Thursday, May 31, 2012
By Barry Rubin
President Barack Obama’s mistaken reference to Nazi German death camps as “Polish death camps” is being ridiculed by critics as an example of incompetence. That misses the point. The defense is that it was on his teleprompter. That misses the point, too.
After all, you don’t need to be a historical genius to have caught that error even if it was on the teleprompter. I am not suggesting that Obama doesn't know that the Nazi Germans operated the death camps. Nevertheless, what this is really about is that Obama does not see himself as emerging from European history and, truth be told and despite his university degrees, doesn't know much about it.
On one level, that is rather obvious. His father was Kenyan. But, of course, his mother was an American of European descent. Still, Obama has not chosen to focus on his simultaneously half-African/half-European parentage. He has identified himself as an African-American, and the word African here has to be taken literally, not just as a matter of ancestry from three centuries ago. The only exception to this stance, I believe, was a reference to Irish ancestry during a visit to that country and a feeble, rather insultingly stereotyped, attempt at an Irish accent.
Forget about this as a matter of race or skin color. Think of it as a matter of geographical choice. Obama draws heavily from Third World standpoints, something quite evident in his choice of church, for example. I cannot recall his ever quoting a European political philosopher. He has never to my knowledge made any reference publicly to Communism. In his books, the emphasis is on feelings, personal experiences, and ideas that come out of his head.
Obama has claimed that his grandfather was punished as an anti-British activist during the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya. The prime minister at the time was Winston Churchill, and it is no coincidence that one of Obama’s first acts was to return a Churchill bust to Britain in a rude manner.
It’s fine to have a president who didn’t come from that background physically but not so good to have a president who doesn’t grasp the meaning of modern European history.
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And how is that narrative important? Here are some examples:
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.