Obama As A “Third Culture Kid”

May 17 2011 @ 5:26pm

A reader writes:

You are indeed right regarding Cornel West. He is a an articulate, well-read, pseudo-intellectual who plays the part of the black Yoda well, but is ironically very provincial. His world is literally black and white which limits his analytic powers and makes him ineffective as a true intellectual and impotent as a true force for change. Contrast this with Barack Hussein Obama.

Obama, is what we call, a TCK—A Third Culture Kid. TCK’s grow up as the children of missionaries, or as military brats, or as the children of businessmen. It means that you grew up during your early developmental years in a culture outside of your parents’ home culture.

In our family we are quite familiar with this term since both my wife and I are second generation TCK’s and we are now raising one (Costa Rican/American born and raised in Europe and China). Between us we’ve been to 70 countries and lived on 4 continents.

TCK’s are usually unable to view the world in a simplistic dualistic way. On the contrary, they are usually over-achievers, get advanced degrees, and are infinitely curious about the world. They can accentuate different facets of their personality and experiences based on who they are talking to—and it’s not fake. This is the reason Obama really could connect and appreciate rural farmers in Illinois, fit in with the Harvard crowd, and work as an effective community organizer in Chicago’s South Side. Obama is the classic TCK. This is why he represents the new America so well—he is post-racial, globalized, and a great example of America’s own Third Cultural nature. It also helps to explain why he is so loathed by provincial Middle America.

Yet, you notice that Obama seems to deeply understand them better than they seem to understand themselves. He can be Kansan, Chicagoan, Bostonian, and fittingly really enjoys Hawaii. His key speeches including the Philadelphia race speech, his famous 2004 Democratic Convention speech, and his Cairo speech show that propensity to truly get all sides. This also helps to explain why he’s not a closet Muslim terrorist. He is the anti-thesis of Osama Bin Laden with his provincial, dualistic, desire to homogenize the world by creating a Muslim Caliphate. This is the exact opposite of who Obama is at his core. Osama looked for his father figure in the provincial world of 7th Century and 20th Century Arabia. Obama looked to go beyond his father’s provincial, naïve aspirations and became a little bit of everything.

The liberal label doesn’t fit Obama either. As you have pointed out, like Reagan or Thatcher, at his heart he is a pragmatist. Like a true TCK, he doesn’t romanticize any one culture or ideology. He understands that there is good or bad in everything. Yet another reason why he can also be called the anti-Bush who along with Cheney is trapped in a juvenile Manichaeism.

Look closely at Sarah Palin and George W. Bush. They are not just anti-intellectual but they are deeply provincial people that made sure not to expose themselves to much outside of their comfort zone. Sarah bounced from college to college unable to really fit in anywhere but Wasilla. Not even the Governor’s mansion felt like home to her so she left that too. Bush grew up in the upper crust East Coast and found his identity as a simple, “aw’ shucks” Texan who just knows what to do in his gut. He can be detached from the real world when necessary. TCK’s have no choice. They must engage the world.

This is one reason why I do not believe Sarah Palin will ever really run for President: She is deathly afraid of the world. She’s fine with fame and money (and pretending to be relevant assures the cash flow)—but she will always need to hide in the tundra from this complicated world. No surprise that on her recent trip to India, she mainly stayed in the hotel and the mall and got out of there as soon as possible.

I wish people would realize that we have a President that was born in the USA, raised in Asia and multi-cultural Hawaii, and who lived in Harlem, and went to uppity Harvard and then spent a lot of time in African-American ‘hoods. Oh, and he’s driven up and down the rural highways of Illinois hundreds of times. Furthermore, much of his life was spent in obscurity, so he had to live amongst us normal people paying back student loans. Even as a Senator he lived in a run-down apartment in D.C. This is why I never worried about Obama’s lack of experience. All he’s had is experience. Even Bill Clinton, who entered into the political upper-class networks by the time he was at Georgetown, looks provincial and cut-off from real America compared to this. Have we ever had a President who has lived in this many American worlds and cultures and succeeded in all of them? 

Cornel West and Sarah Palin have a lot in common. They speak the language of a time gone by and really get very little of what is going on.