When Do We Get to Attack Obama's Character?
Barack Obama is not a bad man, just a bad president, Mitt Romney said in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, echoing the self-characterization of the Wizard of Oz. The political pros advise against it, and with well-studied reasons. Responding to a question of this genre at a political conference some months ago, Karl Rove explained that if you attack Obama personally, you make all the people who voted for him feel badly. The way to get people to do what you want, by contrast, is to make people feel good about themselves. Politics is the art of flattering the voters, and that is just what Romney did: he told the voters that they had every right in the world to feel good when they voted for Obama, and they should vote against him now because the best feeling they had about Obama was then they voted for him.
I am not a candidate's handler, though, and have no aspirations to be one. I don't dispute Karl Rove's competence or second-guess Romney's speech writers. Like most conservatives, I was disgusted by the Obama administration's apology for a hitherto unnoticed YouTube video. Obama is the first American president who truly dislikes the United States and blames its hegemonic position for most of the world's troubles.
Almost a year before the 2008 election I characterized then-candidate Obama as a third-world anthropologist profiling us. There's nothing in American culture with which to compare him, which is what makes him dangerous: he is an invasive pest with no natural enemies. He bears comparison to the carnival mentalist played by Tyrone Power, Jr. in Nightmare Alley, but his motivations are ideological rather than pecuniary.
How is it possible that we elected a president who embraces the Muslim Brotherhood, and who has thrown under the bus not just Israel, but all of America's Middle Eastern allies? I addressed the issue in an essay published in Asia Times Online on Feb. 26, 2008, reposted below. Its major omission is the role of Valerie Jarrett, Obama's Senior Counselor and general factotum. Otherwise I stand by the thesis.
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"Cherchez la femme," advised Alexander Dumas in: "When you want to uncover an unspecified secret, look for the woman." In the case of Barack Obama, we have two: his late mother, the went-native anthropologist Ann Dunham, and his rancorous wife Michelle. Obama's women reveal his secret: he hates America.
We know less about Senator Obama than about any prospective president in American history. His uplifting rhetoric is empty, as Hillary Clinton helplessly protests. His career bears no trace of his own character, not an article for the Harvard Law Review he edited, or a single piece of legislation. He appears to be an empty vessel filled with the wishful thinking of those around him. But there is a real Barack Obama. No man -- least of all one abandoned in infancy by his father -- can conceal the imprint of an impassioned mother, or the influence of a brilliant wife.
America is not the embodiment of hope, but the abandonment of one kind of hope in return for another. America is the spirit of creative destruction, selecting immigrants willing to turn their back on the tragedy of their own failing culture in return for a new start. Its creative success is so enormous that its global influence hastens the decline of other cultures. For those on the destruction side of the trade, America is a monster. Between half and nine-tenths of the world's 6,700 spoken languages will become extinct in the next century, and the anguish of dying peoples rises up in a global cry of despair. Some of those who listen to this cry become anthropologists, the curators of soon-to-be extinct cultures; anthropologists who really identify with their subjects marry them. Obama's mother, the University of Hawaii anthropologist Ann Dunham, did so twice.
Obama profiles Americans the way anthropologists interact with primitive peoples. He holds his own view in reserve and emphatically draws out the feelings of others; that is how friends and colleagues describe his modus operandi since his days at the Harvard Law Review, through his years as a community activist in Chicago, and in national politics. Anthropologists, though, proceed from resentment against the devouring culture of America and sympathy with the endangered cultures of the primitive world. Obama inverts the anthropological model: he applies the tools of cultural manipulation out of resentment against America. The probable next president of the United States is a mother's revenge against the America she despised.
Ann Dunham died in 1995, and her character emerges piecemeal from the historical record, to which I will return below. But Michelle Obama is a living witness. Her February 18 comment that she felt proud of her country for the first time caused a minor scandal, and was hastily qualified. But she meant it, and more. The video footage of her remarks shows eyes hooded with rage as she declares:
For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country and not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change. And I have been desperate to see our country moving in that direction and just not feeling so alone in my frustration and disappointment.
The desperation, frustration and disappointment visible on Michelle Obama's face are not new to the candidate's wife; as Steve Sailer, Rod Dreher and other commentators have noted, they were the theme of her undergraduate thesis, on the subject of "blackness" at Princeton University. No matter what the good intentions of Princeton, which founded her fortunes as a well-paid corporate lawyer, she wrote, "My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my 'Blackness' than ever before. I have found that at Princeton no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my White professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don't belong."
Never underestimate the influence of a wife who bitch-slaps her husband in public. Early in Obama's campaign, Michelle Obama could not restrain herself from belittling the senator. "I have some difficulty reconciling the two images I have of Barack Obama. There's Barack Obama the phenomenon. He's an amazing orator, Harvard Law Review, or whatever it was, law professor, best-selling author, Grammy winner. Pretty amazing, right? And then there's the Barack Obama that lives with me in my house, and that guy's a little less impressive," she told a fundraiser in February 2007.
"For some reason this guy still can't manage to put the butter up when he makes toast, secure the bread so that it doesn't get stale, and his five-year-old is still better at making the bed than he is." New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd reported at the time, "She added that the TV version of Barack Obama sounded really interesting and that she'd like to meet him sometime." Her handlers have convinced her to be more tactful since then.
"Frustration" and "disappointment" have dogged Michelle Obama these past 20 years, despite her US$300,000 a year salary and corporate board memberships. It is hard for the descendants of slaves not to resent America. They were not voluntary immigrants but kidnap victims, subjected to a century of second-class citizenship even after the Civil War ended slavery. Blackness is not the issue; General Colin Powell, whose parents chose to immigrate to America from the West Indies, saw America just as other immigrants do, as a land of opportunity. Obama's choice of wife is a failsafe indicator of his own sentiments. Spouses do not necessarily share their likes, but they must have their hatreds in common. Obama imbibed this hatred with his mother's milk.
Michelle Obama speaks with greater warmth of her mother-in-law than of her husband. "She was kind of a dreamer, his mother," Michelle Obama was quoted in the January 25 Boston Globe. "She wanted the world to be open to her and her children. And as a result of her naivete, sometimes they lived on food stamps, because sometimes dreams don't pay the rent. But as a result of her naivete, Barack got to see the world like most of us don't in this country." How strong the ideological motivation must be of a mother to raise her children on this thin fare in pursuit of a political agenda.
"Naivete" is a euphemism for Ann Dunham's motivation. Friends describe her as a "fellow traveler," that is, a communist sympathizer, from her youth, according to a March 27, 2007, Chicago Tribune report. Many Americans harbor leftist views, but not many marry into them, twice. Ann Dunham met and married the Kenyan economics student Barack Obama, Sr, at the University of Hawaii in 1960, and in 1967 married the Indonesian student Lolo Soetero. It is unclear why Soetero's student visa was revoked in 1967 -- the fact but not the cause are noted in press accounts. But it is probable that the change in government in Indonesia in 1967, in which the leftist leader Sukarno was deposed, was the motivation.
Soetero had been sponsored as a graduate student by one of the most radical of all Third World governments. Sukarno had founded the so-called Non-Aligned Movement as an anti-colonialist turn at the 1955 Bandung Conference in Indonesia. Before deposing him in 1967, Indonesia's military slaughtered 500,000 communists (or unfortunates who were mistaken for communists). When Ann Dunham chose to follow Lolo Soetero to Indonesia in 1967, she brought the six-year-old Barack into the kitchen of anti-colonialist outrage, immediately following one of the worst episodes of civil violence in post-war history.
Dunham's experience in Indonesia provided the material for a doctoral dissertation celebrating the hardiness of local cultures against the encroaching metropolis. It was entitled, "Peasant blacksmithing in Indonesia: surviving against all odds". In this respect Dunham remained within the mainstream of her discipline. Anthropology broke into popular awareness with Margaret Mead's long-discredited Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), which offered a falsified ideal of sexual liberation in the South Pacific as an alternative to the supposedly repressive West. Mead's work was one of the founding documents of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and anthropology faculties stood at the left-wing fringe of American universities.
In the Global South, anthropologists went into the field and took matters a step further. Peru's brutal Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerilla movement was the brainchild of the anthropologist Efrain Morote Best, who headed the University of San Cristobal of Huamanga in Ayacucho, Peru, between 1962 and 1968. Dunham's radicalism was more vicarious; she ended her career as an employee of international organizations.
Barack Obama received at least some instruction in the Islamic faith of his father and went with him to the mosque, but the importance of this experience is vastly overstated by conservative commentators who seek to portray Obama as a Muslim of sorts. Radical anti-Americanism, rather than Islam, was the reigning faith in the Dunham household. In the Muslim world of the 1960s, nationalism rather than radical Islam was the ideology of choice among the enraged. Radical Islam did not emerge as a major political force until the nationalism of a Gamal Abdel Nasser or a Sukarno failed.
Barack Obama is a clever fellow who imbibed hatred of America with his mother's milk, but worked his way up the elite ladder of education and career. He shares the resentment of Muslims against the encroachment of American culture, although not their religion. He has the empathetic skill set of an anthropologist who lives with his subjects, learns their language, and elicits their hopes and fears while remaining at emotional distance. That is, he is the political equivalent of a sociopath. The difference is that he is practicing not on a primitive tribe but on the population of the United States.
There is nothing mysterious about Obama's methods. "A demagogue tries to sound as stupid as his audience so that they will think they are as clever as he is," wrote Karl Krauss. Americans are the world's biggest suckers, and laugh at this weakness in their popular culture. Listening to Obama speak, Sinclair Lewis' cynical tent-revivalist Elmer Gantry comes to mind, or, even better, Tyrone Power's portrayal of a carnival mentalist in the 1947 film noire Nightmare Alley. The latter is available for instant viewing at Netflix, and highly recommended as an antidote to having felt uplifted by an Obama speech.
America has the great misfortune to have encountered Obama at the peak of his powers at its worst moment of vulnerability in a generation. With malice aforethought, he has sought out their sore point.
Since the Ronald Reagan boom began in 1984, the year the American stock market doubled, Americans have enjoyed a quarter-century of rising wealth. Even the collapse of the Internet bubble in 2000 did not interrupt the upward trajectory of household assets, as the housing price boom eclipsed the effect of equity market weakness. America's success made it a magnet for the world's savings, and Americans came to believe that they were riding a boom that would last forever.
Americans regard upward mobility as a God-given right. America had a double founding, as David Hackett Fischer showed in his 1989 study, Albion's Seed. Two kinds of immigrants founded America: religious dissidents seeking a new Promised Land, and economic opportunists looking to get rich quick. Both elements still are present, but the course of the past quarter-century has made wealth-creation the sine qua non of American life. Now for the first time in a generation Americans have become poorer, and many of them have become much poorer due to the collapse of home prices. Unlike the Reagan years, when cutting the top tax rate from a punitive 70% to a more tolerable 40% was sufficient to start an economic boom, no lever of economic policy is available to fix the problem. Americans have no choice but to work harder, retire later, save more and retrench.
This reversal has provoked a national mood of existential crisis. In Europe, economic downturns do not inspire this kind of soul-searching, for richer are poorer, remain what they always have been. But Americans are what they make of themselves, and the slim makings of 2008 shake their sense of identity. Americans have no institutionalized culture to fall back on. Their national religion has consisted of waves of enthusiasm - "Great Awakenings" – every second generation or so, followed by an interim of apathy. In times of stress they have a baleful susceptibility to hucksters and conmen.
Be afraid -- be very afraid. America is at a low point in its fortunes, and feeling sorry for itself. When Barack utters the word "hope," they instead hear "handout." A cynic might translate the national motto, E pluribus unum, as "something for nothing." Now that the stock market and the housing market have failed to give Americans something for nothing, they want something for nothing from the government. The trouble is that he who gets something for nothing will earn every penny of it, twice over.
The George W. Bush administration has squandered a great strategic advantage in a sorry lampoon of nation-building in the Muslim world, and has made enemies out of countries that might have been friendly rivals, notably Russia. Americans question the premise of America's standing as a global superpower, and of the promise of upward mobility and wealth-creation. If elected, Barack Obama will do his utmost to destroy the dual premises of America's standing. It might take the country another generation to recover.
"Evil will oft evil mars," J. R. R. Tolkien wrote. It is conceivable that Barack Obama, if elected, will destroy himself before he destroys the country. Hatred is a toxic diet even for someone with as strong a stomach as Obama. As he recalled in his 1995 autobiography Dreams From My Father, Obama idealized the Kenyan economist who had married and dumped his mother, and was saddened to learn that Barack Hussein Obama, Sr, was a sullen, drunken polygamist. The elder Obama became a senior official of the government of Kenya after earning a PhD at Harvard. He was an abusive drunk and philanderer whose temper soured his career.
The senior Obama died in a 1982 car crash. Kenyan government officials in those days normally spent their nights drinking themselves stupid at the Pan-Afrique Hotel. Two or three of them would be found with their Mercedes wrapped around a palm tree every morning. During the 1970s I came to know a number of them, mostly British-educated hollow men dying inside of their own hypocrisy and corruption.
Both Obama and the American public should be very careful of what they wish for. As the horrible example of Obama's father shows, there is nothing worse for an embittered outsider manipulating the system from within than to achieve his goals -- and nothing can be more terrible for the system. Even those who despise America for its blunders of the past few years should ask themselves whether the world will be a safer place if America retreats into a self-pitying shell.