The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Somali Garb

The flap over the photo of Obama in Somali garb is an odd one. First, let me just say that I hope the Clinton campaign didn’t release it. Frankly, it smells of a Rovian tactic—something a really smart RNC guy might do: tar two opponents at once.

Now, as to the question of whether it was actually problematic at all. I was listening to a little Right-Wing radio last night, and the host was being, I thought, disingenuous. His patter was something along the line of “there’s nothing wrong with being Muslim, or African-American, right? That’s what Obama’s campaign has been saying. So why would they squeal if someone releases this picture..? And why didn’t Obama’s campaign release it themselves..?”

What bothers me is that I’m sure that there are lots of people for whom this makes perfect sense. So, here’s my take on it.

Human beings are tribal. Race, National origin, and religion are three major tribes. Obama has built his campaign on an Aikido-like strategy of motivating people to look at the future we can build together, rather than on the fact that he is “different.” He knows that his differences are a losing position.

This is very similar to what I noticed in Hollywood my first time around. If I could keep the executive’s attention on the story, or the project we could create together, I got the job. If race EVER came up in the discussion, I was screwed.

So…the photo itself was neutral. It could have been released by a neutral news organization, part of a “Politician’s in native garb” series showing a dozen different politicos and the ways they blend in with the natives around the world. Kilts, hula skirts, Eskimo garb, whatever. Hah hah. And maybe somebody would have looked at Obama in the turban and thought: “damn! He’s Mooozlem!” and a vote or two would have dropped out. Maybe his campaign would have thought: “ouch. Oh well…” but that would have been the extent of it.

But to my knowledge, campaigns never release information about their opponents unless it will have a negative effect on the opponent, or a positive effect on their own campaign. I mean, they have limited resources, right? So why spend a moment doing something that would have a neutral effect? I would start with that presumption.

Now…IF this was released by the Clinton campaign, I would assume it was released because they are desperate to stop his momentum. And to the degree that they can get people to remember that he is the “other tribe” those who have such problems will definitely waver in their support. Their intention could have been:
1) to ridicule him. (“Funny garb”)

2) To identify him as African. (And thereby get the racial-cultural polarization)

3) To identify him with a particular GROUP of Africans (associating him with a particular ethnic conflict, perhaps. If he is on the “wrong side” of one such, they can make a case for his naivetĂ©. This is unlikely—too subtle.)

4) To identify him as a Muslim. The old “Manchurian Candidate” thing. By the way, I don’t think that this will be an approach used by the RNC. After all, wouldn’t that be cutting their own throats? It was MCCAIN who actually fulfills the Manchurian Candidate scenario, after all. American soldier, captured by commies and tortured/brainwashed, returns to the U.S. and involves himself in politics and eventually runs for President…if you think about it, there’s a pretty nasty little email campaign a DNC-sympathizer could stir up…

Anyway, there it is. The question is one of intent. I hope that this is below the Clinton campaign. I’m afraid that it is quite within the bounds of politics as practiced in the world. Hell, it’s even conceivable that the Obama campaign released it, “spoofing” a Clinton email address, just so they could act horrified. But I doubt it: he doesn’t need it, at all.
What I’m going to do in a week or so is march through the Seven Secrets one at a time here on the blog, and ask people to submit questions. Either your questions, or questions you believe others would ask. These will form the operational kernel of the book.
And the Question of the Day is: What is the Single Largest Mistake you’ve ever made that you’re willing to cop to publicly? For me, it was the series of mis-cues that led to the destruction of my first marriage. Dammit, I knew what Toni really needed and wanted from me, but I just wouldn’t step up unless she made her requests explicit. That was dishonest, and petty, and childish, and cost me hugely. Almost damaged my daughter, and hurt one of the very best friends I’ve ever had in my entire life. I was a fool. Yeah, I know, I was doing the best I could at the time…but I refuse to let myself off the hook for that one.

How about you?


Mike R said...

>What is the Single Largest Mistake you’ve ever made that you’re willing to cop to publicly?<

Never finished my thesis for my Masters program. I spent two years of my life getting all the credits I needed to, but I never finished the damn paper. I still could finish it right now, but I keep coming up with bullshit excuses and not doing it.

LaVeda H. Mason said...


The single biggest mistake that I'm willing to admit to is that after I used my Tai Chi training to get over a bad breakup, I stopped practicing ... and I lost track of my teacher. [Ok, so that's TWO mistakes... send me the bill :)]

Brian Dunbar said...

About the Somalis garb? Whop-te-do. It doesn't change my mind one way or another about the man.

It ain't about clothes it's about leadership and policy. Perhaps I'm naive.

What is the Single Largest Mistake you’ve ever made that you’re willing to cop to publicly?

Getting married at far too young an age to the wrong woman.

Anonymous said...

Single biggest mistake....

Not fighting for my first marriage when there was still something there to fight for. We were so proud of the fact that we didn't fight that when it needed to be done I couldn't do it. And I was afraid of the outcome, which happened anyway. It just took much longer and was far more painful. It hurt him, me and our daughter.

I think the next question here is "what did you learn from it and how has it changed you?"

I don't have the answer but I am working on it.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to think Americans have grown past this stuff, but a cruise around the Internet will show that there appears to be a lot of people lining up against Obama because he's black and/or because he has Muslim ties.

It will be interesting to watch how this election unfolds.

Anonymous said...

On the question of the Somalis garb, it seems to me that Clinton putting it out there would be pretty stupid. I doubt there are many people who care enough to vote in a primary or a caucus who don't know about the Muslim part of Obama's background. If that's so they clearly risked alienating more voters than they would gain.

My worst mistake was not traveling more when I was younger. There were so many places and things I wanted to see, but I was too busy with work and such to take the time. Now that I am retired and have the time health issues make it difficult to do many of them.

Brian Dunbar said...

On the question of the Somalis garb, it seems to me that Clinton putting it out there would be pretty stupid

If both teams did everything right each game would end in a tie.

Everyone makes mistakes, sometimes you wake up the next morning and wonder what in the world you were thinking.

This applies to my Single Largest Mistake as well as the Somali photo.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

Turned down a job offer from Microsoft in 1987 to join their consulting team ... with stock.

Anonymous said...

Obama is pretty good at coping with mudslinging -- good enough that the conservatives at National Review are impressed.

This is looking more and more like it's going to be the opposite of Election 2000: an interesting election with two highly non-generic candidates. Yay!

--Erich Schwarz

Anonymous said...

I'm still not entirely certain that the "circulated" Somali garb photo wasn't an attempt by Matt Drudge to smear the Clinton campaign. He's a GOP partisan who generally has little good to say about Democrats, so it's a shame that Democrats let themselves get caught up in what may have been one of his lies. It's also sad that enough people believe the Clinton campaign would do it that it was an easy smear to make.

As far as mistakes go, I wonder every now and then whether it was a bad idea for my husband and me to purchase our first home last year. We don't anticipate moving soon, but it's still, well, emotionally difficult to realize that the most important purchase we've ever made is worth less now than it was 11 months ago when we bought it.

Unknown said...

Yeah, I am also a bit suspicious about the fact that the Somali garb photo came from Drudge. He's disliked the Clintons for a good long while. And a photo that both reminds people of Obama's differences and makes it look as if it was Clinton who released it? From Drudge's point of view, there'd be no downside.

The Single Largest Mistake that I'm willing to cop to publically? Breaking up with a guy that I wanted to marry because I was afraid he's never want to marry me, without, you know, getting up my nerve and actually asking him. He died in an accident some months after that, just around the time we were finally reconnecting.

Anonymous said...

"Now…IF this was released by the Clinton campaign, I would assume it was released because they are desperate to stop his momentum".

There's yet another way to view this. The Karl Roves of the land are but mere schoolboy pranksters compared to the more astute, worldly experienced, and highly trained "alternative dispute resolution" experts.

Chaps such as those have schemes like Carter has pills. One of the betters ones creates the controlled problem, discovers it or is appraised of it, then either sets the stage for it's resolution, blame, or sits quietly as others do it for him and reap whatever benefits may come as a result of the target's inability to field the issue, do anything about it, run around in circles denying the seemingly obvious, while the original perp comes out the good guy and victim from this heartless bully.

The KGB were grand masters of this tactic. I would not be surprised if Obama had such a person on his staff to coordinate and control things of this nature from wherever it sprang.

mjholt said...

What is the Single Largest Mistake you’ve ever made that you’re willing to cop to publicly?
Single biggest mistake, being talked out of finishing my Ph.D. and taking a Masters, when I was half a dissertation from it and divorcing a crazy husband. My parents could barely support my getting a divorce; the Ph.D. was too alien. Looking back on it, on the part of the school and grad adviser, pure sexism.