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.

  • TwilightoftheProds


    I’d agree with almost everything you said about ‘liberal internationalists’ and their cultural background-seem to lack depth and variety in opinions and experience-much narrower range of insight than you might expect. Their opinions can be very pro forma….as substantial as flat pack assembly.

    ‘there are more genuinely diverse characters in Ballymena’ should become a motto for the town

    But I also feel pretty sh*tty thinking all this, as the phrase ‘rootless cosmopolitan’ -which seems to sum up all I’ve been saying- has been historically used by nazis and stalinists when accusing others of lacking authenticity.

    The best i can rationalise is that I like looking at the ‘dreary steeples of fermanagh and tyrone’, and admire their ability to survive the floodwater. But I also like using them as a look out, as I think they help give a better view of dreary steeples, temples and mosques in other lands. Expressed as a pseud, but you get the idea.

  • Skinner

    Very interesting – I’ve always had similar thoughts but not had the precision of analysis to pin it down. It’s something to do with society cohesion. Where you have strong roots to a place you learn a lot about the dynamics of a full society, one bounded by place rather than purely the boundaries of age, family, politics, social class, money or education. The dynamics operate across these elements rather than within one or two of them. Northern Ireland is unique in the UK for having a large portion of its people from self-sufficient market towns, many of whose families have lived there for generations. The sort of roots that system develops and the cultural learning it promotes lends itself to producing stronger, more defined characters than the average well-travelled student you meet at University from english suburbia.

  • “Her put-downs are crafted with such elegance, incision and precision”

    I like this opening yesterday by Maureen:

    AT a fundraiser for the president at his Westport, Conn., estate Monday night, Harvey Weinstein spoke in a softly lit room shimmering with pink dahlias, gold Oscars, silvery celebrities and black American Express cards.

    You’d certainly need a little ‘decompression time’ after that; I did some of my early political analysis whilst cleaning out a sheugh in winter – about thirty miles north of Ballymena 🙂

  • I liked the Maureen O’Dowd piece (how could one not?) when I hit on it yesterday. The David Brooks article passed me by, somewhat, until I realised it was that thing from six weeks back, which I had read as a musing on the success of Springsteen. Since I’m a committed Brucist, I hadn’t looked much beyond Brooks’s top-and-tailing.

    Even on second acquaintance Brooks skated too close to Pseud’s Corner for my comfort — immediately following that quoted paragraph at the head of this column comes:

    (Maybe this is why younger rock bands can’t fill stadiums year after year, while the more geographically defined older bands like U2, Springsteen and the Beach Boys can.)

    Yes, the parentheses are part of the original, but even so … That is followed by another stunning generalisation:

    The whole experience makes me want to pull aside politicians and business leaders and maybe everyone else and offer some pious advice: Don’t try to be everyman. Don’t pretend you’re a member of every community you visit. Don’t try to be citizens of some artificial globalized community. Go deeper into your own tradition. Call more upon the geography of your own past. Be distinct and credible. People will come.

    In short: be Marmite. Fair enough; but don’t expect to be in everybody’s supermarket trolley.

    What Ruarai then adduces about DC could be true about any metropolis. How many of my bourgeois London neighbours are native? That’s a characteristic of capital cities (local or national) since Gaius Octavius wor but a lad (Augustus Caesar, grew up at Velletri, died at Nola). I’d severely doubt, though, they’d:

    … 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 flavours.

    Stick with Nola as a thought, first as the birthplace of Giordano Bruno, “the Nolan”. That prime example of mobility, James Joyce, prefaced his first pamphlet, The Day of the Rabblement, with a quotation from Bruno:

    No man, said the Nolan, can be a lover of the true or the good unless he abhors the multitude; and the artist, though he may employ the crowd, is very careful to isolate himself.

    [O/T: How many remember that teenager Joyce had stage ambitions under the name of “Gordon Brown”?]

    When Stephen Dedalus, in the diary that concludes Portrait, is moving to his inevitable exile, there is another nod:

    MARCH 24…
    Then went to college. Other wrangle with little round head rogue’s eye Ghezzi. This time about Bruno the Nolan. Began in Italian and ended in pidgin English. He said Bruno was a terrible heretic. I said he was terribly burned. He agreed to this with some sorrow. Then gave me recipe for what he calls Risotto alla Bergamasca.

    Similarly, Brian Ó Nualláin of Strabane (a.k.a. Flann O’Brien and Myles na gCopaleen) came to Dublin and was, from time to time, also “the Nolan” — in homage to his family, to Joyce and to Bruno (approximately in that order).

    Bruno, Joyce, Ó Nualláin and pretty well every other creative was Marmite. Take ’em or leave ’em. I reckon that my metropolitan experiences in Dublin, London and (occasionally) in suburban Noo Joisey, represent something far more diverse than my origins in North Norfolk, my comnmecytions to Portadown or my younger time in West Cork.

  • Greenflag

    Interesting piece here by Ruarai but imo Brooks has completely missed the boat on Obama’s ‘aloof ‘character .Although an African American with recent European (Middle western American heritage -via his mother and grandmother not to mention those ancient Irish ‘genes’ President Obama is only African American in appearance . His father was Kenyan i.e not African American and the young Obama spent many of his formative years in Indonesia . His demeanour and temper are more Asian than African or European or American . Brook is mistaking aloofness for something else .

    President Obama is no Teddy Roosevelt or George Bush but then in this day and age the USA doesn’t need any more gun toting Presidents .

    We live in a world where the new business and corporate elites have much more in common with each other than with the majority of citizens of their own homelands .This is a trend even I have noticed in my ‘international wanderings’ . It goes hand in glove with the financially deregulated global economy where thieves in suits gouge out entire economies .

    For those who travel or live elsewhere than their native place much depends on individual character . If one lives as an isolated ex-pat in a safe compund or in a gated community distant from the hoi polloi then it’s inevitable that one is going to be beset by the ‘lack of diverse character’. But this can happen in London , Beirut , Kampala or Mumbai or Shanghai or Belfast .

    Much also depends on the extent to which an individual integrates into the community in which one lives -speaks the language and becomes aware of local custom and practice and is respectful of same .

    There are of course some people no matter how educated in the strict academic sense who should never leave their homeland .I recall coming across one such individual in a southern African country . He was a German with absolutely no comprehension of where he was living . This individual was a senior executive in a mining related business and his perennial complaint was that these here Africans should do things the way they were done in Germany etc etc etc – His attitude to his fellow Europeans was not much better but he absolutely for some reason I never found out loathed Irish people and thus I kept a discreet distance from him .

    Most of the rest of the ex-pats even the Germans were very much switched on with the local situation but not yer man . In the end he upset one local too much and found himself flat on the ground with a broken nose and a blood spattered shirt front . And no it was’nt me who delivered the punch although I somewhat envied the man who did – but an African who resented this individuals continual tirade of insults directed at his homeland for several days before finally snapping as they say ..

    Wherever you go -there you are .

    And while a sense of place is all very well where would this world be if everybody had stayed where they were brought up ? People have always been on the move . Thats how ideas are exchanged -trade and commerce function and progress is made .

    The Germans never built a stone wall until the Gauls showed them how nor did the Gauls build a stone wall until the Romans showed them how -nor did the Romans build a stone wall until the Etruscans showed them how and so on and so on back to the time of the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians -Staying in the same place forever may have character building and emotional depth connotations among a few but believe me when I say that I’ve met ‘village idiots’ who’ve never strayed from the place where they were born in several countries across the world .

    In the aloofness stakes I would rank Romney way out there far ahead of Obama . I suspect that most Americans will favour President Obama come November not because he’s less aloof than Romney but because a majority of Americans are not stupid enough to believe that Romney and his nameless billionaire backers want to get rid of Obama so they can come in and help the middle class !

    Unfortunately there will be a lot of stupid Americans who will vote for the ‘white guy’ and the ‘banksters’ and ‘trickle down more poverty ‘ .

    And now we read that the GOP plan for Health Insurance is to do nothing once Obamacare is repealed . So as bad as they are saying the current plan is their ‘ideology’ is that nothing is better than something 🙁

    Of course theres no need for them to do anything because the Health Insurance Industry is going to do it without government intervention . Very considerate of the insurance companies no doubt,

    By now we should all know how well things turn out for the middle class and the not so fortunate when big business self regulates .

    And if you don’t know then perhaps you are living on some other planet than the third rock from the Sun 🙁