Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Obama's Passivity

In a previous editorial, Bill commented upon Obama's tendency to cater to "establishment" figures esp. in regard to economic issues. I could not concur more. While there are a variety of explanations for this behavior, I will confess that I feel a bit like Maureen Dowd in having recourse to an explanation which is both pyschological and cultural, and not political, or structural. In the New York Magazine article of August 12, 2011, Janny Scott (author of "A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother") reveals some amazing facts about Obama's upbringing between the age of six and ten in Jakarta, Indonesia before he was sent to live with his grandparents in Hawaii.

According to Scott, there were aspects of Indonesia's culture which were daunting. Specifically, as a friend of the Obamas recalled:

Over lunch, Barry [Barack], who was 9 at the time, sat at the dining table and listened intently but did not speak. When he asked to be excused, Ann [Obama's mother] directed him to ask the hostess for permission. Permission granted, he got down on the floor and played with Bryant’s son, who was 13 months old. After lunch, the group took a walk, with Barry running ahead. A flock of Indonesian children began lobbing rocks in his direction. They ducked behind a wall and shouted racial epithets. He seemed unfazed, dancing around as though playing dodge ball “with unseen players,” Bryant said. Ann did not react. Assuming she must not have understood the words, Bryant offered to intervene. “No, he’s O.K.,” Ann said. “He’s used to it.”

“We were floored that she’d bring a half-black child to Indonesia, knowing the disrespect they have for blacks,” Bryant said. At the same time, she admired Ann for teaching her boy to be fearless. A child in Indonesia needed to be raised that way — for self-preservation, Bryant decided. Ann also seemed to be teaching Barry respect. He had all the politeness that Indonesian children displayed toward their parents. He seemed to be learning Indonesian ways.

“I think this is one reason he’s so halus,” Bryant said of the pres­ident, using the Indonesian adjective that means “polite, refined, or courteous,” referring to qualities some see as distinctively Javanese. “He has the manners of Asians and the ways of Americans — being halus, being patient, calm, a good listener. If you’re not a good listener in Indonesia, you’d better leave.”

In short, it seems clear that Obama's cultural upbringing taught him to behave with an almost overweaning civility and respect to authority figures. Arguably, this trait, which epitomizes his civility and basic morality, has damaged his ability to portray himself as an effective transactional leader (in the bureaucratic form envisioned by Max Weber). While he may be an incredible charismatic leader, that type of leadership is not enough. When your opponents are uncivil, insist upon economic theories which are unworkable in a recession; when they work arduously to suppress voter registration of minority groups and low income populations; and persist in arguing that massive growth in wealth inequality is "O.K" or perhaps indicative of a lazy attitude among workers, it behooves a real leader to stand up and use the bully pulpit. Obama has been weak-kneed in doing so. (Oh, and by the way, if Republicans persist in acting as if Article 6 of the Constituion - which prohibits any test for the office of the President based upon religion - does not exist, the forth estate needs to inform them of therror of their ways. It's not happening.)

1 comment:

  1. Will, thanks, that's interesting. But I suspect his outlook was also formed in Hawaii, where he was Black and White in a largely East Asian and Polynesian society. Then I think he figured out that his way of leading was with the outsider's perspective to be able to understand diverse viewpoints, and bring them together. That has a lot of validity, but it doesn't suit the current situation. Machievelli said "Success lies in conformity to the times."

    Times have changes.