but they can pretend he is a Man of The People because he’s you know, a brother. That he doesn’t actually fit that description is inconvenient, but not an insurmountable marketing problem. They have packaged him as a human Rorschach, where everyone gets to see what they want.


Anonymous said...

As a member of the Science and Technology tribe who worked in foreign countries,and was fluent in the language of the countries I worked in, I use the term "worked overseas." I most likely did not use that term when I was only a tourist.

I might add that while I never was an Obama supporter, that particular application of "an America we can be proud of" really stuck in my craw. My working overseas was instrumental in changing from a "progressive" of the left into an "evil right winger." From an overseas perspective, the US isn't that bad,isn't that bigoted etc.

For example, I was invited into two homes which featured prominently displayed portraits of Hitler, something I have never seen in the US.In my estimation, anyone who uses the term "an America we can be proud of" is showing his or her parochialism.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Thanks for the confirmation.

Anonymous said...


After many years "abroad," I must second your last sentence. Nothing angers me more than the stupid Hollywood types who have made millions making America look evil, stupid, and sleazy and then blame everyone else because the world sees us that way. For all their fake sophistication, they don't have a clue.