AMERICA Of canines, cuisine and a hawkish
president By Dinesh Sharma
Structuralist anthropologist Claude
Levi-Strauss argued that "the civilized mind"
underneath all its modern trappings was not all
that different from the so-called uncivilized or
"the savage mind", le pansee sauvage,
driven in part by the same human characteristics
everywhere, more of a bricoleur than an
He pushed his theory further in
The Raw and the Cooked, arguing that our
cuisine and dietary tastes reflected the process
of civilization itself. Just take a look at the
modern menu, you will witness thousands of years
of "cultural processing" at work.
generally a method to the menu: we eat "raw"
starters; chew over the "cooked" or "well done"
meats as well as
"selective" side dishes;
and try to "finish off" with the semi-cooked or
fermented formage, desserts and even
tobacco for digestive after-taste.
process of cooking raw meats over a fire is
intricately related to the evolution of culture.
Is this why men still love to barbecue under the
open sky? This question might apply to American
males, especially, who barbecue large quantities
of meat during holidays, picnics and tail-gating
parties in the parking lots of sporting arenas.
But not all types of meats are considered proper
meals in all cultures.
After being chased
for weeks about the 2007 story that Republican
presidential hopeful Mitt Romney had put his dog
on the top of a station-wagon during a trip to
Canada, one of the right wing talk show hosts
aired the audio recording of President Barack
Obama revealing in Dreams from my Father
that he ate dog as a child while living with his
stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, in Jakarta, Indonesia.
In my book about the president's early
years, I drew a rather weak and "sorry" analogy
between the 2008 Obama victory and Slumdog
Millionaire, the Oscar winning movie from the
same year. I was not at all focused on the eating
of dog meat.
Instead, I was concerned
about the connection between his relatively poor
childhood in an urban slum on the south side of
Jakarta and his African American identity working
for the poor on the south side of Chicago. I also
speculated about the synergy between the forces of
globalization that may have swept in a crossover
movie as a popular hit and the first global
presidential candidate as a big winner.
I had do it over again, I would not use the
Slumdog Millionaire analogy, but this was
not necessarily an original observation on my part
as other writers, including Frank Rich and Pico
Iyer, had already made similar comparisons in the
opinion pages of the New York Times and the Los
However, my book corrected
many of the misperceptions that have "dogged"
(urban slang "dawgged") President Obama, stemming
from his diverse, multicultural, multireligious
and multilingual childhood, with originally
documented evidence. Several of the reviewers of
my cultural biography of the president have
appreciated my perspective.
right-wing political talk about canines swirling
in the media for weeks finally came to a head at
the annual White House correspondents' dinner on
Sunday, where the black-tie event was abuzz with
the president's partaking of dog meat, a cultural
faux pass, according to American customs.
While members of the canine breed are
considered part of the American family, the
cultural prohibition against eating dog meat -
"man's best friend" or "faithful servant" - does
not carry over to Southeast Asia or China, where,
as Obama said, his stepfather taught him that
"it's a boy-eat-dog- world".
Trying to put
a humorous spin on the story, Obama said, "I know
everybody is predicting a nasty election, and
thankfully, we've all agreed that families are
off-limits. Dogs, however, are apparently fair
game." The president's punch line consisted of a
caricature of a super political action committees
ad that featured Romney on the steps of the
presidential plane with a dog atop the aircraft
that promoted freedom for all canines.
correspondents' dinner is one of the best examples
of what Norbert Elias, a sociologist of Western
civilization, has called "the civilization
process", Uber den Prozess der
Zivilisation, where deeply divided political
factions get together with cultural elites and at
least on the surface agree to "play by the same
rules". No one is spared an embarrassing joke!
Elias described the history of structural
changes in the West since the Middle Ages to
modern times, which has not fully cemented in the
developing world, centered on civil society and
the consolidation of political authority.
These processes have led to increasing
mutual dependence in Western societies and have
brought psychological changes, such as
self-restraint and control mechanisms that did not
exist before; in Freudian terms, this has led to
the formation of a new "super-ego" in modern
A chain of mutual dependence forces
people to rely on each other in order to get
things done or to achieve their goals; this is why
modern societies require more stability,
cooperation and networking. Especially in rough
economic times, this type of group cohesion,
despite your political enemies, works to benefit
society as a whole.
While the Chinese may
be eating our lunch (and "hot dogs" for that
matter) and own a majority of our debt, as we lag
behind in green technology, infrastructure and
research and development investment - and the
failing graduation rates may not improve anytime
soon - it seems only fitting to let off some steam
by joking about our canine pets.
for great news and comic relief, giving everyone
the feeling at least for a few hours we are all in
this together, before the next campaign of
"mutually assured destruction" moves forward.
One should not be easily fooled by the
pomp and circumstance.
During the 2011
White House correspondents' dinner, Obama had
already given the orders to take out Bin Laden in
the compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan; a very risky
mission that concluded a painful chapter in recent
During this year's
dinner, a secret trip was planned to Afghanistan
to commemorate the killing of Bin Laden and to
announce a strategic deal with President Hamid
Karzai and the Afghan government, in effect
proceeding ahead with the drawdown plan.
Peter Bergen, the author of
Manhunt, is correct when he notes that
Obama has been an effective "warrior in chief", to
the dismay of his progressive supporters and
neo-conservative detractors alike. This is a point
I have asserted in my book and columns, tracing
Obama's roots to the dusty backstreets of Jakarta.
In an episode from Obama's Dreams
from My Father, Obama's stepfather, who
was in the Indonesian military, taught the young
Barack about "hard power socializing the
impressionable young boy" who would later emerge
as a hawkish president:
"Have you ever seen a man killed?" I
asked him. He glanced down, surprised by the
question. "Have you?" I asked
again. "Yes," he said. "Was it
bloody?" "Yes." I thought for a moment.
"Why was the man killed? The one you
saw?" "Because he was weak." "That's
all?" Lolo shrugged and rolled his pant leg
back down. "That's usually enough. Men take
advantage of weakness in other men. They're just
like countries in that way ... Better to be
strong," he said finally, rising to his feet.
"If you can't be strong, be clever and make
peace with someone who's strong. But always
better to be strong yourself. Always."