The Next President and a Post-Colonial Worldview

By David Ignatius
Sunday, December 14, 2008

Barack Obama wrote in "Dreams From My Father" of his days as a student at Occidental College, groping for his political identity: "We smoked cigarettes and wore leather jackets. At night, in the dorms, we discussed neocolonialism, Frantz Fanon, Eurocentrism and patriarchy."

That's one of the passages from his autobiography that has fueled conspiracy theories among right-wing bloggers. They speak of Obama as if he's a tool of Third World revolutionaries who have somehow been preserved in dry ice since the 1960s. But that's silly. A man who plans to retain Bob Gates as secretary of defense and install a retired Marine four-star general as his national security adviser is not a creature of adolescent rebellion.

But here's a contrarian thought: Before Obama assumes the burdens of commander in chief, maybe he should dust off that copy of Fanon's "The Wretched of the Earth" and give the radical theorist another look. In doing so, he would remind himself of the special opportunity he will have as president to speak to a world that still suffers from the anti-Western fury that Fanon described in 1961.

Obama symbolizes a change that truly is epochal. The French newspaper Le Monde greeted his election with the headline: "Happy New Century!" As the first African American president, he is sometimes described as post-racial. I don't know about that, but as the son of a Kenyan intellectual born when that country was a British colony, Obama has another distinction that is rarely noted: He is a post-colonial man.

Obama is a living rebuttal to Fanon's rage of the powerless. The son of a Luo tribesman, whose father was born on the shores of Lake Victoria and schooled by British colonial administrators, is about to assume the most powerful job on Earth. It is Fanon's world turned upside down.

What made Fanon a guru for the left was his focus on the anger and alienation of the formerly colonized people of Africa. Born in the French colony of Martinique, he studied psychiatry in France and practiced in Algeria during that country's bloody revolt against French colonialism. Much of "The Wretched of the Earth" is empty vitriol extolling violence as a path to liberation, but Fanon includes case studies of patients he treated in Algeria -- including victims who were tortured by the French army. "For many years to come, we shall be bandaging the countless and sometimes indelible wounds inflicted on our people by the colonialist onslaught," Fanon wrote.

We are long past the era of decolonization that Fanon was describing. What's tragic is that in many parts of the world, the United States -- formed in the first great anti-colonial revolution -- has come to be seen as the heir to European imperialism. And we are hated and feared, just as were the British, French, Belgians and the rest. This rage strikes many Americans as incomprehensible ("Why do they hate us?"), but international polls document that anti-Americanism has grown to worrying levels.

The rise of militant Islam has added a dangerous trigger. In Fanon's time, the revolutionary movements were secular and nationalist, and they were encumbered by their heavy-handed Soviet and Chinese sponsors. But at least the revolutionaries talked about creating a modern world. Today's Islamic radicals often seem to despise modernism itself. They exhibit the same rage that Fanon diagnosed and the same desire to purify themselves through acts of violence. But there is also a hunger for respect and a desire to communicate.

This is Obama's challenge: Can he show this angry world a different American face? Can he connect with what Carter administration national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski has called the "global political awakening" -- and make the United States an ally of this movement for change, rather than its enemy? That's his biggest opportunity as president.

Obama's strong national security team shows that he's more a man of the center than many had imagined. These people understand the uses of military force. But to speak convincingly to a world that is wary of American power, Obama should remember his liberal roots, too. He will be a more persuasive advocate for change if he recalls that young man in the leather jacket spouting off about Fanon.

The challenge of the 21st century is to end the post-colonial age at last and to heal its psychic and political wounds. Obama is uniquely the man who can do it, if he keeps faith with his own story.

The writer is co-host of PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address is davidignatius@washpost.com.


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