An anthropologist looks at Obama in Laos and sees the harsh truth

Summary: Nobel laureate President Obama visits Laos to the acclaim of the US press. Maximilian Forte looks beneath the celebrity glitter to see harsher truths about our neoliberal elites. It takes the vision of an anthropologist to see through their hypocrisy, pretenses, and lies.

Obama in Laos, 7 Sept 2016
President Obama greets monks on Sept 7 at a Buddhist Temple in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo: AFP – Saul Loeb.

Cosmopolitan Imperialism: Obama Does Anthropology in Laos?

By Maximilian C. Forte.
From Zero Anthropology. Reposted with his generous permission.

Obama, the cerebral son of an anthropologist” — this is how the Associated Press touted soon to be ex-president Barack Obama on his visit to Laos this week. The AP went even further, declaring Obama’s approach “soft diplomacy”. One has to wonder where all of the “soft diplomacy” was in the seven brutal wars simultaneously fought by Obama (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Syria), a number of them pursued illegally (either in violation of international law, or domestically in violation of the War Powers Act), and all with disastrous consequences.

However, it’s good that the AP declared — because this was the real point of their boosterism: “If there was a single day that demonstrated just how different Obama is from Donald Trump this might have been it”. I agree, but it’s not Obama that will survive the comparison. Unfortunately, anthropology also gets a bad name thanks to Obama and the AP.

At a town hall meeting in Laos, Obama took another opportunity to air American laundry in front of a foreign audience. Apparently, Obama feels that the best way he can find sympathetic anti-Trump audiences is by going to the other side of the planet.

Obama praised “multiculturalism,” which as a cerebral former teacher of constitutional law, he would know has no support in the US Constitution. He was asked about “e pluribus unum,” from an Indonesian woman, and he garbled his answer with evasive and anodyne platitudes. According to another AP report

“Obama seized the chance to explain that when times are tough and people feel stressed ‘they turn on others who don’t look like them.’ He said that’s why it’s critical for the U.S. to promote principles that rise above any individual religion, nationality or race”.

However, the point of e pluribus unum is that you do not rise above US nationality, which is singular; you rise to it, if you are an American citizen.

Aside from that, Obama’s response is typically reactionary and elitist, as he has always been since he started campaigning in 2008. He stereotypes, in the worst possible manner, those compatriots who have suffered the worst from neoliberal globalization — talk about a lack of empathy. The dispossessed are ignorant rubes who “cling to guns and religion,” and now outright racists who turn on those who “don’t look like them” (no evidence supplied).

Now imagine if I were to say, “those blacks, they cling to guns”. Some readers would call that racist, and with justification. And if I were to assert, “women cling to religion,” others would respond that it’s sexist. Or I could say, “gays hate those who don’t look like them,” and you might call that homophobic. So why is it uncontroversial for the media elites, like so many others in North America, for Obama to make such contemptuous remarks about — and you know which group he is talking about — white workers? Here is an intersection of racism and classism, but don’t expect any of the “intersectional activists” to speak up about this. And why not? Because in North America today, “identity politics” is a game played for idiots, by idiots, in the original sense of the word “idiot” — the self-absorbed “private person,” the lay narcissist, who so craves a sense of sacred specialness that only membership in a discrete micro-group can offer.

Everybody is a “minority” now, because it is from there that one can launch the most effective complaints of victimhood, which calls for redemption in the form of recognition and special rewards.

Back to white workers: even if Obama was offering an accurate depiction, rather than a grossly classist caricature, does Obama ever ask what caused “tough times”? Not at all, and indeed in his speech “To the People of Laos,” he continues to hammer away in support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which has been actively opposed and criticized by a wide range of academics, politicians, and labour unions, in numerous countries, and which hardly anyone in the US wants.

Obama is not listening — truly the mark of a good anthropologist. Obama is not asking — truly the mark of a cerebral character. Sarcasm aside, Obama is still killing, and that is truly one mark of an imperial president.

In defense of a cosmopolitan stance, Obama chooses to malign Americans, who come from such a broad array of origins that is probably without comparison anywhere else on Earth. He stated…

“If you are the United States, sometimes you can feel lazy and think, you know, ‘we’re so big, we don’t really have to know anything about other people’…. That’s part of what I’m trying to change.”

How is he trying to change it? With carefully staged photo ops?

It’s not surprising, given the stated point of the press such as the AP, that they did not take up Obama on a remark — so Trumpian in character that it’s unmistakable — which he made in his speech to the people of Laos: “Young people in Laos shouldn’t have to move someplace else in order to prosper. You should be able to work and build a better life right here in Laos”. Does Obama not want more Laotians in the US? Is he anti-immigration? Why should Laotians stay in Laos? He also claimed to respect “sovereignty,” but how can sovereignty thrive in a borderless world of free trade?

The fact of the matter is that if the way you express your cosmopolitanism is through endless imperial interventions, the last thing you respect is other cultures. If you think that other cultures do not produce anything of value to themselves, and should import more from abroad, you are not respecting them. If you think the path of the future is toward integration into enormous blocs, where decision-making is removed from local settings and standardizes across all of them, then you do not respect cultural differences, nor sovereignty, nor democracy.

Why do such people choose to play identity politics, when they are so bad at it?

Obama can play anthropologist all he wants, except “getting to know other people” for him was always about getting to know how to dominate them. That’s one reason why the Human Terrain System was institutionalized and made “permanent” under his presidency. Obama declared he was “hip to Margaret Mead,” in the context of a discussion about US foreign policy, intervention overseas, and strategic advantage. This is more than just “cosmopolitan curiosity”; it’s, at best, cosmopolitan imperialism.

So the AP wants us to compare Obama with Trump. Which of these two is so cosmopolitan that he twice married immigrant women? Marriage is a pretty intimate relationship, much more so than jetting off to Laos for a day on Air Force One, and listening to yourself speak once you get there. Also, which of those two men has invested in businesses stretching around the globe? Do we really want to misrepresent Trump so foolishly, by suggesting he is somehow closed, introverted, and isolationist? Like most of the other popularized caricatures of Donald Trump, the anti-immigrant one does not stand up to any testing that requires evidence.

But there are other ways to compare Obama and Trump. For which one of these does national self-determination matter as a paramount principle? This is an important question, because national self-determination is a basic principle of anti-imperialism, and one that sets the conditions necessary for a genuine cosmopolitanism based on mutual respect. (I am not saying Trump is an “anti-imperialist” in any strict sense, and he has never called himself that — more on this in a later essay.) Globalism, of the kind touted by Obama, has succeeded in convincing many that nations should be everything to everyone, open to forced associations and unwanted changes. That’s not respect for cultural difference, and it certainly is no basis for cosmopolitanism.

I hope this answers what should have been AP’s question, instead of its most daft conclusion.

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Maximilian ForteAbout the author

Maximilian C. Forte is a Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal. He is the author of numerous books, most recently Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa (2012) and Emergency as Security (New Imperialism) (2013). See his publications here; read his bio here.  Many of his articles are posted at the FM website…

He writes at the Zero Anthropology website, one of the of the few with an About page well worth reading.

Anthropology after empire is one built in part by an anthropology that is against empire, and it need not continue, defensively, as a discipline laden with all of the orthodoxies from which it suffers today. Indeed, the position taken here is that there can be no real critical anthropology that is not simultaneously critical of (a) the institutionalization and professionalization of this field, and (b) imperialism itself.

Anthropology, as we approach it, is a non-disciplinary way of speaking about the human condition that looks critically at dominant discourses, with a keen emphasis on meanings and relationships, producing a non-state, non-market, non-archival knowledge.

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3 thoughts on “An anthropologist looks at Obama in Laos and sees the harsh truth

  1. This Clinton supporter is prepared to read reasoned critiques of HRC, Obama, AP treatment of Trump, AP treatment of Obama etc. and has been looking to this blog provide such.

    To read this essay and see nothing much but snide asides is very dispiriting, namely:
    “Unfortunately, anthropology also gets a bad name thanks to Obama and the AP.”
    “Apparently, Obama feels that the best way he can find sympathetic anti-Trump audiences is by going to the other side of the planet.”
    “Obama praised “multiculturalism,” which as a cerebral former teacher of constitutional law, he would know has no support in the US Constitution.”
    “…he garbled his answer with evasive and anodyne platitudes”
    “Obama’s response is typically reactionary and elitist, as he has always been since he started campaigning in 2008.”
    “He stereotypes, in the worst possible manner, those compatriots who have suffered the worst from neoliberal globalization — talk about a lack of empathy.”
    “Obama is not listening — truly the mark of a good anthropologist. Obama is not asking — truly the mark of a cerebral character”
    “In defense of a cosmopolitan stance, Obama chooses to malign Americans”
    “How is he trying to change it? With carefully staged photo ops?”

    Good lord, the whole thing is written in this manner. It is blather. I have expected better from this organ. The fact is that the country is split down the middle at the moment between Clinton and Trump. If you truly wish to “reignite the spirit of a nation grown cold” you need to do more than stroke the prejudices of one side. You need to find a way to speak to both.

    Disappointed and unsubscribed.

    1. Scorn,

      The internet overflows with comments by people unhappy with how their side is described. Every post here brings “unsubscribes” by people offended by how their side is treated, people fleeing to the safe hands of confirmation bias.

      More interesting would be comments by people criticizing their friends for false facts, bad logic, and blather. That’s the only way our politics will improve, imo.

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