Obama as anthropologist

FT columnist Simon Kuper has written the best profile of President Barack Obama that I have ever seen. Here are extracts from his outstanding column.

Obama … has identified the “dominant figure in my formative years” as his mother, Ann Dunham. She was an anthropologist — a scholar who studies foreign cultures. Being an anthropologist’s son myself (though, unlike Obama, I actually was born in east Africa), I’ve always sensed that the family business explains a lot about his presidency. ….

When he was six, his mother took him to Indonesia, where she had married a local man. There she began what became her magnum opus: a study of peasant blacksmiths on Java. ….

Aged 10, he returned to Hawaii, where he was born, to live with his grandparents but he continued visiting his mother in Indonesia. ….

Even in Hawaii, Obama remained an outsider. The state was nearly five hours’ flight from the continental US, and hardly any black people lived there. …. It’s wrong to understand Obama chiefly as a product of his ethnic identity, or as a mainstream American liberal like his mother. Rather, he wasn’t raised in any group.

The “birther” jibes, therefore, aren’t simple racism against a black president. After all, although black Americans suffer horrible discrimination, hardly anyone questions their Americanness. Instead, birthers are pointing up Obama’s perceived foreignness.

Viewing the US from the outside, President Obama never seems to have bought the notion that it is an exceptional country with a superior culture and God-given duty to save the world. Asked on his first trip overseas as president whether he believed in American exceptionalism, he replied: “I believe in American exceptionalism. Just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism, and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

That upset some voters. Obama can seem apart from his own country, haughty, almost a foreigner in the White House.

Simon Kuper, “Barack Obama: anthropologist-in-chief“, Financial Times, 22 September 2016 (metered paywall).

There is much more in the full column. If you are not a subscriber to FT, I encourage you to register at the link above for a free download of Mr Kuper’s essay.

British journalist Simon Kuper was born in Uganda of South African parents in 1969. His father was an anthropologist. Mr Kuper studied History and German at Oxford University and now lives in Paris with his family.


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