Obama, Edward Said, and the Politics of Identity
September 30, 2012 6 Comments
This month’s issue of Standpoint magazine features an editorial on one of Obama’s lesser-known intellectual influences. Of all the relationships from Obama’s past, this is one of the most troubling. And yet, when it comes to Barack Obama and Edward Said, its hard to think of two people with more similar personal histories and characters.
Barack Obama was first introduced to the postmodernist professor Edward Said when he took a class of his at Columbia University in 1982. There is no mention of this in the otherwise highly revealing Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. It warrants a mention in the more recent Barack Obama: The Story by David Maraniss. According to Maraniss, the young Obama was not impressed with Said’s over-theoretical approach and his handling of the class. Obama apparently called Said a “flake” when he handed back the students’ papers late and suddenly cancelled the class for the next term.
How much did Said’s ideas influence Obama? It would be going too far to say that he inspired Obama to become an Alinsky-style community organizer in Chicago, as Standpoint actually suggests. Obama was heading down that route well before 1982. Obama would, however, meet Said several times as a political ally and friend when climbing the political ladder in the 1990s:
I don’t want to go so much into the links between Edward Said’s Orientalism and Barack Obama’s own worldview, if there is any. What I find more interesting in this case is the personal identities of the two men, and how they have presented their narratives. Here we find remarkable similarities. I believe both Obama and Said largely invented their personal narratives in order to make gains in their respective fields as well as to serve ideological goals.
In the case of Obama, I highly recommend Steve Sailer’s masterwork America’s Half-Blood Prince: Barack Obama’s “Story of Race and Inheritance”, which is a thoughtful analysis of Obama’s intellectual and ideological foundations based on his own 1995 autobiography. This book is very different in style and content from Obama’s Audacity of Hope in 2006, for understandable reasons.
Sailer examines the obsession Obama had, from a very young age, over whether he was “black enough” to be a black leader. Obama had good reason to doubt his ‘blackness’. After all, he was mostly raised by his devoted white grandparents in Hawaii, where he enjoyed a very privileged upbringing and went to the finest schools. It was clearly difficult for Obama to write Dreams from My Father as a book of suffering and conflict, as he tries to do in order to (as Sailer says) “turn himself into an authentic angry black man”. Given that most of his troubles lay solely within his own head, the Obama of this book comes off as a mere self-obsessed whinger.
Every aspect of Obama is incredibly politicized. In Dreams, Obama admits he “ceased to advertise my mother’s race at the age of twelve or thirteen, when I began to suspect that by doing so I was ingratiating myself with whites”. Part of this act was his fundamental decision to identify with his black scoundrel and bigamist of a biological father – who abandoned him at the age of two and his mother at 19 – over the white family that actually raised him. His mother, Ann Dunham, was possibly at fault here. As she grew to resent her Indonesian second husband, in part due to his business activities with Americans, she began to ingrain the young Obama with romantic notions of his Kenyan father, an anti-western socialist. Ann would leave her son with his grandparents in Hawaii on two occasions; the second time to do research for her 1067-page anthropological dissertation with the hilarious title of Peasant Blacksmithing in Indonesia: Surviving and Thriving Against All Odds.
While living in New York, Obama even made the decision to break up with his serious white girlfriend of a year for reasons of race: “Well… there was a woman in New York that I loved. She was white… I pushed her away… She couldn’t be black, she said. She would if she could, but she couldn’t. She could only be herself, and that wasn’t enough”. Eventually he would marry a woman named Michelle, another figure obsessed with her own blackness. Michelle’s doctoral dissertation at Princeton is called Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community. That’s seven words, two of them ‘black’.
Across 460 pages of Dreams, Barack Obama never strays from the subject of race, and never ceases to agonize over his “racial credentials”. He claims that from the age of ten “I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America, and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant”. Because of the desperate shortage of racial tension and black people in Hawaii, he actually had to learn about being black from “TV, movies, the radio; those were places to start. Pop culture was color-coded, after all, an arcade of images from which you could cop a walk, a talk, a step, a style”. He found meaning in his blackness and the grievance he developed against the race of his own mother and grandparents in Hawaii. The happiest moment in this autobiography is when his alcoholic half-brother Roy’s converts to Islam and asserts his black identity by changing his name to Abongo.
The case of Edward Said is similarly absurd, but at least he didn’t have to learn about being an Arab from TV. Like Obama, Said manufactured a narrative, downplaying a wealthy upbringing in Egypt and America in favor of portraying himself as a Palestinian refugee. This issue briefly came to public attention in 1999 when an Israeli-American lawyer and academic by the name of Justus Reid Weiner claimed to have found proof that Said lied about much of his early life. These allegations have been hotly contested. Here, I will stick to what we do know about Edward Said.
In a 1998 issue of the London Review of Books, Said reminisced: “I was born in Jerusalem and spent most of my formative years there… after 1948… my entire family became refugees, in Egypt”. Said claimed that he and his family were kicked out of their “beautiful old house” in the wealthy Arab neighborhood of Talbiya, Jerusalem. He frequently posed dramatically before this building during a documentary film he did that same year for the BBC, called In Search of Palestine.
What Said did not make clear is that his aunt owned the house in Talbiya. Said’s immediate family often visited Jerusalem and stayed in the house, part of which was also the Yugoslavian consulate. Edward Said was born in Jerusalem on one of these trips, but the family’s permanent address recorded on his birth certificate is in Cairo and the line for a local address is left blank. Said’s father, Wadie (or William), was an American citizen and permanent resident of Cairo nine years prior to his son’s birth in 1935. There he owned and ran the very successful Standard Stationery Company, which grew to include a branch in Alexandria in 1929 and eventually a second store in Cairo itself. Said’s mother Hilda (or Musa), a Christian born in Nazareth, but of Lebanese extraction, moved to Cairo on marrying Wadie in 1932. There they resided for decades, including many years in Cairo’s most affluent neighborhood on the island of Zamalek in the Nile River.
Curiously, while Said wrote lots of moving words about growing up in the house in Talbiya, claiming to remember exactly the rooms where he first read Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan, nowhere did he ever mention the presence of a Yugoslavian consulate upstairs. Considering the consulate attracted numerous visitors, ranging from regular seekers of visas to diplomats and even the King of Yugoslavia himself, it seems a great oversight on Said’s part. Golde Meir herself showed up for a formal function only weeks before Said claims his family was forced to flee the country. Such trivial matters escaped young Edward’s memory.
Said made an interesting claim while speaking at a Palestinian university, alleging that Martin Buber, arguably the greatest moral philosopher of the 20th century, lived in the house from which his family had fled. The “great apostle of coexistence between Arabs and Jews”, he bitterly remarked, “didn’t mind living in an Arab house whose inhabitants had been displaced”. Powerful stuff, but the real story is much more interesting. Martin Buber and his family, all refugees from Nazi Germany, did indeed move into the ground-floor and basement of the house in Talbiya in 1938. However, Said’s aunt Nabiha Yusef evicted the Bubers in 1942. This memorable event took place when Edward Said insisted he was growing up in the same house. The Bubers claimed Mrs. Yusef broke the lease and contested the eviction in court. Once again, Said forgets all about it. Buber’s granddaughters have testified that they remember Said’s aunt and her children, but not little Edward and his four sisters. Probably because he just wasn’t there.
The (darkly) funny thing is that in 1952 a revolutionary mob burned Wadie Said’s flagship store in Cairo to the ground. Several years later President Nasser actually forced Said’s family out of the country after nationalizing the family business. Said didn’t write much about this devastating loss. He never wailed about it for the cameras of the BBC. This is because he supported Nasser’s pan-Arab socialism, and, of course, the loss couldn’t be blamed on Israel.
There is another aspect of Said’s fabricated history aside from the question of where he grew up. This revolves around his copious outpourings on the subject of ‘identity’. Said spoke endlessly about how he as a “Palestinian (sic) going to school in Egypt, with an English first name, an American passport” grew up with “no certain identity at all”. His 2000 memoir, titled Out of Place was dedicated to this deceptive reminiscing. In fact, decades before Out of Place, Said revealed in his personal correspondence that despite his Christian background and western education, he never felt like a minority in Egypt and regarded his heritage as “Arab-Islamic” (this is shown in Efraim Karsh’s excellent Islamic Imperialism: A History).
Said pulled off a great trick. He endeared himself to Palestinians, the wider Arab and Muslim world and (most importantly) white western leftists. He would devote an entire career to hating imperialism, despite his suspicious fondness for the structures of the Ottoman Empire and Islamic rule over the Iberian peninsula (again, demonstrated in the excellent work of Karsh).
Barack Obama is quite similar to Said. He’s run into problems over his birth certificate. He also became the black leader he wanted to be, but not exclusively a leader of blacks along the lines of Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. His speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention emphasized the “improbable love” between his white mother and black father. Obama became America’s Half-Blood Prince, a healer in the great racial divide. With the election in November, it would be wise to reflect on his accomplishment.