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     Jan 29, 2013

Lincoln redux from King to Obama
By Dinesh Sharma

"It's in my DNA to unify all Americans," Barack Obama said repeatedly during the 2008 presidential campaign. I thought at the time this was a pretty bold and audacious idea. It has turned out to be a huge challenge for the president who many have described as "the conciliator-in-chief." According to many surveys, the country still seems divided along ideological lines - Democrats versus Republicans, Liberals versus Conservatives, and Main Street versus Wall Street.

He took office in the bicentennial year of the birth of both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. Many observers thought,at the time, it was interesting America elected the first African American

president,with a global and international biography. Obama has been re-elected on the one-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863), which freed the slaves. Last week, on January 21, the Mall in Washington DC was packed with Americans of all backgrounds, colors and stripes.

We all know that "race" is not a biological category but a political and social one, especially, in a nation of immigrants. We owe this insight to the scientific work of biologists who are all Darwinians now, and to the long march of civil rights leaders who are all Lincoln's descendants.

Highlighting the remarkable confluence of these two parallel lives, Malcolm Jones in Newsweek noted that, "Lincoln and Darwin were both revolutionaries, in the sense that both men upended realities that prevailed when they were born. They seem - and sound - modern to us, because the world they left behind them is more or less the one we still live in".

People around the world know the definition of democracy as a form of governance "of the people, for the people and by the people", while they may not be familiar with the Gettysburg Address, which Lincoln thought "the world will little note".

Likewise many know the Darwinian theory of evolution, and may know about the DNA or the Genome. However, they may be bored by the complex history of human origins, population genetics and its applications to pharmaceuticals and modern medicine.

Olivia Judson has revealed yet another significant parallel between Lincoln and Darwin, that is, they both disapproved of slavery. Darwin "came from a family of ardent abolitionists, and he was revolted by what he saw in slave countries".

The idea that there are hard-wired, "essential" differences between populations will be further repudiated by the Obama democrats. When human populations lived in geographically isolated societies, race, language, culture and borders were tightly nested. Rapid travel, information revolution and globalization obliterated these 20th century ideas and paved the way for an American brand of multiculturalism.

President Obama said in his inaugural speech, "We recall that what binds this nation together is not the color of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names."

From Kunta Kinte to Django Unchained
Shortly after I arrived in the US, as part of the first wave of immigrants from India, Alex Haley's Roots had emerged as a popular television serial. A new African American name, Kunta Kinte, which later acquired mythic stature in literature, was added to my vocabulary. LeVar Burton, who played Kunta Kinte, still appears on PBS programs now and then teaching kids how to read and write. I can recall the winter of 1977 when, as new immigrants, we huddled together around the television to watch the saga of an American slave family.

The character of Django in Quentin Tarantino's recent film Django Unchained completely subverts the traditional slave narrative, where Haley's chained Kunta Kinte appears anachronistic. Played by Jamie Foxx, Django is the "one in ten thousand" black bounty hunter in the Deep South, who must collect his money for bringing in the White outlaws - shooting them up and hauling their bodies into the US Marshall's office - which has rankled white and black moviegoers alike.

With the re-election of the first black president, the traditional slave narrative had to be turned upside down. It took a bold film director like Tarantino, who is defending his cinematic treatment of slavery as longtime coming. Clearly, there is a strong correlation between the rise of Obama and the appearance of a character like Django in the American public consciousness, who attempts to right the wrongs of America's original sin in the style of a Spaghetti Western. It is not for the faint hearted.

Spike Lee has boycotted the film. "All I'm going to say is that it's disrespectful to my ancestors to see that film," Lee said. "I can't disrespect my ancestors. That's just me. ... I'm not speaking on behalf of anybody else."

Even though the film has the grossed highest amount for a Tarantino film, merchandising has taken a hit as the Django toys and dolls have been pulled from the stores. The African American community is divided on the issue; the spat between Jamie Foxx and Spike Lee has hit a new low.

"The question for me is: where's Spike Lee coming from?" Foxx said. "He didn't like Whoopi Goldberg, he doesn't like Tyler Perry, he doesn't like anybody, I think he's sort of run his course. I mean, I respect Spike, he's a fantastic director. But he gets a little shady when he's taking shots at his colleagues without looking at the work. To me, that's irresponsible."

From 'Father Abraham' to King and Obama
Django displays over the top violence, whereas Lincoln, the epic drama by Steven Spielberg, has very little graphic violence. It is the other major blockbuster film released to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The film deals almost clinically with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which ended slavery and exacerbated the long drawn-out American Civil War.

While Lincoln deals with the political high-culture, Django Unchained is about the everyday culture of violence and slavery.

President Obama, who took the oath of office on Martin Luther King's birthday, has a deep "historical transference" with Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King; it is now etched in stone. He took the oath of office on two Bibles, previously used by Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln, with a million strong crowd packed into the Mall in DC.
In an essay, "What I See in Lincoln's Eyes", Obama has described, with an artist's flair for detail, how much compassion he feels for the 16th president of the United States. Obama's idealization of Lincoln might be called a full-blown transference, in purely psychoanalytic terms, or love in everyday parlance, akin to Sigmund Freud's description of his love for Michelangelo's Moses:
My favorite portrait of Lincoln comes from the end of his life. In it, Lincoln's face is as finely lined as a pressed flower. He appears frail, almost broken; his eyes, averted from the camera's lens, seem to contain a heartbreaking melancholy, as if he sees before him what the nation had so recently endured.

It would be a sorrowful picture except for the fact that Lincoln's mouth is turned ever so slightly into a smile. The smile doesn't negate the sorrow. But it alters tragedy into grace…

So when I, a black man with a funny name, born in Hawaii of a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas, announced my candidacy for the US Senate, it was hard to imagine a less likely scenario than that I would win - except, perhaps, for the one that allowed a child born in the backwoods of Kentucky with less than a year of formal education to end up as Illinois' greatest citizen and our nation's greatest President.

In Lincoln's rise from poverty, his ultimate mastery of language and law, his capacity to overcome personal loss and remain determined in the face of repeated defeat - in all this, he reminded me not just of my own struggles. He also reminded me of a larger, fundamental element of American life - the enduring belief that we can constantly remake ourselves to fit our larger dreams.
In the inaugural speech last week, Obama repeatedly invoked Lincoln and other founding fathers:
We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths - that all of us are created equal - is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.
James Fallows of the Atlantic suggested that, "The rhetorical and argumentative purpose of the speech as a whole was to connect what Obama considers the right next steps for America..."

James Prothero, a religion scholar said, "Equality. That's what today's inauguration was about. And we have Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr to thank for it."

Republicans who were rattled by Obama's liberal tone suggested the president was too partisan - truly an unreconstructed liberal - when he mentioned "liberal touchstones, such as a strong role for government, but it raised issues that could divide GOP ranks, such as gay marriage, equal-pay legislation, and even amnesty for illegal immigrants." Daniel McCarthy of The American Conservative said, Obama's second inaugural sounded like "Little Lincoln, No Dostoyevsky."

In many important ways, as I have argued in my book, Obama's political career has been modeled after Lincoln's. Thus, what was at stake in the re-election was not just another term in office. It was everything Obama has stood for and has tried to build as his political identity starting out as a civil rights lawyer, state senator and US senator from Illinois, and the historic victory he achieved as the first African American president.

America's race to the future
The theme of the inaugural was "Faith in America's Future", or as the radio broadcaster described it at the parade - "Our People, Our Future" - who made us recite it out loud before the president and First Lady walked down the Pennsylvania Avenue. So what is the future of race in the Obama world?

As Craig Venter, the medical entrepreneur and gene-hunter, has said, "We need medicine tailored to your genome, not your race". In a history-making event, when president Bill Clinton on June 26, 2000, announced the completion of the first survey of the book of life, he pointed to the vast scientific landscape that has been opened by these discoveries:
Today, we are learning the language in which God created life. We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, the wonder of God's most divine and sacred gift. With this profound new knowledge, humankind is on the verge of gaining immense, new power to heal. Genome science will have a real impact on all our lives - and even more, on the lives of our children. It will revolutionize the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of most, if not all, human diseases.

In coming years, doctors increasingly will be able to cure diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes and cancer by attacking their genetic roots. Just to offer one example, patients with some forms of leukemia and breast cancer already are being treated in clinical trials with sophisticated new drugs that precisely target the faulty genes and cancer cells, with little or no risk to healthy cells. In fact, it is now conceivable that our children's children will know the term cancer only as a constellation of stars.
Francis Fukuyama in Our Posthuman Future has claimed that the new forms of genomics and reproductive technologies are steadily ushering in Huxley's brave new world, in need of new social and cultural policies. Most of us share 99% of the human genome. The remaining 1% accounts for individual variation in phenotypic differences, such as, eye and skin color or hard-wired pharmacoethnic outcomes, like the clinical response to pharmaceutical drugs.

As a senator, Obama introduced The Genomics and Personalized Medicine Act of 2006 to advance medical research and innovation, something he has pushed as a president. By passing the healthcare law and setting aside funding for genomics research, providing tax incentive, modernizing the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and offering greater consumer protections, these set of legislations will further revolutionize medicine.

As a president, he removed the ban on stem-cell research. Arthur Caplan, a well-known bioethicist has commented that, "Obama's decision to permit federal funding of embryonic stem cell research is - finally - the correct policy for the United States to follow. We have the scientific expertise and infrastructure to establish whether embryonic stem cell research can deliver cures. And we have sufficient moral consensus that it is the right thing to do."

As President Obama's re-election has shown, it is the "natural genius" of the American experiment that new-blooded Americans renew the nation's promise in successive generations. Standing on the shoulders of giants like Lincoln and Darwin, the mounting evidence from genomics in the coming decades, advanced by the greater support from governmental and private funds, will relegate the concept of "race" to a statistic and a vestige of humanity's past.

(Adapted from Barack Obama in Hawaii and Indonesia: The Making of a Global President" with the permission of the publisher.)

Dinesh Sharma is the author of Barack Obama in Hawaii and Indonesia: The Making of a Global President, which was rated among the Top 10 Black history books for 2012. His next book on President Obama, Crossroads of Leadership: Globalization and American Exceptionalism in the Obama Presidency, is due to be published by Routledge Press.

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