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Obama's Hypocrisy on Identity Politics


President Barack Obama’s speech to the University of Cape Town was bland, self-referential–and also deeply hypocritical. It takes some gall to lecture Africans about corruption, respect for journalists, and investment in energy when your own administration is failing so deeply on each of these counts. But I want to single out the president’s hypocrisy on one issue in particular: identity politics, which he singled out in his keynote address.

Obama has repeated his attack on identity politics twice in the past month–first in Northern Ireland, where he earned the ire of Catholics by seeming to suggest that religious schools helped drive conflict, and now in South Africa, where he told the Cape Town audience: “the source of conflict involves the choices ordinary people make that divide us from one another–black from white, Christian from Muslim, tribe from tribe.”

Think about that for a moment: the choices ordinary people make. Not the choices governments make, even though governments are almost always the key drivers of sectarian conflict worldwide. To take an extreme example, in Rwanda people did not simply grab machetes and slaughter their neighbors; they had to be indoctrinated to do so, first by the rigid divisions of the colonial era, then official “Hutu Power” propaganda.

Obama did note in Cape Town that the problem is not identity per se, but the fact that “some use these identities to justify subjugation.” In South Africa, that “some” was the government–first the British colonial administration; then the Afrikaner nationalists of the apartheid era; and now, to a lesser but still damaging extent, the ideologues and self-enriching rent-seekers of the ruling African National Congress.

The “ordinary people” Obama blames are usually prepared to live and let live, even as they “cling” to their own identities. Indeed, one of the striking features of South African society is its tolerance for difference. To Obama, however, that “clinging” has always been problematic. He has never understood it; nor have the post-modern poets of Hollywood, who believe holding to tradition or values necessarily breeds hatred and war.

The irony is that Obama himself has used identity politics to divide Americans and mobilize his voter base–from his prejudicial pronouncements on the racially-inflamed Trayvon Martin case, to his pandering to illegal immigrants, to his incessant class-warfare rhetoric against the same “rich” from whom he raises money and to whom he grants appointments. Obama, not ordinary people, chose to divide Americans. He should talk!

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