Zakaria on Obama, Identity

Ruchira sent me a link to a recent Newsweek column by Fareed Zakaria, and it seems like it could use a comment box. Zakaria says he likes Obama, surprisingly, because of "identity." It's surprising because, as Zakaria himself admits, he's not one for identity politics:

Obama's argument is about more than identity. He was intelligent and prescient about the costs of the Iraq War. But he says that his judgment was formed by his experience as a boy with a Kenyan father—and later an Indonesian stepfather—who spent four years growing up in Indonesia, and who lived in the multicultural swirl of Hawaii.

I never thought I'd agree with Obama. I've spent my life acquiring formal expertise on foreign policy. I've got fancy degrees, have run research projects, taught in colleges and graduate schools, edited a foreign-affairs journal, advised politicians and businessmen, written columns and cover stories, and traveled hundreds of thousands of miles all over the world. I've never thought of my identity as any kind of qualification. I've never written an article that contains the phrase "As an Indian-American ..." or "As a person of color ..."

But when I think about what is truly distinctive about the way I look at the world, about the advantage that I may have over others in understanding foreign affairs, it is that I know what it means not to be an American. I know intimately the attraction, the repulsion, the hopes, the disappointments that the other 95 percent of humanity feels when thinking about this country. I know it because for a good part of my life, I wasn't an American. I was the outsider, growing up 8,000 miles away from the centers of power, being shaped by forces over which my country had no control. (link)

Zakaria's approach to "identity" is in some sense negative. He wouldn't argue that Obama is better because he's black, or mixed-race, or part-African, etc. But he will argue that Obama has enough of a personal, experiential link to the world outside of U.S. borders (non-U.S.) that it will benefit his judgment.

One could argue that the key distinction here is "experience" vs. "identity," and that it's "experience" of the non-U.S. we're talking about really, not "identity." But the way Zakaria phrases it (and from some of the other points he makes in the column) I sense that he's talking about something much more visceral than what one might learn on a semester abroad in college. Perhaps he really does mean "identity" -- as in, a set of immutable attributes -- not "experience." What do you think?


Daniel Pritchard said...

Experience, I think, can be rationalized in various ways in order to fit with existing presumptions about the world; in that way I think experience is probably not a strong enough term for what Zakaria means. I think having a not wholly American identity, for various reasons, means that your view of the world begins with different presumptions.

For myself – an Irish-American – my identity has allowed for a more nuanced view of issues with Palestine and Al Qaeda than the maybe more mainstream good/bad dialectic, because my emotions are not as instantly clear, due to having a personal and emotional connection to the IRA/Ulstermen civil conflict.

It is certainly complicated though.

scritic said...

Isn't "identity" acquired through "experience"? Aren't we shaped by the practices of daily life that we go through -- and which of course, are different for each one of us, in irreducibly different ways?