Monday, September 28, 2009

Obama, a Huli warrior and the image nincompoop

By Alfredo P Hernadez

IT SIMPLY took a nincompoop to ignite the ire of many Papua New Guineans here in Port Moresby - and those living in the US, the Pacific and elsewhere across the globe. Although only those Papua New Guineans residing in the US are directly affected by the raging healthcare issues that of late have divided the American people, their global compatriots feel that their cultural pride, and as a nation rich in colorful culture, have been unfairly dragged into the US healthcare brouhaha. To them, the whole affair involving a controversial picture of US President Barack Obama has now boiled down into a simple issue of racism that insults Papua New Guineans and hurts the nation’s pride.

Over the past three weeks, their anger has been bouncing back and forth across the cyberspace through emails exchanged among overseas Papua New Guineans. The unflattering and tasteless image of Obama’s was first flashed on news television some three weeks ago during coverage of a protest-rally against the president’s healthcare scheme. The Obama-Huli wigman’s image was one of the posters that have been used by Americans protesting the Obama healthcare scheme. I did not understand it for a while why such an image of Papua New Guinean motif was used to drumbeat their protest.

Obama’s face was superimposed on an image of a PNG Huli wigman in full traditional regalia. When I first saw it, I immediately recognised it as one of PNG. The Huli wigman is a tribal warrior from PNG’s Highlands. However, just before I could consider it as something to be proud of, having considered PNG as my second home, it dawned on me that there was something sinister in superimposing the US president’s facial image on one of PNG’s popular cultural icons.

'Witch doctor'
The whole image carried the label “Witch Doctor”!, apparently to drive a point that the Obama administration’s attempt to overhaul the American healthcare system “would make the quality of medical care worse” as claimed by the program’s detractors. In many tales that I had read about witch doctors, their “patients” usually got worse instead of being healed. This may be the reason why such similarity was drawn: Obama the village witch doctor and the American people his patients whose health is fast deteriorating.

But one thing that was totally wrong here is that Obama, in the PNG Highlands’ warrior image, has been labeled as an African witch doctor, his being of African descent. And this is an insult, as far as the Papua New Guinean people are concerned. And so the “racist’ slant has become very pronounced. Wrote David Ketepa from Detroit, Michigan:
Many Papua New Guineans living in the US and around the world are angered by the picture which was used by an opponent of President Obama’s healthcare plan … the picture depicts a warrior from the Highlands who is in his traditional attire.
Another said on his blog, which was also circulated through email:
This is totally absurd and whoever did it needs to apologise to the People of Papua New Guinea for insulting us… this is our culture and we love it!” one said on his blog, which was also circulated through email.
Another said:

To the ignorant, idiot racist who distributed this picture, this is not an African witch doctor’s dress like you claim.

One knowledgeable Papua New Guinean explained to me there’s no such thing as a witch doctor in PNG as the anti-Obama protest posters would want the American people to believe.

Sorcerers abound
Well, we have sorcerers who abound in almost all tribes across PNG. But witch doctors? I really doubt it.

The unfortunate picture came about due to the sheer ignorance of the artist who concocted the image. He never realised that the person in the original picture is a Papua New Guinean tribesman and not a witch doctor which is common in Africa. The Obama’s tribal warrior’s attire clearly showed the Huli wigman seated outside a round house, holding a stone while the otherhand rested on his right side. His feathered wig clearly showed a stuffed bird of paradise in the middle and on both ends. Through his nose is a cassowary (a flightless bird) bone.

This colourful ensemble makes up the Huli wigman’s traditional attire which he wears as he goes about his business in the village. This is also his wear when fighting a tribal war. Although I had not seen a Huli wigman in the natural setting at the village, I saw many of them at a cultural show held in Sogere, which is located outside Port Moresby.

In his blog on July 23, American Zachary Roth wrote:

The election of our first black president has brought with it a strange proliferation of online racism among conservatives.

And we’ve got the latest example.

Tea Party ploy
Roth said that on July 19, Dr David McKalip forwarded to fellow members of the Google list service affiliated with the Tea Party movement the image of President Obama in the Huli wigman attire, with a note saying, "Funny stuff.”

Roth revealed that Dr McKalip is not just some random winger. He’s a Florida neurosurgeon, who serves as a member of the American Medical Association’s House of Delegates.

According to Roth, Dr McKalip is an
energetic conservative opponent of healthcare reform and founded the anti-reform group Doctors For Patient Freedom.
Last month, he (McKalip) joined the GOP congressmen Tom Price and Phil Gingrey, among others, for a virtual town hall to warn about the coming “government takeover of medicine”. And in a recent anti-reform op-ed published in the St Petersburg Times, Dr Mckalip wrote that: “Congress wants to create a larger, government-funded program for healthcare and more bureaucracy that ration care and impose cookbook medicine.”

Asked about the email in a brief interview with TPMmuckraker, Dr McKalip said he believes that by depicting the president as an African witch doctor, the “artist” who created the image “was expressing concerns that the healthcare proposals (by Obama) would make the quality of medical care in our country worse”.

However, Dr McKalip denied knowing who created the composite picture.

Livid phone call'
A blogger at Daily Kos reported about his getting a statement from the American Medical Association (AMA), which reads:
Delegates to the American Medical Association are selected through their individual state and specialty societies, and their individual views and actions do not, in any way, represent the official view of the AMA. We condemn any actions or comments that are racist, discriminatory or unprofessional.
The same blogger has also reported that he got a call from the director of corporate communications at Bayfront Medical Center in St Pete and she was livid about what Dr McKalip has done. The doctor works in the hospital.

The blogger said the director had disclosed that the issue was being “handled internally”. Although Dr McKalip works at Bayfront, he does not speak for the hospital. Dr McKalip has now apologised. But not before blaming "liberal activists" for touting the email he circulated.

President Obama’s infamous image has now taken on a new significance. And casting aside the intention of the ignorant artist of labeling him as an African witchdoctor, Obama actually assumes the posture of a PNG Highlands “warrior”. This is because the Huli wigman is a tribal warrior.

Barrier in Congress
Obama is gradually emerging as a one-man warrior fighting a great odd in his bid to push his healthcare reform agenda.

Those who oppose him – in Congress and in protest-rally grounds – are in great number and it seems he will not get his healthcare scheme through the barrier in Congress this year with the support of the Republicans in Congress - his staunch enemy. This means that should it be passed, it would be through the workings of the Democrats in Congress, his built-in allies in this hard-to-sell initiative.

Michael Hiltzik, writing in, advised the president “to get mean already”. The article is titled “It’s time for Obama to take off the kid gloves”. Hiltzik wrote that “it’s worth remembering that effective health insurance reform has five major elements: mandating individual health coverage, requiring issuance to all applicants, outlawing exclusions for preexisting conditions, regulating premium and fees, and providing subsidies for low-income buyers … all are overwhelmingly supported by Americans, and all are in the Democratic proposals.

“We’ve already seen that Obama knows how to talk sense … can he play hardball too?” Hiltzik asks.

In his September 9 healthcare speech, the president seemed to signal a new hard line, when he threatened to “call out” anyone who misrepresented his plan. He’s spoiling for a big showdown and he wants victory soon.

Could this mean that Obama, who reincarnated himself as Huli wigman of PNG’s Highlands, is now ready for a warrior’s battle?

Thanks to Freddie, this article is republished from his Letters from Port Moresby blog. He is a senior journalist on The National, but these are his personal views.

Pacific Scoop on the Obama image controversy

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