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September 05, 2008

"Power Was Taking Her Son"

The New Republic is the worst magazine ever created by human beings. And yet they do sometimes publish worthwhile journalism. Life is complicated!

Anyway, I highly recommend a new article by John Judis about Barack Obama and why he ditched community organizing to go into elective politics.

It's all well, well worth reading. But I was particularly struck by this:

In late October 1987, Barack Obama and Jerry Kellman took a weekend off from their jobs as community organizers in Chicago and traveled to a conference on social justice and the black church at Harvard...

At the time, Obama had just learned from his African half-sister what had happened to Barack Obama Sr., who abandoned him when he was two years old. After receiving his master's degree in economics from Harvard, the elder Obama had returned to Kenya, where he became a high-ranking government official. But, when he criticized Kenya's increasingly corrupt and authoritarian government, he lost his job and had to live from hand to mouth, depending on the goodwill of relatives while drinking heavily. Obama told Kellman that he feared ending up destitute and unhappy like his dad. "He wanted to marry and have children, and to have a stable income," Kellman recalls.

I noticed this because of the contrast with Obama's Indonesian stepfather Lolo, whom Obama describes in his memoir. Lolo, like Obama's father, had met Obama's mother at the University of Hawaii. And like Obama's father, he'd wanted to play a role in his country's post-colonialism independence. But he was forced to return to Indonesia after the 1965 coup by Suharto, and was lucky to survive.

And so unlike Obama's father, he eventually decided he couldn't fight the power: he got a job with an American oil company and deflected any attempts by Obama's mother to discuss the coup. (Interestingly, Obama honestly describes what happened, including the CIA's involvement and the post-coup massacre of "a few hundred thousand, maybe...half a million.")

Here's how Obama puts it in his book:

"Men take advantage of weakness in other men," [Lolo told Obama]. "They’re just like countries in that way. The strong man takes the weak man’s land. He makes the weak man work in his fields. If the weak man’s woman is pretty, the strong man will take her.” He paused to take another sip of water, then asked, “Which would you rather be?”

I didn’t answer, and Lolo squinted up at the sky. “Better to be strong,” he said finally, rising to his feet. “If you can’t be strong, be clever and make peace with someone who’s strong. But always better to be strong yourself. Always.” ...

Power. The word fixed in my mother’s mind like a curse. In America, it had generally remained hidden from view until you dug beneath the surface of things; until you visited an Indian reservation or spoke to a black person whose trust you had earned. But here power was undisguised, indiscriminate, naked, always fresh in the memory. Power had taken Lolo and yanked him back into line just when he thought he’d escaped, making him feel its weight, letting him know that his life wasn’t his own. That’s how things were; you couldn’t change it, you could just live by the rules, so simple once you learned them. And so Lolo had made his peace with power, learned the wisdom of forgetting...

She remembered what Lolo had told her once when her constant questioning had finally touched a nerve. “Guilt is a luxury only foreigners can afford,” he had said. “Like saying whatever pops into your head.” She didn’t know what it was like to lose everything, to wake up and feel her belly eating itself. She didn’t know how crowded and treacherous the path to security could be. Without absolute concentration, one could easily slip, tumble backward...

She looked out the window now and saw that Lolo and I had moved on, the grass flattened where the two of us had been. The sight made her shudder slightly, and she rose to her feet, filled with a sudden panic.

Power was taking her son.

Of course, it would be unusual enough if Obama's mother had written that herself. But the fact he wrote it in her voice makes it all the more bizarrely Shakespearean to see him today, on the threshold of becoming President of the United States.

Moreover, he's going to have an adviser who's literally named Power. Apparently we're living in an especially unsubtle Charles Dickens novel.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at September 5, 2008 01:51 PM

Oh, the canard of strength.

I once got into an argument with a friend a long time ago. We geekily reviewed the then-current central conflict of Babylon 5 -- remember the Shadows-Vorlon thing? I found it trite, to be kind -- actually, a pile of philosophical crap. Specifically, I thought the Shadows, the "bad aliens," were ridiculously fucking dumb. They valued "strength" and wanted the universe at war so that everyone would grow strong -- or, alternatively, so that everyone not strong would be dead leaving the strong.

I pointed out that strength is not an absolute but a contextual thing. Change the environment and a strength becomes a weakness. A cautious lawyer is strong in a civilized, non-violent society while the impulsive thug with no self-control is weak. Throw them both in a savage wilderness and the positions are reversed.

My friend disagreed, and we argued futilely until realizing that fatigue was making us stupid.

It keeps coming up, though.

The Shadows in Bab5 rigged the game and created their own little masturbatory fantasy by starting a war and saying "power is how good you are at war." It's not a far-fetched plot: humans do that all the time. But other humans can change the game. Power does not always mean weak are oppressed by the strong. The Framers changed the game by creating separation of powers and a civilian leader of the armed forces. South Americans are doing it by electing browner presidents than ever before.

Power is contextual. If you do not like the present nature of power, change the context. Doing so is hard: it requires many hands, which means it requires leadership.

Joining the powerful in oppressing the weak is, ironically enough, preserving one's weakness. (It also requires no real leadership -- just the basic charisma acquired by any decent con artist.) The world has seen enough revolutions to prove that the "weak" are only weak until they realize that in the right context, a pitchfork makes a great spear.

Posted by: No One of Consequence at September 5, 2008 05:42 PM

The word of the day is: Ego

Barack Obama has a big ego. Good for him.

Let me be the first to say I hope it doesn't cost him too dearly. I doubt it, but I hope it.

Posted by: tim at September 5, 2008 08:26 PM

No One of C, interesting comment as always; the last bit joggled something Jon and I have been batting back-and-forth via email, namely the impact of technology on the mechanics of revolution. I won't speak for Jon, but I personally think that any "torches and pitchforks" uprising is less and less likely to succeed, simply given the continuing advances in technology (lethal and non-lethal) available to those in power.

Control is a chimerical (?) art; and so we need a moral revolution, not a physical one. The good news is, the benefits to moral revolution are immediate, individual, silent, and unstoppable. The better world will be made, I'm convinced, person by person, and without the firing of a shot. It just may take a few generations (or ten); the trick will be keeping the species and planet going that long.

Just my 2c.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at September 5, 2008 08:49 PM

This isn't a Dickens novel, nor Shakespearean. It's a Dickens novel crossed with Greek tragedy.

The fact that I always prefer Shakespearean to Greek tragedy means it blows double.

Posted by: En Ming Hee at September 5, 2008 09:51 PM

Now I know I've said this before, but the literary reference that most readily springs to my mind vis-a-vis Obama is still The Music Man, which most of you young whipper-snappers might remember as the musical that the Simpsons were referring to in the "monorail" episode.

Guess I should say, in my best faux Lloyd Bentsen accent,

"I remember the Music Man. I remember when the local Ford dealer sponsored a showing of it on the UHF channel that shows old movies on Sunday afternoons, when they were trying to move a bunch of last years' Escorts. But sir, you are no Robert Preston."

So, while I am still tripping, I have to ask: what do you do when both the the democrats and the republicans want to sell you a car with an exploding gas tank?

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at September 5, 2008 11:26 PM

Some say Dickens, some say Shakespeare, some say Greeks. Presumably Tolstoy and the Russians are not far behind.

But unless I miss something, we're talking Tolkein, right? Isn't "Barack Obama" an anagram of "Frodo Baggins"? Or, did I miss something?

Posted by: johnny at September 5, 2008 11:58 PM

Jonathan Versen: Buy from a third party.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at September 6, 2008 12:22 AM

"The top came off my puddn' can!"
"Take my penknife, my good man!"

Monorail Episode of the Simpsons >>> The Music Man

Mike of Angle, you're right that pitchforks are passe -- I was waxing poetic.

But do NOT discount technological revolution.

All those fancy tanks? One mine = dead tanks. All those fancy choppers? One SAM = no birdie. The Israelies got all their shit fucked up by the equivalent of one video game protagonist with a fucking bowie knife (I exaggerate only just) due to the sheer effectiveness of these guerilla weapons. The cost disparity is several orders of magnitude. You can commit genocide with nukes and poison but you CANNOT hold a determined enemy population, unlike in the ancient world.

But that doesn't mean armed revolution is a good idea. Just that it works against every army on Earth. Want proof? It's working against ours. Right now. Really well.

But the Middle East is another good example of the nature of power. The Palestenians are fucked because both they and the Israelis have, in leadership, a good number of belligerents who want the conflict to continue. Now, the Israelis are more at fault in every way, but there are definately some Arab leaders who profit from the conflict one way or another. If the Palestinians were mobilized to gain political say in Israel -- which is what many racists there fear -- the war would be over. Arabs are outbreeding light-skinned Jews (boy, this story sounds familiar) so, eventually, given that Israel is a democracy. . . Long story short, genitals + government > guns.

Power is like an ocean: you have to jump from crest to crest.

Obama didn't learn anything about power in the posted passage. He learned about weakness. He embraced his weakness. Why do you think he's so much for the status quo? Why vote for FISA, etc.? Because his weakness is revolution, his weakness is an open democracy. Like any aristocrat, he acts, consciously or otherwise, to shore up this weakness in all things.

Imagine you walk into a dojo and begin training. During sparring, the teacher notices your left leg is always a little off-balance, causing you to telegraph from time to time and leaving you vulnerable to sweeps and various takedowns. Now, you could train to put your leg in safer positions. You could develop self-awareness.

Or you could go buy a gun and shoot anyone who even mentions your leg.

That last option was batshit insane. But what do you call a politician whose response to ALL popular demands is to reduce public participation in government, first and foremost? That is how most of our pols work. Reduce turnout, reduce accountability, and get a taxpayer-funded permanent vacation.

We need a demagogue. Obama is not only not a demagogue, he isn't a leader. He's a talented follower. I'm not saying he's stupid or unskilled. I'm saying he is, at best, a manager. Look at how he selected his advisors. Look at who they are.

Are managers known for leadership? No. What are managers known for? Maintaining the status quo, maintaining power equilibrium and, above all things, covering their own asses.

Mastering power requires leadership because in order to remain in power you have to adapt to every new context, and to do that you need a team.

Mastering your weakness just requires you to JOIN a power structure, get yourself so deep inside it that nothing can reach you, then prop that structure up. No leadership necessary.

I've been babbling for a long time here, but I hope I've gotten the point across. Obama is a disappointing person, once you consider his ambition in contrast to his talent. Even the power-mad dominionist fundie has vision, an ideal of service (which may even be selfless and in contrast to the usual selfish fundie urges). Ask yourself: why are supervillains always cooler than heroes? Heroes change NOTHING (which actually makes them villains, not heroes) but villains have goals.

Obama has plans and policies, but no vision. He has nothing to give humanity or the U.S. He seeks only to be the safest tapeworm in the intestine, and all of us sitting out on the surface of the skin had better watch our backs.

Posted by: No One of Consequence at September 6, 2008 02:14 AM

someone get a blanket or something, cause NOoC is on FIRE! :)

Posted by: almostinfamous at September 6, 2008 07:00 AM
Obama didn't learn anything about power in the posted passage. He learned about weakness. He embraced his weakness. Why do you think he's so much for the status quo?

Objective reality consists of a pretty big status quo domain. If you're looking for change, that doesn't invert everything for the sake of inversion, how do you keep that change safe and controlled?

But NooC, I'm interested in your view of how does one understand and perceive power without understanding weakness on a subjective level? I'm curious how the elite attending our institutions subjectively come to view power since most of them do not have a, uh, well rounded experience that would include both. They don't understand a lack of power for example, or disenfranchisement, or poverty, or extreme frustration that leads people to make the ultimate vest fashion statement.

Now, Obama may be a product of the system in a roundabout way, but I can't speak to what he knows in his heart and deep in his mind. I think the right is correct to fear him. These types of passages that JS has pointed out, are foreign to my experience of US leadership awareness (such that they'd actually utter them in public and in print).

And I fear the unknown, which is why McCain and the MILF are getting the vote.

Posted by: Labiche at September 6, 2008 08:59 AM

The game is rigged in OUR favor as of Thursday. Look at from a progressive view. Dems win, a black man sits in the WH. The repubs win, a woman sits in the WH. Since NONE can fortell the future, only FEAR it, WE really have no idea as to what either side will do. WE can postulate-speculate, but in the end its all a guess at best. Fact is that the "two old white guys WH" is on its way out and that's REAL progress. The Net's influence has opened this situation when NOTHING else has been able to do so. Vote for either side and the Progressives WIN, THAT'S STRENGTH. Sure, both side are corrupt as hell, but ain't that AMERICA. WE are the land of GIMMEE after all, and that kind of idealogy NEVER leads to a general philosophy of honesty in government. One could delve into religion and culture here, but I'll not waste my time or YOURS and just contend that until WE remove corruption as OUR way of life then WE WILL CONTINUE to be plagued with corruption all through government. Learn to CONTROL YOUR GOVERNMENT instead of being lead by it. REMEMBER THEY ARE SERVANTS NOT LEADERS.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at September 6, 2008 11:26 AM

Thanks for that, NOoC. I'm going to read and think more about what you posted, but immediately I'd say that it was impossible to hold a determined enemy population even in the ancient world; witness the Romans versus the Jews, or the Germanic tribes, or the Picts (I think those were the guys north of Hadrian's Wall).

What technology has done is make the alternative--extermination and/or physical incapacitation--more and more possible. My hope is that we evolve as a species before it becomes practical.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at September 6, 2008 04:00 PM

Mike, I was hoping I could persuade somebody to write "take the bus" but I'm guessing it can only get me to work if a plurality will get on board.

Which is really too bad, because(to mix metaphors even willy-nillier) we could really use a political party that supplied us with nice, ecologically friendly buses that got us to work on time.

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at September 6, 2008 08:44 PM

VOTE DIGBY-CLARK-2008---VOTE THE INTERNET quality and excellence
VOTE JONATHAN VERSEN-2008 FOR TEXAS US SENATOR---VOTE THE INTERNET Texas first! Walking away from foreign oil.

NOW YOU're edumacated on how the game is played, its just up to YOU to play to win. The way to win is have ALL the players play. Gotta have ur ducks in a row 6 weeks before the election to win. THEN PLAY TO WIN!

Posted by: Mike Meyer at September 6, 2008 09:10 PM

thanks for posting the excerpts from obama's book.

my heart breaks for the world.

Posted by: karen marie at September 7, 2008 12:05 AM