From “How the World Works” at Salon, Andrew Leonard brings us the video that will almost certainly take the “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” award for 2006-2008 campaign season. I think this even beats Obama Girl in that category.
Leonard—whose blog focuses on globalization issues—writes, “it’s impossible to say whether the video means anything.” I’m not so sure that’s true. Neither do the folks making comments on the video, a couple of whom worry that the piece will add fuel to the “oh no, Obama’s a Muslim!” fire that’s been smoking quietly over in the extreme-right’s corner.
I'm sympathetic to the folks who are concerned that this video might provoke a "throw the brown people out" response, but it seems to me that the people who think that way are not going to vote for Obama regardless of the piece. Moreover, if Bobby Jindal—whose personal history as a South Asian man born in Baton Rouge to Hindu, Punjabi parents has a lot in common with Obama’s—can win the Louisiana governorship, I think we may have misidentified the ways in which race actually functions within electoral politics today, even among more conservative voters.
As many commentators have noted, one of the striking elements of Obama's political rise is his uncanny ability to get people who have been afraid of or have made fun of other black politicians to rally behind him—and passionately so. My 87 year-old, white, Dixiecrat-turned-Republican grandmother from Mississippi, who is planning to vote for Obama, is a great example of that dynamic. Scholars of race have noted that in the last twenty years or so it’s become more or less socially unacceptable to hold and express white supremacist points of view, particularly towards African Americans, and especially towards ones like the Harvard-educated Obama who have been so extraordinarily successful. While attempts to derail Obama’s popularity through allegations of Muslim ties are no doubt a way to get around that problem, I’m not sure that this video actually undermines him successfully on that count.
I think instead that this mash-up feeds (or feeds on) the "Benetton" factor behind Obama's success. Part of his appeal is precisely his unusual background—he embodies "the colors of the world," and in doing so makes us feel better about ourselves as Americans. His success confirms our national mythology of the U.S. as a place of meritocracy, that anyone can achieve “life, liberty, and property” here if they just work hard enough—even a biracial guy with a father from Africa and an Arabic-derived name. He makes us feel cosmopolitan at a time when many Americans worry that we’ve seriously tarnished our reputation abroad. The visuals that drive this video—especially the images of the Indian women singing inside of Obama’s mouth, making it appear as though they're providing him with the words he sings, or "animating" his suit as they dance—reinforce the idea that when we vote for Obama, we vote for the world inside of him. That association probably is a frightening proposition if you’re afraid of the brown people of the world taking over the US, or an exciting one if you're inclined to think of the foreign as simply a novel commodity, which I'm inclined to think is another element of the appeal of "Brand Obama." A less cynical possibility might be that if you feel that American politics are hopelessly corrupt and moribund (and there are plenty of reasons to do so right now), you might think that Obama's multiply-national background will breathe new life into our own political dynamics, that other countries seem to possess better political processes than our own, and Obama might bring those to bear on our own degraded political topography.
I’m still trying to find out more information on the video. According to Ultrabrown, the song Obama sings is “Chori Chori Hum Gori Se Pyaar Karenge (I’ll Secretly Love the Pretty Girl)” from The Guru. He posts the original scene from the movie, and it’s actually really fantastic. I don’t know the original (guess what’s up next in my Netflix queue), but the clip features a party guest in “traditional” Indian garb starting to dance the macarena, which the very haute guests, all of whom are American, excitedly join into as “one of those Dervish, spiritual, transient things!” I think it’s actually a really brilliant move for Michael Stevens (the video’s creator) to use this scene to parody Obama’s appeal as “the global candidate.” Too bad his other videos, which generally feature scenes of Hilary Clinton farting, aren’t anywhere near as sophisticated or imaginative. I’ll update if I discover anything interesting.