Cohen visits Obama's old school in Indonesia:
Huh? Once again, an Obama supporter's fantasies about Obama can be deflated just by quoting Obama. The last time Obama was in Indonesia was a vacation in (Hindu) Bali, and that was a long time ago, before he was married. He sums up his potted history of Indonesia in The Audacity of Hope with a reflection on how out of touch he is with contemporary Indonesia:
"There's a mosque and a small Christian prayer room with a sign saying: "I understand we are all different and include everyone." Kuwadiyanto, the principal, told me: 'Christians and Muslim kids mix easily. Maybe more Americans should come here to see what's really happening.'
"Obama already has. If he's shed his chubbiness, he hasn't shed Indonesia's lesson, emblazoned on its coat of arms, of 'unity in diversity.'"
"All of which underscores perhaps the most profound shift in Indonesia -- the growth of militant, fundamentalist Islam in the country. ... As much as the world has shrunk, with its direct flights and cell phone coverage and CNN and Internet cafes, Indonesia feels more distant now than it did thirty years ago. I fear it's becoming a land of strangers."Nonetheless, his few years in Indonesia offer a comically convoluted explanation for why, with the whole world to choose from, Barack Obama Jr. worked so methodically to make himself into an African-American politician in that most parochial of burghs, the South Side of Chicago.
Most voters initially assumed that Barack Obama, like Tiger Woods, identifies with all sides of his heritage. When they discovered from the belated Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. scandal that the mild-mannered Obama has long fiercely identified with the black half of his identity, many assume that this was forced upon him by white racism. After all, on the South Side of Chicago, anybody who is half-black is considered just plain black.
Obama, though, chose Chicago as an adult, just as he later carefully chose the extremist Rev. Wright. He actually spent 14 of his first 18 years in Hawaii, where the racial rules are very different from the rest of America. But, strikingly, it was during those other 4 years, from age 6 to 10, which he spent in Indonesia, that his white mother began her methodical campaign to inculcate in him the black identity that led this preppie from paradise to try so hard, at least through the year 2000, to prove he's "black enough."
As he neared graduation from the U. of Hawaii, Barack Obama Sr. was offered a full scholarship to the prestigious New School for Social Research in Manhattan. This would have paid not only his own living expenses, but also those of his wife Stanley Ann Dunham Obama and tiny son Barack Jr. Yet, he turned it down in favor of a scholarship from Harvard -- because it was even more prestigious -- even though Harvard would not pay for his family to accompany him. This ended his bigamous marriage to Stanley Ann.
The young mother then took up with another Third World student at the U. of Hawaii, Lolo Soetoro. Lolo had been in Hawaii on a scholarship presumably paid for by Indonesia's leftwing Sukarno regime. Obama wrote in Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance:
"... that was part of what had drawn her to Lolo after Barack had left, the promise of something new and important, helping her husband rebuild a country in a charged and challenging place beyond her parents’ reach. ... In Hawaii [Lolo] had been so full of life, so eager with his plans. At night when they were alone, he would tell her about growing up as a boy during the war, watching his father and eldest brother leave to join the revolutionary army, hearing the news that both had been killed and everything lost, the Dutch army’s setting their house aflame, their flight into the countryside, his mother’s selling her gold jewelry a piece at a time in exchange for food. Things would be changing now that the Dutch had been driven out, Lolo had told her; he would return and teach at the university, be a part of that change.
After the horrific events of 1965-1966 in which a Communist Party uprising led to a bloody crackdown by the Army and leftist blowhard Sukarno's replacement by rightist Gen. Suharto, Lolo was recalled home and assigned to the army as a young officer to prove his loyalty. When he got back from military service as a geologist in New Guinea, his wife and little Barack traveled from Hawaii to Jakarta to join him.
Stanley Ann later told Obama she hadn't heard about the scenes of slaughter during the putsch just the year before her arrival in Indonesia, and perhaps it's true -- she generally gives the impression of having a strong capacity for not paying attention to things she didn't want to notice, like Barack Sr. already being married when she let him impregnate her and then marry her.
Unfortunately, one thing she very much noticed in 1967 was that Lolo at home in a pro-American capitalist country full of apathetic, corrupt incompetents wasn't as romantic as he had seemed in Honolulu as the representative of a socialist country of the non-aligned future.
Stanley Ann never really fell back in love with her second husband after their year's separation -- "something had happened between her and Lolo in the year that they had been apart" -- and she eventually abandoned him in 1972.
In the meantime, in his easygoing way, Lolo helped little Barack adjust to Indonesian culture, teaching him how to ignore beggars, how to change a flat tire, and how to fight with his fists. The last was necessary because, as Chicago Tribune reporters who interviewed his schoolmates discovered, Obama was routinely subjected to racist violence by Indonesian lads: "All say he was teased more than any other kid in the neighborhood--primarily because he was so different in appearance." He was frequently attacked by three Indonesian kids at once, and one time they threw him in a swamp. "Luckily he could swim."
(Obama doesn't mention in his voluminous autobiography the racism of Indonesians toward him, although he recounts in microscopic detail every hint of white racism he believes he has endured in America, such as the palimpsest of the N-word that he claims to have discerned under coats of paint in a men's room stall at that hotbed of racism, Columbia University. He left out getting beaten up by Indonesians for being black presumably because Asian anti-black racism just doesn't fit into his black-white worldview. That's a little too nuanced for Senator Nuance.)
While Stanley Ann and Lolo were still stuck with each other, she found herself becoming irritated by his dutifully climbing the corporate ladder to support her and her kid (even though everybody instantly could tell just by looking at his hair that he wasn't Lolo's own son).
"Looking back, I’m not sure that Lolo ever fully understood what my mother was going through during these years, why the things he was working so hard to provide for her seemed only to increase the distance between them. ... With the help of his brother-in-law, he landed a new job in the government relations office of an American oil company. We moved to a house in a better neighborhood; a car replaced the motorcycle; ... Sometimes I would overhear him and my mother arguing in their bedroom, usually about her refusal to attend his company dinner parties, where American businessmen from Texas and Louisiana would slap Lolo’s back and boast about the palms they had greased to obtain the new offshore drilling rights, while their wives complained to my mother about the quality of Indonesian help. He would ask her how it would look for him to go alone, and remind her that these were her own people, and my mother’s voice would rise to almost a shout.
"They are not my people."
But, as Obama tells it, Stanley Ann had American standards when it came to her son. Once Barack had come home with a gash in his arm:
"But her tone alters slightly as she remembers that Lolo suggested we wait until morning to get me stitched up, and that she had to browbeat our only neighbor with a car to drive us to the hospital. She remembers that most of the lights were out at the hospital when we arrived, with no receptionist in sight; she recalls the sound of her frantic footsteps echoing through the hallway until she finally found two young men in boxer shorts playing dominoes in a small room in the back. When she asked them where the doctors were, the men cheerfully replied “We are the doctors” and went on to finish their game before slipping on their trousers and giving me twenty stitches that would leave an ugly scar."
"She had always encouraged my rapid acculturation in Indonesia ... She had taught me to disdain the blend of ignorance and arrogance that too often characterized Americans abroad. But she now had learned, just as Lolo had learned, the chasm that separated the life chances of an American from those of an Indonesian. She knew which side of the divide she wanted her child to be on. I was an American, she decided, and my true life lay elsewhere."
The difficulty with this interpretation is that Stanley Ann spent most of the rest of her fairly short life in Indonesia, returning repeatedly to Indonesia (but not to Lolo), writing her 1067 page anthropology Ph.D. dissertation on "Peasant blacksmithing in Indonesia: Surviving and thriving against all odds." That's where she mostly raised her daughter, Obama's half-sister.
A more parsimonious explanation for what followed might be that she just couldn't stand her husband Lolo, and hated seeing her precious son fall under his influence.
So, she strove to inculcate white American values in her son.
"It was as if, by traveling halfway around the globe, away from the smugness and hypocrisy that familiarity had disclosed, my mother could give voice to the virtues of her midwestern past and offer them up in distilled form.
This presented a problem for her, though, since, as we've seen, she despised white Americans. But, at least she had an object lesson of bad values ready at hand: her annoying husband Lolo and his casual ways:
"Honesty-Lolo should not have hidden the refrigerator in the storage room when the tax officials came, even if everyone else, including the tax officials, expected such things. Fairness-the parents of wealthier students should not give television sets to the teachers during Ramadan, and their children could take no pride in the higher marks they might have received."
So, although the anti-role model was naturally Lolo, little Barack must have a positive role model as well to combat Lolo's pernicious influence:
"The problem was that she had few reinforcements; whenever she took me aside for such commentary, I would dutifully nod my assent, but she must have known that many of her ideas seemed rather impractical. Lolo had merely explained the poverty, the corruption, the constant scramble for security; he hadn’t created it. It remained all around me and bred a relentless skepticism."
So, Stanley Ann decided that the perfect role model for Barack Jr. would be that paragon of Midwestern virtues, Barack Sr.!
"She had only one ally in all this, and that was the distant authority of my father. Increasingly, she would remind me of his story, how he had grown up poor, in a poor country, in a poor continent; how his life had been hard, as hard as anything that Lolo might have known. He hadn’t cut corners, though, or played all the angles. He was diligent and honest, no matter what it cost him. He had led his life according to principles that demanded a different kind of toughness, principles that promised a higher form of power. I would follow his example, my mother decided. I had no choice. It was in the genes.
"“You have me to thank for your eyebrows…your father has these little wispy eyebrows that don’t amount to much. But your brains, your character, you got from him.”"
Now, obviously, the Kenyan politician Barack Obama Sr., an alcoholic bigamist Big Man on the make who had abandoned his son without a penny of support, was, by any objective standard, a skunk compared to poor Lolo. But, that wasn't Stanley Ann's point. The point was to stick the knife in her irritating second husband and twist it around by constantly emphasizing that the boy he was working and conniving to support was a cuckoo's egg left by her sexy and morally superior first husband.
Over time, Stanley Ann's strategy expanded to depicting the entire black race as the epitome of bourgeois virtues:
"Her message came to embrace black people generally. She would come home with books on the civil rights movement, the recordings of Mahalia Jackson, the speeches of Dr. King. When she told me stories of schoolchildren in the South who were forced to read books handed down from wealthier white schools but who went on to become doctors and lawyers and scientists, I felt chastened by my reluctance to wake up and study in the mornings. If I told her about the goose-stepping demonstrations my Indonesian Boy Scout troop performed in front of the president, she might mention a different kind of march, a march of children no older than me, a march for freedom. Every black man was Thurgood Marshall or Sidney Poitier; every black woman Fannie Lou Hamer or Lena Horne. To be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear."
One obvious political implication of Stanley Ann's line of indoctrination is that the only possible explanation for why these embodiments of all middle class values weren't rich and happy was that "white folks' greed runs a world in need," as Barack Jr.'s surrogate father Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. was later to phrase it so felicitously in his "Audacity of Hope" sermon. All that blacks needed to lead them to what they deserved were audacious political leaders who had achieved "a higher form of power," like that nation-building statesman Barack Obama Sr.
"Burdens we were to carry with style. More than once, my mother would point out: “Harry Belafonte is the best-looking man on the planet.”"
As opposed, it goes without saying, to her second husband, who was not the best-looking man on the planet. (Stanley Ann, by the way, looked like a girl named Stanley Ann.)
Stanley Ann bundled Barack Jr. off to his grandparents in Honolulu when he was 10. A year later, she ran off from her husband with their newborn daughter and rented an apartment in Honolulu so she could nag young Barack up close and personal. But after two or three years, she felt she had to go back to Indonesia to do whatever it was that was so important for her to do there, so she took his half-sister with her and dumped him back on his grandparents.
Young Obama grew up alternately resenting his mother's constant nagging when she was around him and being crushed by her absence when she'd abandon him to her grandparents.
But he fell hook, line, and sinker for her canonization of his absent father, with whom he only spent one month after the age of two.
As a teenager, he started to notice that blacks weren't always the paragon of Midwestern virtues -- instead, they were something much better, they were cool.
And, in his 20s, he eventually discovered his father was indeed a skunk.
But he's never quite gotten over his mother's indoctrination that 1) Being a politician, especially a politician who stands up for his race, is the highest calling in life, far superior to being some corporate sell-out like her second husband; and 2) What blacks need is not more virtue, but merely better political leadership to achieve a higher form of power.
Or, in his case, the highest.