Monday, August 18, 2008

Obama and Borderlands

Fellow political scientist Renee Cramer at Girl with Pen (new blogroll member!) had an interesting post a few months back drawing linkages between Gloria Anzaldua's work and the Obama candidacy. Cramer quotes Anzaldua's definition of borderlands:

the Borderlands are physically present wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle, and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy.

This is probably what draws me so strongly to the Obama candidacy. I grew up in a Cuban-American community in South Florida, went to college in Tallahassee, Florida (10 minutes from the Georgia border), graduate school in Boulder, Colorado, lived in central Maine for two years and finally settled in suburban Southern California. The need to negotiate a number different cultures (deep South Tallahassee, hyper-progressive Boulder, parochial central Maine, and now polyglot Southern California), has been a great learning experience but also a challenge.

The great strength of living in the bordelands is the ability to be comfortable in a variety of different settings. The challenge is the feeling of never being comfortable in any one place. This is where I am most empathic towards Obama. As the first truly "borderlands" candidate, he has a great facility with a diverse range of audiences. But the flip side has been this lingering sense among vast swaths of the American public that he is not "one of us." The McCain campaign tapped into this back in February when they ran an ad calling McCain "The American President America has been Waiting for." It is this sense of otherness, of the stranger among us, that jeapordizes the Obama candidacy.

The anti-Obama "celebrity" ads, I think, reinforce this idea of Obama as "not one of us." There is a subtle layering of messages in this recent wave of attacks. At first, I posted that the ad was tapping into "white grievance" over the perception of Blacks receiving undeserved benefits via affirmative-action. Now I think there's something more subtle going on. The ads, tap into this idea of stranger. The notion that you can't trust the "borderlands" candidate because his loyalties might lie elsewhere. The idea of celebrity adds one additional layer of otherness. He's a star. he's exotic. He can't relate to your problems because he's not you.

This casting of Obama as "other" seems to hit me personally. My wife and daughter are in for 80 days of me griping about this. I take it so personally because I am this "other" who is constantly negotiating with difference cultures. The rejection of Obama as a presidential candidate, suggests a fundamental rejection of me and others who live in the "borderlands." Obama, I think, intuitively understands this risk, and has been running to the center to stave off this notion of "the stranger." I am pessimistic that it will have the desired effect.

The "bench" of borderlands candidates in either party is thin. If Obama doesn't do it this time, the change for a president like this might not come for decades. That would be a shame because I fundamentally agree with Andrew Sullivan's piece, which Cramer references, that we sorely need a "borderlands" worldview in our engagement with the rest of the world.

BTW, I'd be a bad husband if I mentioned Girl with Pen without promoting my wife's, Adnia Nack's, own guest post on that blog.

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