Thoughts on Barack Obama from the Bayforest of St. John

It feels strange, here, surrounded by bay trees, to be thinking about the presidential election. On the other side of my window’s rusting frame, raindrops are running down the giant philodendron leaves. Tree frogs are chanting. Moths brush the ceiling beams; Suriname hardwood. The books on my desk are beginning to warp, their covers curling in the humidity. This mountain, marked by abandoned charcoal pits, can seem remote even now with its paved road, its incongruous joggers and dog-walking neighbors; hallucinations.

Wires and waves carry the news of national politics from the U.S. mainland to this mountain on which I was raised. Do islands still exist in an age of connectivity, or do we exist everywhere at once beyond any possibility of isolation? The current presidential campaign, Barack Obama vs. Mitt Romney, is accessible here, as it is across the nation, on monitors and television sets – and many of us follow it intently, although here we cannot vote. Here in the U.S. Virgin Islands we remain unincorporated, in limbo, and full of contradictory desires.

Despite the pride of t-shirts emblazoned with the face of the President, despite the absurdity of campaign bumper stickers, we remain outsiders to presidential politics. But who is more preoccupied with what happens “on the inside” than the outsider? We look on from a distance — sometimes filled with bitterness, sometimes filled with relief. We spend a lot of hours with our own discomfort.

Questions of identity can buzz unpleasantly inside the minds of those without clear ethnic or national attachments. But these questions are social not natural; they are a response to a world that demands categorization with one hand and refuses it with the other. It is not always easy to pick and choose our commitments; humanity is filled to the brim with complexities and permutations. Why is this fact so seldom reflected, or even acknowledged, in our institutions and leaders? But Barack Obama, a man who has written books about the complexities of cultural identity, appeared to many as a harbinger of change.

The President’s most vocal opponents speak in small, shrill voices about birth certificates and other symbols of “the intolerant root.” They say he is unknowable — an essentially mysterious person. They say he shifts in and out of affected political stances. This has been most recently argued by Dinesh D’souza’s propagandist documentary, 2016: Obama’s America, which has been breaking box office records in the States. The off-key argument that D’Souza continues to make to whoever will listen — many people it seems — is that Obama is to be feared, above all because he is “anti-colonial.” And D’souza bizarrely tells us that he himself is an authority on anti-colonialism, because he “grew up in India in the decades after that country gained its independence from Britain.” Given the amount of people who share those credentials, and the diversity of opinion bred by that experience, I find the intensity and narrowness of D’Souza’s argument puzzling.

Neurosis over anti-colonialism, too, seems mysterious in the United States, a nation born of anti-colonial revolution. Is this response simply the narcissism of some Caucasians who hear the term “anti-colonial” and interpret it as “anti-white?” Is it as simple as this conflation of anti-colonialism, a broad discourse on power, with the related but superficial sideshow of race?

It is at the most conservative end of the American political spectrum that we mostly find those arguing that Obama is a shadowy outsider. But this position can be messy and unconstrained. It can spill over the indistinct borders that separate ideologies.

In a recent issue of The New Republic, a center-left American political magazine (the center-left American political magazine), Nicholas Lehmann reviews the most recent biography of the President, a book blandly entitled Barack Obama: The Story. Lehmann’s analysis, though more favorable to Obama than D’souza’s obsessive editorials, sometimes falls into the flawed, common thinking in which the President’s complex background is seen as a natural source of anxiety. We are supposed to believe that Obama himself is confused by his own upbringing, which was “all over the cultural, geographic, and political map.” I believe this is misguided; There are a lot of people in the world today with fragmented, international identities: migrants, refugees, colonials and ex-colonials, global creoles of various kinds – people who can’t go home, people who have never been home. The mistake is to believe that their complexity necessarily leads to confusion. There is nothing inevitable about the ways in which people whose experience lies outside of so-called “master-narrratives” (half-Kenyan Hawaiians raised in Indonesia for instance)  are made to feel they should be confused by those who are more rooted in their own ethnic/national traditions. This is nothing but a condemnable turn-of-the-century form of cruelty.

But Lehmann is also sensitive to some things about Obama that aren’t often mentioned in the American media. Obama’s response to the overdetermined racial thinking that is such an ingrained part of American culture – his close identification with the main line of African-American historical narrative that stretches from the Southern plantation to the Civil Rights Movement, a history which he is only ambiguously attached to – may deserve more attention. Some Americans experience no cognitive dissonance on this issue. For instance, Jelani Cobb’s recent piece in the New Yorker tries very hard to place Obama within this narrative, and Cobb’s writing is so good that he almost convinced me, but I could not finally ignore the contradictions. If that is other peoples’ truth, so be it, but mine lies elsewhere. Lehmann, for one, is asking useful questions:

“One can’t gainsay the genuineness of the feeling of homecoming Obama got from finding his way into the heart of the African American experience, most notably through his marriage, from a point completely outside it. But it is also a sign of the weirdness of America’s racial customs—most whites assume that anybody who has dark skin also has a set of identical, deeply ingrained experiences and attitudes that just weren’t part of Obama’s life growing up—that Obama has been able to sell this version of himself so successfully.”

That’s a thoughtful way to put it. Identity is always in formation, and is largely voluntary, but one can’t help but wonder about American racial myopia in relation to the President’s identity. He is, interestingly, descended from American slaves, but only on the “white-ish” side of his family, not the black African side.

And here is where Lehmann’s analysis – opposite but symmetrical to D’souza’s focus on the politics of colonialism – really caught my interest:

“If there is a politically applicable impression that emerges from the great mass of material [in Barack Obama: The Story], it is how much Obama is a child of the postcolonial era. Hawaii, Kenya, and Indonesia were all former colonies or possessions of the West, one of which was absorbed into a larger democratic nation, the other two of which became independent. The careers of Obama’s grandparents, his parents, and his stepfather all can be seen as workings out of the ways in which post-colonialism plays itself out in individual lives. And though the term “post-colonial” reads as “left,” both of Obama’s parents, though they probably would have been comfortable with that equation as applying to them politically, chose to work not as lifelong rebels but in the sorts of establishment roles that the end of colonialism opened up: his mother, in Indonesia, at the Ford Foundation; his father, in Kenya, at Shell Oil and then in a government bureau meant to promote the tourist business.”

This rings true to me, and is far more natural than D’souza’s hysteria over a threatening “anti-colonialism.” Fanon reminds us that colonial society is a Manichean society. Part of rejecting it must be learning, despite the pain, to recognize a more full sense of our societies and ourselves. It is difficult for all involved. But postcoloniality must not become a slogan. It must be a sensibility. A young Obama, writing in a letter to a college girlfriend (a letter which Barack Obama: The Story mines for insights), expresses one of the most characteristic features of the postcolonial condition: a sense of disconnection from the past:

“Caught without a class, a structure, or tradition to support me, in a sense the choice to take a different path is made for me….”

For many of us, the path that Obama takes is not as important as the fact that it is different, and somehow reflects this postcolonial understanding of the world — one in which, in the words of a great poet, “everything and its absolute opposite are true.” Those who label this as confusion will soon find that the doors to the future are sealed by singularity.

J.M. Coetzee: “I am not a Herald of Community”

“Whatever the opposite of native or rooted, that was what we felt ourselves to be. We thought of ourselves as sojourners, temporary residents, and to that extent without a home, without a homeland.”

– J.M. Coetzee, Summertime

J.M. Coetzee. (Image courtesy of Nobelprize.org)

J.M. Coetzee. (Image courtesy of Nobelprize.org)

J.M. Coetzee’s early novels place him squarely in the tradition of “white settler moralists” — those writers who turn against their own imperial histories with a special sort of clear-sighted anger. There’s no shame in being a bastard, Coetzee wrote in his first novel, Dusklands, except that for the illegitimate children of Western Europe — Afrikaners, Pied Noirs, Anglo-Indians — there’s plenty of shame to go around. And Coetzee has spent his career trying to find a moral use for his.

Coetzee’s situation isn’t unique. Even the banal dispossessions of colonies produce sensitive types who evolve, with any luck, from solitary provincial youth into worldly writers. But how does one deal with historical disgrace, guilt, and the paralyzing demands of the present without settling into a refusal to see. “What historical role is available to a writer born into a late colonial community?” Coetzee asks in a 2003  review of one of Nadine Gordimer’s later novels. It’s a good question.

One option is to take a cue from the most famous of the “white settler moralists”, Albert Camus, and follow a route of unwavering political commitment. The obstacles along this path are formidable, but no one admires moralists whose choices are easy. Gordimer herself has chosen this route; “Camus was a strong influence,” she says. But it might be the case that the era of Camus is over for good; earnestness and transparency don’t quite fly in our cynical, confused era. Camus’s anachronism comes in the form of his armor of French humanism — Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité — the sort of humanism that provides confidence and cultural connection, apparently even to poor boys born in Mondovi. Coetzee’s humanism, on the other hand, is a patchy kind of armor – the remains of a discredited individualism left to crack in the dry South African Veldt.

Coetzee is a lousy activist, and this makes him more interesting than most moralists. In a review of Coetzee’s 1983 novel The Life and Times of Michael K Gordimer wrote of the book’s “revulsion against all political and revolutionary solutions” and concluded that the author wouldn’t deny that the revulsion was his own. That’s true. He wouldn’t. Coetzee has described himself as  “alienated, when the crunch comes, by [radical] language – by all political language, in fact.”

What this sort of anti-politics often means is a cowardly crypto-conservatism, and some critics have accused Coetzee of this. I disagree. While It’s hard to imagine the famously aloof Coetzee ever writing anything as open and searching about his country as Camus did in The Algerian Chronicles, his disgust with power and hierarchy in his nation is the engine of his writing. Sometimes the only reaction to an oppressive society is to withdraw from it in the hopes of escaping its poisonous influences: “The alternatives are not placid servitude on the one hand and open revolt against servitude on the other. There is a third way, chosen by thousands and millions of people every day. It is the way of quietism, of willed obscurity, of inner emigration,” Coetzee writes in Diary of a Bad Year. He does not imply it is the morally superior way, but I strongly suspect that he feels it is the way he has preserved his dignity.

A belief in individual dignity won’t take you far as an activist but it helps when confronted with the totalitarian trapdoors of collective identity. Can a person be “morally steadfast in a bad situation” and at the same time withdraw from social commitment to focus on nurturing and healing the self? Even Camus was forced to concede, during the period he remained silent on his own troubled and beloved Algeria, that sometimes “too much is expected of a writer in these matters.”