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Commentary

Obama, Viewed from Abroad


     
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WASHINGTON—The contrast between the way in which Barack Obama's presidential campaign is being perceived in other countries and the way in which mainstream America is treating it is fascinating. While mainstream America is discussing how acceptable the black candidate has become in the eyes of so many whites, other countries, particularly in Europe and Latin America, are keenly interested, for their own domestic reasons, in how difficult many American blacks are finding it to identify with Sen. Obama.

Broadly speaking, for Europeans and Latin Americans on the right, the fact that Obama so far has less support than Hillary Clinton among blacks is reassuring because it sets him apart from the politics of victimhood and affirmative action that they tend to associate with leading activists in America's black community. Obama helps European conservatives make the case against the type of collectivist multiculturalism that certain minority leaders, particularly those purporting to speak for Muslim immigrants, postulate at home and that they regard as a threat to their society. Thus, the conservative Times of London celebrated what it called Obama's “remarkable” speech in Springfield, Ill., noting with satisfaction that “he did not make a single reference to the color of his skin.”

Obama also helps Latin American conservatives make the case against some of the indigenous leaders—who are often “mestizo” rather than actually indigenous—intent on replacing one form of racism with another in their countries. The Brazilian daily Folha de Sao Paulo recently spoke of Obama as a sort of “multicultural, post-racial Messiah,” using the term “multicultural” with a touch of irony precisely because Obama symbolizes to conservatives the opposite of what “multiculturalism” has come to mean—i.e. transcending rather than entrenching cultural conflict.

For Europeans and Latin Americans of the left, Obama's current difficulties with black voters in the United States are good news too, but for very different reasons. Although, in their eyes, the fact that there is some African-American skepticism toward the senator's campaign raises the question of how liberal he actually is, they find his narrative helpful domestically. Europeans of the left, who favor immigration at least rhetorically, tend to see in him something of the acculturated immigrant—exactly what some American blacks, who think Obama is not African-American because he is the son of a Kenyan father rather than the descendent of an American slave, object to. Thus, France’s Le Monde approvingly quoted a recent article by Harvard professor Orlando Patterson in which he criticized the objections being leveled at Obama for not being an authentic African-American: “Like all other once excluded groups before them, black Americans are in need of the social and cultural capital that comes from living with and in the white majority, the value of which is nowhere more powerfully demonstrated than in the enormous achievement and potential of Barack Obama.”

For their part, Andean leftists, who tend to postulate a “mestizo” society that will transcend the divide between European descendents and indigenous people in their own countries, see in him the “mixed” American—the very thing that some American blacks who think he is not black enough dislike about his story. Thus, the Argentine daily Clarin recently referred to Obama in positive terms as the “mixed citizen,” implying that he represents the symbiosis that Latin American elites look at with some contempt at home—even though after 500 years of European presence in Latin America the elites too are actually “mestizo.”

There is one last reason why many Latin Americans, right and left, look at Obama's candidacy with interest—immigration. The perception that African-Americans resent the growing number of Latino immigrants in the United States has put many Latin Americans on guard. They anticipate very tense relations between the two communities in the near future. The fact that this particular black politician combines to some extent an immigrant background with a flexible and tolerant view of racial identity makes many Latin Americans think he might be instrumental in marginalizing the more anti-immigrant African-American activists. And the fact that in his Springfield speech Sen. Obama put in a good word for immigrants did not go unnoticed south of the border.

Abroad, then, the American senator is all things to all people—including Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who recently attacked Obama's calls for withdrawing American troops from Iraq, reminding the outside world that perhaps focusing on the candidates’ policies, as opposed to only his narrative, might be in order.


Alvaro Vargas Llosa is Senior Fellow of The Center on Global Prosperity at The Independent Institute. He is a native of Peru and received his B.S.C. in international history from the London School of Economics. His Independent Institute books include Global Crossings: Immigration, Civilization, and America, Lessons From the Poor: Triumph of the Entrepreneurial Spirit, The Che Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty, and Liberty for Latin America.

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The erosion of national boundaries—and even the idea of the nation state—is already underway as people become ever more inter-connected across borders. A jungle of myth, falsehood and misrepresentation dominates the debate over immigration. The reality is that the economic contributions of immigration far outweigh the costs. Learn More »»






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