Does a well-travelled upbringing make for a shallow adult?

David Brooks may be onto something here:

“If your identity is formed by hard boundaries, if you come from a specific place, if you embody a distinct musical tradition, if your concerns are expressed through a specific paracosm, you are going to have more depth and definition than you are if you grew up in the far-flung networks of pluralism and eclecticism, surfing from one spot to the next, sampling one style then the next, your identity formed by soft boundaries, or none at all.”

Though Brooks is generally quite generous in his appraisal of President Obama, I suspect he has American’s most internationally aware president in mind here.

Obama’s alleged aloofness is certain to reemerge as the basis of too many election op eds in the months ahead. As ‘feelings’ are easier for political commentators to write about – at least write lazily about – than research-demanding, refutable policy analysis, what could be easier, or more fun, than writing about one’s feelings on another’s inability to feel?

Most politicos resorting to the emotional guff out the pseudo-psychological cant you might expect. Like Brooks however, the New York Time’s Maureen Dowd is an honorable exception.

Dowd does the feelings stuff with a refreshingly negative gusto and flair that’s worth the price of the paper. Her put-downs are crafted with such elegance, incision and precision that I wonder whether our more solipsistic public officials secretly contemplate provoking her pen’s understated scorn. Afterall, it might take multiple designer therapy sessions to reveal the hidden shallows Dowd could nail in 600 unforgiving words.

Playing off a similar riff to Brooks’ association of authenticity with emotional depth, Dowd clearly shares (if none of his politeness) her colleague’s previously stated belief that Barack Obama appears as someone who’s lived in many places without being of any one place.

“Romney programmed himself into a robot, so he wouldn’t boil over with opinions and convictions, like his more genuine dad.

But if we’re going to have someone who’s removed, always struggling to connect and emote, why not stick with the president we already have?

Better the android you know than the android you don’t know.”

To Obama’s credit and the detriment of Brooks’ roots-character-depth thesis, this president’s notorious contempt for the backslapping and bullshitting expectations that surround professional politics suggest not a man unaware of his apparent ‘coldness’ but an adult quietly and defiantly proud of his lack of pretense.

Nevertheless, Brooks’ take on the power of particularity and permanence as an incubator of emotional depth might help explain the President’s lack of emotional presence – his struggle ‘to connect’, as they say.

Could Obama’s failure to come remotely close to achieving the goal he sold as a mark of contrast with Hillary Clinton – leadership based on transcending America’s partisan divide – have some roots in his lack of roots? Probably, I think.

They say travel is supposed to broaden the mind so Brooks’ thesis should be daft. It’s not.

Although I spent my first 20 odd years in and very much of County Antrim, I’ve been based in DC for the last ten, travelling back and forward between Latin American, the US and Ireland while surrounded by friends and colleagues working in the “liberal internationalist” networks: embassies, INGOs and businesses and so on. And you know what: Though I love it, there are more genuinely diverse characters in Ballymena.

For all the varied backgrounds of people in places like DC’s North West, the crowd basically share the same values; generally the same reading material, income brackets and life style preferences, most of which are a pretty conservative pick-and-mixes of random global flavors.

DC is an interesting city, yes, but much of its North West clique is uneasy, unable even, to belong to any one place too long. Many speak multiple languages yet have little original to say. Like Obama, perhaps, this transient city is filled with people who are noticeably uneasy with Americans and others’ who’s rootedness they no longer have a feel for.

Strategic Communications Consultant, located Washington DC

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