If you’re a member of the Coalition of the Sane, one of the most frustrating things about President Obama is his apparent willingness to compromise with those who intend to destroy him politically. One would think, especially since Obama came up surrounded by the Chicago political machine–if not part of it, that he would have fought back much earlier (and when he has done so, he has been successful). Some of that is probably a political strategy: Obama is, at core, a Rockefeller Republican who strongly believes in the neo-liberal proposition that Social Security and Medicare must be cut to solve the deficit crisis. But Obama has attempted to compromise even when his signature program, his healthcare bill has been directly assaulted. It does approach the point of pathology.
Rick Perlstein offers up an explanation based on Obama’s time in Indonesia as a child (boldface mine, emphasis original):
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.”
…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’m reluctant to engage in long-distance psychology, but this must have had an effect on Obama. To live in a place where life was so precarious, to witness the aftermath of one of the great war crimes of the twentieth century–the disappeared relatives and friends of family–could lead one to seek out compromise at all costs due to fear of the potential alternative. Divisiveness would be terrifying. It would also teach one to be very private and calm–emotional explosions could be deadly in such environments.
This isn’t the ‘Dreams of His Father’, it’s his father’s nightmares. It is odd that, other than one review of Obama’s biography, this aspect of his life has never been discussed or asked of Obama (well, given the political press corps’ genuflection to power, it’s not really surprising at all…).