(AP Photo/Drew Angerer.)
I’m fascinated by Barack Obama’s arts of denial. Here we are in the midst of the greatest string of organized rule-bending and -breaking and norm violation by an opposition party perhaps in American history. Just this past week, consider the story from Virginia, where Republicans rammed through a redistricting plan by taking advantage of a brief respite in the State Senate’s 20-20 Democrat-Republican split—because a black state senator, a civil rights hero, was in Washington attending the inauguration. But that was just an especially egregious example of a decade-long pattern: Squeezing all the Democrats in an area into massively super-majority districts, Republican state legislators gerrymander their way past any semblance of democracy—for instance in Pennsylvania, which voted 54 percent for Barack Obama, but whose US House delegation is overwhelmed by Republicans, thirteen to five. It’s cheating, and they’re working hard to leverage that gerrymandering to fix presidential elections, as Nation colleague John Nichols notes: RNC chair Reince Priebus “is urging Republican governors and legislators to take up what was once a fringe scheme to change the rule for distribution of Electoral College votes. Under the Priebus plan, electoral votes from battleground states such as Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin and other states that now regularly back Democrats for president would be allocated not to the statewide winner but to the winners of individual congressional districts.”
That’s how our Republican friends think about rules. Here’s how they think about norms of civility. Wayne LaPierre, to whom the president has extended the hand of fellowship with a White House invitation, responded to an anodyne line in the inaugural address—“we cannot mistake absolutism for principle”—by telling him, “I’ve got news for the president. Absolutes do exist…. It’s the basis of all civilization.” That’s right. Mellow old Barack Obama is literally pulling down civilization, by telling folks to be nicer to each other. And the other side? Well, here’s an example I stumbled upon today from 2010, in which a Tea Party candidate for State Assembly in California made his appeal to the electorate as follows (he won): “I am going there to reach across the aisle to the enemies of freedom and annihilate them and pound them into the ground and take back our power…. We don’t stop until Americans are back in power.”
And how has Barack Obama responded to this historically tectonic shift in rule- and norm-breaking? With silence. As if it’s not really happened at all (except, possibly, “on both sides”). Has he ever, ever, ever specifically addressed the crisis of right-wing antinomian extremism? Of violent rhetoric, or just violence, on the American right? Show me an example and I’ll buy you a steak dinner.
It’s not that he doesn’t know it exists; he’s not stupid. I have reason to know. In August of 2011, during the first debt-ceiling imbroglio, Joe Klein reported that Obama “took a cultural wander through the recent history of US political dysfunction” by reading my book Nixonland, an account of where this Republican nihilism comes from. At first I was plenty flattered. I called Joe Klein for the fuller scoop. He told me that when Obama related to him he was reading the book, the president was more depressed than he had ever seen him, wrecked by spectacle of John Boehner not being being able to sell the deal he and Obama had reached to his caucus. It forced upon him, apparently, some sort of fresh insight that the Republican Party was crazier than he had ever realized. At that I was worried. Had the president of the United States really not noticed before that Republicans have been fantasizing about reaching across the aisle to annihilate us and pound us into the ground before… August of 2011? If that’s so, is he really qualified for his job?
This art of denial: where does it come from? Last time in this series I wrote about an example from his time working as a community organizer. The formative political experience of his career came in the midst of a virtual municipal civil war in which white Chicago alderman preferred to shut down city government rather than let a black mayor govern—and yet Obama seemed to learn no lessons from the experience of reactionary recalcitrance, or at least has acknowledged none.
With trepidation, I want to take the inquiry further back.
In 1966 an Indonesian graduate student in Hawaii lost his student visa and had to return to his native country. His wife, Ann Dunham, and his stepson, then known as Barry Soetoro, soon moved to join him. The boy was soon to be six years old. He stayed in Indonesia for more than four years. Wingnut commentary has focused on how this interval in Barack Obama’s biography helped turn him into a Muslim sleeper-cell agent, of course. But more-or-less liberal Obama chroniclers have made arguments about the influence these years had on him, too: as Chris Bray has written in an outstanding essay on the misplaced sentimentality in sympathetic Obama biographies, the Indonesia experience is said more or less to have been what turned the future president into a multiculturalist and a high-minded idealist.
Bray quotes Janny Scott, author of A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother (which I have not read): “Jakarta had a magical charm…the city felt friendly and safe.” And then Bray quotes an extended passage in which Scott spins as synecdoche for that warm, friendly magic a riff on Indonesian snacks: “They include seafood chips, peanut chips, fried chips from the mlinjo tree, chips made from ground rawhide mixed with garlic, sweet-potato snacks, mashed cassava snacks, sweet flour dumplings made with sesame seeds, sticky rice flavored with pandanus leaves, sticky black rice sprinkled with grated coconut, and rice cakes wrapped in coconut leaves or banana leaves, to name a few….”
David Remnick, in his biography The Bridge (which I also have not read) says that in Indonesia Ann Dunham “was Barry’s teacher in high-minded matters—liberal, humanist values…honesty, hard work, and fulfilling one’s duty to others.” Scott has her “work[ing] to instill ideas about public service in her son,” that “sense of obligation to give something back.”
David Maraniss, in Barack Obama: The Story (of which I’ve read a bit), for his part, takes us inside his Jakarta classroom, where the teacher “spoke idealistically of the notion of tolerance.” And he adds to the multiculti garland, “Barry in Indonesia was not just an early coming-of-age story, but also the start of his coming to grips with race,” which brought him “closer to his father in spirit than he would ever [be] again.”
But what these books talk about barely at all, Bray devastatingly claims, is what had happened in Indonesia but months before Lolo Soetoro’s return there: one of the greatest human rights catastrophes of the second half of the twentieth century. Right-wing general Suharto responded to a half-assed coup attempt by leftists that left behind a death toll of six with a massacre estimated as in excess of 500,000 corpses—of Communists, supposedly, of course; but also of ethnic Chinese, Christians, and any other unfortunate communal outliers. Here’s Wikipedia: Methods “of killing included shooting and beheading with Japanese-style samurai swords. Corpses were often thrown into rivers, and at one point officials complained to the Army that the rivers running into the city of Surabaya were clogged with bodies. In areas such as Kediri in East Java, Nahdlatul Ulama youth wing (Ansor) members lined up Communists, cut their throats and disposed of the bodies in rivers. The killings left whole sections of villages empty, and the houses of victims or the interned were looted and often handed over to the military.”
And here’s Bray after quoting Janny Scott’s roll call of snacks: “This is more detail than Scott has managed for the political events of 1965…. In a story about Indonesia in the late 1960s, you can learn about cookies and chips.”
Again, I don’t know how fair Bray’s critiques of the books are; he does note that Janny Scott “has them living in a place where people are unable to eat the fish because of decaying corpses in the water”; and that Maraniss (before claiming that Obama’s classroom was “a place removed”) reflects on the idea that Lolo Soetoro, a former Army officer and present-day civilian Army employee, was likely agonized to have been called back to Indonesia by this murderous government, at the complicity he was apparently being forced into, and that the development must have “stunned and demoralized” Ann Dunham. But what these biographers do all seem to miss is what habits of mind about conflict and trauma such a death-haunted place might have been inculcated in an exceptionally sensitive and precocious American kid growing up there.
I wonder what Ann Dunham told, or didn’t tell, her son about all their Indonesian friends’ missing cousins, sons, fathers—the missing men: military genocides are like that. Wikipedia observes Indonesians don’t even talk about it now—“The killings are skipped over in most Indonesian history books and have received little introspection by Indonesians and comparatively little international attention. Satisfactory explanations for the scale and frenzy of the violence have challenged scholars from all ideological perspectives”—and surely didn’t talk about it then.
Ann Dunham worked in the American embassy. That embassy more or less signed off on the massacres, informing Indonesian diplomats they were “generally sympathetic and admiring” of the military’s course of action, even helping with supplies such as radios. I wonder what ghosts stalked the corridors of that building? So think of this kid, surrounded by humanists and intellectuals, encouraged in his inquisitiveness on any and all subjects—except, perhaps, for one subject, in a country that was still fundamentally authoritarian long after the killing stopped. (That’s the point of mass political murder, after all: to enforce obedience through terror.)
And finally: What conclusions can one fairly draw, what questions can one legitimately ask, about the murky corners of a 6-year-old’s, even a 10-year-old’s, past? According to Bray, Obama biographers haven’t had trouble with that question; none doubt that the experience of living in exotic Indonesia shaped him. But what about genocidal Indonesia? I myself come up short trying even to frame, let alone answer, what such a discussion would look like.
So let’s talk about it. Let’s discuss it. What’s the research like about kids growing up in the shadow of national trauma? In the midst of the national repression of trauma? Is there some sort of fatalism that ensues—a shrinking from conflict? A glibness about the reality of conflict—a denial? Is there a line that can be drawn between the operations of Obama’s mind when he acts as if irreconcilables can be reconciled through the force of charisma, and the blunt evidence of his upbringing that sometimes people slaughter those they believe are irreconcilable in cold blood?
Is it fair to draw any line between the repression of the trauma of genocide, and a repression of the trauma gerrymandering?
When Obama hears words—and he has to hear them—like, “I am going there to reach across the aisle to the enemies of freedom and annihilate them and pound them into the ground and take back our power,” how to do they fit into his conception of the world? What does it have to do with Obama’s consistent discomfort with seizing opportunities to push forward his agenda through executive fiat when those (perfectly legally, perfectly precedented) opportunities present themselves? Is it learned helplessness? Or studied strategy, a belief that acting unilaterally on controversial issues in a nation like this cannot but create hatreds too blind to control? Is that what he fears?
Have people even started asking these questions? Have you?
I’m fascinated that when I introduced some of these themes in my post about Obama’s historic silence regarding the far, far more portentous breakdown of decency that he witnessed when living in Chicago, I got very little interest or response. (Contrast that to the intense interest, fascination and concurrence when I rooted Richard Nixon’s adult character formation in experiences that went back hardly earlier in Nixon’s life).
Maybe I’m just wrong? Maybe I’m out of line? Let’s discuss.