How Natives Think: About Presidents, For Example

One of the stories that American conservatives used to tell about themselves in the 1960s and 1970s was that they were the ones with the ideas, the people who had a structured, rigorous philosophy, the people who had intellectual standards and did their homework. In this self-flattering vision, liberals were described as emotion-driven, careless about the facts, and indebted to a hodgepodge assembly of ideas largely designed to support their own will to power.

Most American conservatives wouldn’t even bother with such a fable now, not the least because the circumstances which gave rise to this vision are about as remote from the present political scene as phlogiston is from contemporary chemistry. Sure, there are a few lost generation conservatives who try to imagine themselves as heirs to Buckley or Russell Kirk while also trying to suck up to the intensely anti-intellectual zeitgeist of Palin-Fox News conservatives. In a couple of cases, the painful Rube-Goldberg contortions that follow endear me to such figures: poor old Ross Douthat, for example, who seems dislodged from his proper place and time, a happier man had he graduated from Harvard in 1974.

In other cases, these are among the most pathetic, absurd figures in American public culture. Dinesh D’Souza is the chief example of this group. D’Souza was one of the first collegiate products of the funding largesse of self-proclaimed conservative intellectuals, bred in the mad science laboratory of the Dartmouth Review. His writing has always tried to simulate erudition while also looking for the perfect rhetorical dirty trick, the bad-boy zinger that would puncture the pretentions of his liberal contemporaries. It kind of worked back in his salad days, but the act these days comes off like watching Gallagher smash one more watermelon.

The only real shock at this point in time comes from a magazine like Forbes, which I would have thought wanted to hold on to some sense of discretionary judgment, publishing a weird bit of decomposing D’Souza nonsense about Obama’s indebtedness to his father’s anticolonialism.

D’Souza’s understanding of anticolonialism in this article isn’t even wrong. It reminds me of that rare (around here, at any rate) annoying undergraduate writer who produces unanimous amused disdain among professors of any ideological or pedagogical slant, the kind of student who simultaneously:

a) very obviously did none of the assigned reading;
b) makes shit up based on a garbled mixture of stuff they overheard drunk adults at their parents’ parties say, stuff that their junior high school sports coach/history teacher/fringe political activist used to say, and stuff they kind of remember seeing on Wikipedia somewhere;
c) adopts a rhetorical pose that is 50% bombast and 50% faux-erudition.

It’s the kind of stuff that barely qualifies the writer to be a forum troll, let alone published in a mass-circulation magazine.

African anticolonialism in the 1950s and 1960s didn’t entail any specific view of the state, capitalism, globalization, liberalism, or the desirability of French cuisine. Among the anticolonial activists of Barack Obama Senior’s generation across Africa were devoted American allies in the Cold War, explicitly pro-capitalist figures, hardcore cultural conservatives, devoutly Catholic or Christian leaders, anarchists, socialists, Anglophiles and Francophiles, Maoists, and so on. You name it. The hard thing is to find any African of that time who had a secondary school education or higher and was overtly procolonial, though there are some interesting cases who I think historians should study much more than we do.

Among the many things D’Souza gets confused about is the relationship between anticolonialism and the belief that Africa (or other postcolonial societies) needed to struggle against neocolonialism, the ongoing intervention of former colonial powers and new hegemons like the United States and the Soviet Union. I’m certainly one of the most skeptical people in my field about whether neocolonialism was as powerful or coherent as some figures then and now claim it was, but come on, Francophone Africans weren’t hallucinating all those times that the French landed paratroopers in postcolonial Africa to rearrange governments to their liking. Or that the currency of Francophone Africa was tied to the French franc. Or that various postcolonial autocrats were bought off as proxies by Cold War powers on all sides.

In any event, what various anticolonial Africans of Obama Sr’s generation thought about neocolonialism as an issue was as diverse as what they thought about colonialism itself. Many of them quickly turned their political vision to local struggles rather than international ones. Prominent Luo intellectuals and politicians in Kenya were a great example of this turn, including Obama Sr. What Obama Sr. was, and many anticolonialists (but not all) became, is a nationalist. But considering that nationalism is one of the animating spirits of much of the American right at the moment, maybe D’Souza judges it best not to use that word.

The point is, even if Obama actually did feel some distant loyalty to his father’s struggles, that’s roughly as specific an object of attraction as my youthful sense of romantic connection to Irish nationalism based on growing up listening to “The Rising of the Moon”, watching Darby O’Gill and the Little People and occasionally hearing my grandfather growl some vague bullshit about his parents from Ireland and how the British were bastards. E.g., an impact on my adult politics somewhere between null and not-a-fucking-drop. Obama’s utterly mainstream American moderate liberalism doesn’t need any more complicated geneaology than FDR begat Truman begat Johnson begat Tip O’Neill begat Clinton: anything else is pure racial dog-whistling.

Which is where D’Souza’s sad devotion to the ancient religion of “conservatives have ideas and facts and knowledge” really becomes apparent. Reading the article is like watching some aging free spirit of the 1920s limp with a cane into a crowd of 1968 Yippies and awkwardly try to hang out with the new counterculturalists. You don’t need to even pretend to have done some research or read something now, Dinesh: you can just go straight to the crazy frothing at the mouth. The rough new beasts already got to Bethlehem long since. Catch up.

Still, there is one moment where D’Souza at least reveals fairly nakedly what the new narrative of cultural conservatism has become. See, the thing is, he also knows what anticolonialism is, no research required, because he’s a native of Mumbai. That is as perfect a distillation of the kind of identity politics that American conservatives used to find a risible addiction of the left, the assertion that identity confers automatic authority. (If nothing else, it’s a weird bit of first-as-tragedy then-as-farce looping back to Obeyesekere and Sahlins’ debate.)

Still, here at least D’Souza reads his audience well. The baseline character of all identity politics finds its truest expression in contemporary cultural conservatism in the United States, and pretty well underscores Micaela di Leonardo’s prescient observations about its reactionary origins. In many ways, post-1970 identity politics and multiculturalism were a rhetorical refurbishing of earlier 20th Century hard-knuckle ethnic struggles for influence and spoils in urban politics. As conservatives have cast themselves more and more as one more identity entitled to their share (and more) because of who they were and because of ‘historic oppression’, not because of the substance or empirical validity of their thought, it’s not surprising that they’ve more and more explicitly converged on a narrowly circumscribed racial and class identity as well.

As with all cases of mobilization around identity, the more powerful the claims about a natural alignment between a political ideology and a particular race/class/gender, the more that this construct allows people who really don’t fit the visible requirements to strategically perform their belonging. Just as upper-middle class African-Americans have sometimes argued that their experience of race trumps class and thus aligns their interests with all individuals in their identity category, so now are wealthy plutocrats in the Republican Party able to argue that they’re neither of government nor wealth and so belong to and with the struggling angry white men and women of Tea Parties around the nation.

As also, perhaps, certain natives of Mumbai.

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One Response to How Natives Think: About Presidents, For Example

  1. laura says:

    I think “a rhetorical pose that is 50% bombast and 50% faux-erudition” is a pretty accurate description of me in college, although I did do at least some of the reading. And I did quote my parents a lot, although that may be a hazard of growing up with opinionated PhDs.

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