Asian Influences on Our African American President

During the 2008 election, I noticed that there were a couple of reporters who were telling a story about the Obama campaign that the rest of the media pretty much ignored. They were people like Zack Exley at Huffington Post and Sean Quinn with his “On the Road” series at FiveThirtyEight. It was reporting like theirs that got me curious about this guy Barack Hussein Obama. He seemed different and it wasn’t clear that the media were really capturing the story.

That curiosity continued after the election when views about President Obama hardened pretty quickly. It wasn’t long before the right came to the conclusion that he was a Kenyan socialist, the mainstream media decided that he was aloof, detached and professorial, and a lot of people on the left called him weak and naive. What struck me was that so many of these conclusions sounded like pre-constructed categories in people’s minds into which they slotted this newly elected president. It always seemed to me that there was more to the story than that. So I stayed curious and tried to avoid the rush to either defend or criticize.

Like Exley and Quinn, there have been a few folks that strayed away from the pre-constructed categories and have dug a bit deeper into understanding what makes this man – Barack Obama – tick. They have usually been the ones that take into account his life story and what he says about himself. For example, James Kloppenberg reviewed Obama’s two books to develop his own understanding in Reading Obama.

Almost everything you need to know about Obama is there on the printed page. In contrast to the charges coming now from right and left, Obama is neither a rigid ideologue nor a spineless wimp. The Obama who wrote Dreams and Audacity stands in a long tradition of American reform, wary of absolutes and universals, and committed to a Christian tradition that prizes humility and social service over dogmatic statements of unbending principle. A child of the philosophical pragmatists William James and John Dewey, Obama distrusts pat formulas and prefers experimentation.

Of course, a lot of what Obama has written is about his struggle to construct an identity in light of his Kansan mother and Kenyan father. What I have found equally instructive have been those who recognize the Asian influence on his formative years – specifically in Indonesia. That is why I was fascinated to read an article on that topic by Edward Fox, who has studied Javanese culture for a book he wrote titled Obscure Kingdoms.

Fox talks about it being very likely that Obama adopted his calm demeanor as a result of what Javanese culture calls halus.

In Janny Scott’s biography of Obama’s mother, A Singular Woman, one of her interviewees maintains: ‘This is where Barack learnt to be cool … if you get mad and react, you lose. If you learn to laugh and take it without any reaction, you win.’…

The Javanese have a word for this kind of bearing. They call it halus…The American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who wrote some of the most important studies of Javanese culture in English, defined halus in The Religion of Java (1976) as: “Formality of bearing, restraint of expression, and bodily self-discipline … spontaneity or naturalness of gesture or speech is fitting only for those ‘not yet Javanese’ — ie, the mad, the simple-minded, and children.”

But since Fox was particularly studying Javanese rulers and kings, he takes it a step further.

Halus in a Javanese ruler is the outward sign of a visible inner harmony which gathers and concentrates power in him personally. In the West, we might call this charisma. Crucially, in the Javanese idea of kingship, the ruler does not conquer opposing political forces, but absorbs them all under himself. In the words of Anderson again, the Javanese ruler has ‘the ability to contain opposites and to absorb his adversaries’. The goal is a unity of power that spreads throughout the kingdom.

Perhaps that is why some people see Obama’s approach as one that resembles the Aikido Way.

There are no kicks and no punches within Aikido itself…Instead, there is an emphasis on blending with a partner’s attack and the use of techniques to lead that attack safely to a conclusion that is good for everyone…you have the chance to actually resolve the conflict rather than just winning the fight.

To the extent that Obama absorbed these Asian influences is a question that only he can answer. But they sure make sense to me when I look at his record these last 7 years.

None of that is meant to reflect on the differences people have with President Obama’s policy choices. But it is a good reminder that our assumptions about things like strength and leadership are often rooted in Western patriarchal notions. A world that is increasingly experiencing the death of normal requires that we be more open and curious about other possibilities.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.