Reading Between the Selfies: Exposing Obama’s Imperialism

by R.L. Stephens II on December 11, 2013

Obama SelfieBy now many people are aware of the Selfie Seen ‘Round the World. While some of the outrage is merely opportunistic grandstanding from Obama’s right-wing detractors, the casual Western imperialism on display at Nelson Mandela’s memorial was very real and went far beyond a sensationalist selfie.

Nelson Mandela’s memorial service attracted many of the world’s preeminent political figures, including U.S. President Barack Obama. Offering the same vapid mixture of platitudes and contradictions that have defined his presidency, President Obama’s remarks were warmly received by the crowd and broader media. Yet, this speech’s rhetoric, particularly when considering the occasion, was a subtle, but stern, reminder that imperialism remains in full force. Typically, Obama’s public persona offers a “cool” veneer to gloss over his nefarious political policies, but today he didn’t even bother with such illusions.

Imperial Arrogance

Barack shouldn’t have been there in the first place on account of him having helped murder Gaddafi, a man that Mandela held as an ally. In reference to a “controversial” 1997 trip to Libya, he pushed back against US criticism.

 This man helped us at a time when we were all alone, when those who say we should not come here were helping the enemy… Those who say I should not be here are without morals. I am not going to join them in their lack of morality. Nelson Mandela, Reuters

For all I know, it very well may have been Mandela’s wish to have Obama speak at the event, but Obama’s attendance and Gaddafi’s absence was a grim reminder that imperialism is alive and well.

During the speech, President Obama went so far as to take subliminal shots at Mandela’s friends and allies such as Muammar Gaddafi and Fidel Castro, furthering the imperialist narrative regarding “3rd World Dictators”.

 Like America’s founding fathers, he would erect a constitutional order to preserve freedom for future generations – a commitment to democracy and rule of law ratified not only by his election, but by his willingness to step down from power… There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people. President Obama’s Speech

Not only is it a disgustingly arrogant move to disparage Mandela’s friends at Mandela’s memorial, but he speaks as if US America is some sort of beacon for righteous democracy. Okay, Barack Obomber. The United States government doesn’t “tolerate dissent from their own people”, COINTELPRO anyone?

The United States, along with many other Western governments, took Mandela’s death as an opportunity to further obscure their own active support for Apartheid. Apartheid formally existed within most of our lifetimes, and if the Western public were more aware that we were active supporters of such an obvious form of oppression, then our governments would lose legitimacy (particularly in the “War on Terror”).

The Funeral Selfie

In addition to the blatant hipocracy, President Obama disrespected Mandela and the mourning masses by taking a “selfie” with the Danish and British Prime Ministers. It’s not simply a matter that the photo could potentially be viewed as inappropriate, the more important issue is who is in the picture with him.

What is going under-reported is that the photo featured British Prime Minister David Cameron, a conservative who in 1989 traveled to South Africa on behalf of a firm that lobbied against punitive sanctions for the apartheid regime. He later “apologized”, but only when it was no longer politically popular to hate Mandela.

I’m unsure if President Obama knew Cameron’s history at the time of the picture, and frankly it doesn’t matter. The photo itself, whether he initiated it or not, in addition to Cameron’s presence, illustrate (at least coincidentally) just how out of touch Obama really is with the struggle that Mandela represented. It’s rare to have Western insincerity so quickly and ridiculously documented.

Neoliberal Revisionism

Obama’s speech used Mandela’s death as an opportunity to not only manipulate the man’s legacy, but to also celebrate his greatest failure: allowing a neoliberal takeover of South Africa that preserved White minority domination. Yeah, change we can believe in.

South Africa shows us we can change. We can choose to live in a world defined not by our differences, but by our common hopes. We can choose a world defined not by conflict, but by peace and justice and opportunity. President Obama’s Speech

South Africa has not substantively changed, and that’s the way that the ruling class wants it. I don’t blame Mandela for taking a neoliberal turn after being tortured for decades and having the Soviet Union, a major ally, collapse upon his release from prison. But much of what we call “reconciliation” was really just appeasement that allowed the White minority to continue to control virtually all the resources within the country. Of course, a number of Black figureheads have enriched themselves during this time, but the masses of Black South Africans remain trapped in generational poverty and wholly subservient to the economic power of the White settler minority.

Mandela’s presidency was not the highlight of his life, yet that’s all that many Western powers want to focus on because it allows us to obscure our own malevolent interference during apartheid and paints neoliberal economic policies as “good”. Much of Obama’s speech was a celebration of these ideas, and a promotion of appeasement disguised as peace. He and the other Western governments are using Mandela’s death to send a message to all people, but particularly 3rd World people, that compliance will be expected and dissent will be crushed.

But hey, imperialism is not a big deal, at least we got a goofy selfie out of it, right?


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