The U.S. presidential campaign of 2016 has once again brought the issue of migration and citizenship to the forefront of political debate and public discussion. In particular, immigration into the U.S. as a threat to national well-being and economic prosperity is regarded as one of the two major reasons for the populist appeal of candidate Donald Trump (the other is fear of terrorism). This seems like an opportune moment to revisit an earlier presidential campaign and examine the words and images that were circulating in real and virtual spaces to make sense of “a changing America.” I do so through a brief foray into the semiotic landscape that constituted candidate Barack Obama some years ago, in order to shed some light on the deepening mystery of identity –political and personal– in the twenty-first century.
One might begin with Obama’s own description of his multilateral state:
“As the child of a [B]lack man and a [W]hite woman, someone who was born in the racial melting pot of Hawaii, with a sister who’s half Indonesian but who’s usually mistaken for Mexican or Puerto Rican, and a brother-in-law and niece of Chinese descent, with some blood relatives who resemble Margaret Thatcher and others who could pass for Bernie Mac, so that family get-togethers over Christmas take on the appearance of a UN General Assembly meeting, I’ve never had the option of restricting my loyalties on the basis of race, or measuring my worth on the basis of tribe.”
(Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope 2006/2008, p. 231)
Yet it is also true that early on in his life, struggling to determine where he belonged (a process movingly recounted in his memoir, Dreams from my Father), Obama saw himself as an African-American, an identification that has stuck, regardless of whether he is perceived as truly aligned to the community’s interests or not. My point is that we seem to lack the means (or the will) to make sense of multiplicity as a lived condition, a fact that is evident in the examples below.
“Who is Barack Obama?” was a litany since the early days of the Obama campaign and gained ground after his election, particularly in what became known as the birther movement which contended that Obama was born in Kenya and is not an American citizen. While Obama supporters have long dismissed the allegation, and the necessary documents have been displayed on official websites, many Americans continue to believe in Obama’s illegitimacy as the US president. On Feb 16, 2011, the popular talk show host Stephen Colbert joked that over fifty percent of Republican primary voters believed that Obama is not a U.S. citizen, and quipped: “I am so proud to have been born in a country where unsubstantiated rumors about political opponents become majority beliefs. . . .I bet Obama wishes he was born here too!”
OBAMA’S MANY FACES
In August 2008, Time Magazine carried a story titled, ‘The Five Faces of Barack Obama” in which he was described as “black man, healer, novice, radical, the future.” It is a random assortment of “appearances” or personas having little to do with one another, designating respectively his racial identity, his political skills, his lack of experience, his so-called leftist sympathies, and his connection to young voters and ease with new media. In the ‘black man’ section, we read about Obama’s ties to the African-American community; this is followed in the ‘healer’ section with the opposite concern: the torment Obama feels that he does not belong anywhere, serving in turn as the rationale for his desire to build consensus and compromise with his political opponents. ‘Novice’ (his inexperience) and ‘Radical’ (his deep associations with leftist or ideologically-extremist figures) also work at cross-purposes. In short, each section could be portraying a completely different person. No wonder the article concludes by noting that “Obama remains enigmatic no matter how much we see of him.”
In April 2009, Life Magazine had a slide show called “The Many Faces of Barack Obama.” The LA Times also carried a slide show called “Beyond Shepard Fairey: The many, many faces of Barack Obama” in which 19 different images by artists from Russia, Rumania, Moldova, Japan, India, and the U.S. had drawn their own versions of the president. The Internet has been a particularly hospitable medium for photoshopped images of Obama; the website <somethingawful.com> ‘s comedy goldmine had 44 images of Obama representing everything from Queen Elizabeth to Moses to Michelangelo’s nude statue of David to a skeletal ghost, and even a toy train. It is important to note that the intent of all of the above is favorable coverage of Obama, although there are no dearth of videos and images that are demonizing as well, such as the frequent charge that Obama is “a Muslim plant in the White House.” Compared to the above, the Obama as Muslim image seems tame and uni-dimensional.
In Sept 2009, the question “Who is Barack Obama?” was again used in a NY Times Magazine article covering an anti-Obama Tea Party rally. It started with the words, “All around were satanic representations of President Barack Obama in whiteface, as a Nazi, an African witch doctor, a Marxist, a Muslim, and Che Guevara’s best friend – but Kathy Golya had never felt so good about the new administration as she did right now. It was a day after Representative Joe Wilson’s outburst in Congress, and the South Carolina congressman had given voice to Golya’s inner heart . . . . Someone had called him a liar.” The article goes on to focus on the birthers, who are a driving force behind the feeling that Obama does not belong, and hence can take on the attributes of every perceived villain in the visual marketplace.
What I want to suggest from these examples, and doubtless many others could be found, is that Obama is most often thought of in terms of such a visual cornucopia of rampant and out-of-control multiplicity. In other words, his multiplicity IS the problem, and a sign of his alien-ness, something that both his supporters and detractors can exploit. My point is not in arguing for a conspiracy theory, but rather in saying that the very media tools at our disposal may undercut the potential for informed or complex understanding. As Obama has himself astutely observed, “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.”
OBAMA AS GLOBAL CITIZEN
If Obama was being portrayed as a mystery and puzzle in the US media even before his election, his multiplicity received a somewhat different, though no less contradictory, reception abroad. Few US presidents received the kind of overwhelmingly positive coverage as did president-elect Obama, who was claimed by many different nations as their own, including those that did not have any direct connections to boast of. After his election, The Las Vegas Asian Journal (November 6-12, 2008) reported: “He had an Asian childhood, African parentage and has a Middle Eastern name. He is a truly global president.” Another newspaper quoted an interviewee: “What an inspiration. He is the first truly global US president the world has ever had,” said Pracha Kanjananont, a 29-year-old Thai sitting at a Starbucks in Bangkok.” But it was in Europe that he enjoyed [the] high[est] degree of affection among the public and elites, with 200.000 people attending his speech in Germany, and later, being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize barely one year after taking office, and only ten months into his administration. Yet, as scholars Ruth Hatlapa and Andrei Markovits note, Europeans were happy to endorse a kind of multiplicity that was safely across the Atlantic, even as they continued to build barriers at home. These scholars write:
Indeed, one of Obama’s most powerful a priori reasons for legitimacy in the eyes of Europeans hails precisely from the fact that he is African- American and thus not the stereotypical American in European eyes. The fact that it remains inconceivable for anybody vaguely like Obama—with his name and his racial background—to be elected to a comparable position of head of state and/or government in any European society endears him to Europeans further still since, with their racism and continued de facto ethnic perception of community not permitting anything similar to happen in Europe for many years to come, Europeans experienced the election of a black in America as an overdue corrective to that country’s racist past as well as a vicarious step in their own world that—luckily in their view, though sotto voce —they still do not have to confront (p 77).
Thus Obama-mania and anti-Americanism could be happily made to co-exist, as observers felt free to pick and choose at will, and to dissociate personal and political histories.
What of Obama’s self-presentation, his own grasp of his multiplicity? Much has been written of his first memoir, Dreams from My Father, which the author himself defined as “a story of race and inheritance,” and which for the most part has been seen as a quest for his own black identity. Arguably, however, it is the book’s multiple loci—spatial, emotional, ethnic– that make it so quintessentially cosmopolitan in spirit. While a ‘return’ to Africa in search of his roots traces a familiar narrative arc in American historical consciousness which Obama was no doubt drawing upon, it is the reality of his transnational travels via his mother’s propulsive nature, that carries the day. By denying his mother’s story the preeminence that it actually had in his material life, Obama may have tried to resist the very internationalism that provided the bedrock of his experiences.
Obama’s personal biography brought his multiplicity from the margins of the USA into its political heartland – the White House. For the most part, this threw norms of representation into crisis, for the office of the presidency is the visual and media referent of power, legitimacy, stability, and cohesion. Rather than multiplicity, it signifies singularity and permanence, the centripetal force countering a centrifugal world. No wonder so many of the dramas played out on television screens had to do with his willingness to wear a flagpin, or to recite the Pledge of Allegiance with the requisite gravitas; it even motivated a respected Harvard intellectual historian (James Kloppenberg) to place Obama in the venerable American tradition of philosophical pragmatism to establish his bona fides.
Perhaps along the same lines, Obama’s pragmatism may have led him to align with the epidermal aspect of ascribed identity that all of us carry around, keeping his worldliness under erasure. What is astonishing is that in the age of global, viral and mobile media, it is nativism, not worldliness, singularity not multiplicity that is in the ascendant.
Ruth Hatlapa and Andrei S.Markovits, “Obamamania and anti-Americanism as Complementary Concepts in Contemporary German Discourse.” German Politics and Society, Issue 94 Vol. 28, No. 1 Spring 2010.
– by Sumita Chakravarty