John Podhoretz excoriated me for a characterization of Barack Obama that has earned wide if not universal acceptance among conservatives. Surely he protests too much. John is a very good journalist; if he had read my essays rather than react to a one-line reference to them in a blog post, I am convinced he would have come away with a different impression.
On pages 38-39 of his new book Conservative Victory, for example, Sean Hannity approvingly quotes my two-year-old sketch of how Obama’s family background cultivated a hostility to the United States:
But it’s been suggested that one of Obama’s voluntary relationships is more revealing of his radicalism, anti-Americanism, and anti-capitalism than all of the others: his choice of marital partner. The columnist known as Spengler, writing for the Asia Times, quoted Alexandre Dumas: “When you want to uncover an unspecified secret, look for the woman.” In Obama’s case, wrote Spengler, there have been two principal women in his life: his late mother and “his rancorous wife Michelle. Obama’s women reveal his secret: he hates America.”
Michael Ledeen has had some things to say about this as well.
. . . As we walked back to the car, we passed a small clothing store full of cheap dresses and brightly colored sweaters, two aging white mannequins now painted black in the window. The store was poorly lit, but toward the back I could make out the figure of a young Korean woman sewing by hand as a child slept beside her.
The scene took me back to my childhood, back to the markets of Indonesia: the hawkers, the leather workers, the old women chewing betel nut and swatting flies off their fruit with whisk brooms . . . I saw those Djakarta markets for what they were: fragile, precious things. The people who sold their goods there might have been poor, poorer even than folks out in Altgeld [the Chicago housing project where Obama engaged in community organizing]. They hauled fifty pounds of firewood on their backs every day, they ate little, they died young. And yet for all that poverty, there remained in their lives a discernible order, a tapestry of trading routes and middlemen, bribes to pay and customs to observe, the habits of a generation played out every day beneath the bargaining and the noise and the swirling dust. It was the absence of such coherence that made a place like Altgeld so desperate, I thought to myself.
This Romantic notion about the authenticity of Third World people as opposed to the alienation of Americans comes right out of his mother’s doctoral dissertation, on the struggle of Indonesian blacksmiths to survive in a globalized market. It is true, as John says, that one could have picked up this sort of ideological orientation at an American university. That, presumably, is where Ann Dunham absorbed the left-wing views that took her to Indonesia. But there is something more: Obama spent four formative years in Indonesia and was raised by an anthropologist with a fierce ideological attachment to the Third World. It is one thing to acquire a general ideological view, and quite another to feel an existential connection to the struggles of the Third World.
And in a way, I have a modicum of sympathy for Obama’s view of things. My first piece of professional journalism was a report from Kenya on the plight of East African Asians, published in the London Spectator in 1974. As an economist I have worked in Mexico, Peru, Nicaragua, Thailand, and Russia at the peak of its economic crisis in the early 1990s. I have seen more hungry children begging in the streets than I like to remember. At times it was almost (and I emphasize “almost”) enough to make me a communist. It is a terrible thought that America can’t fix all the world’s problems; when you see these problems as individuals, not as statistics, it is a heart-wrenching thought.
As I wrote in the July 2008 essay,
To ascribe a special grace to America is outrageous, as outrageous as the idea of special grace itself. Why shouldn’t everyone be saved? Why aren’t all individuals, nations, peoples and cultures equally deserving? History seems awfully unfair: half or more of the world’s 7,000 or so languages will be lost by 2100, linguists warn, and at present fertility rates Italian, German, Ukrainian, Hungarian and a dozen other major languages will die a century or so later. The agony of dying nations rises in reproach to America’s unheeding prosperity.
One has to come from the Third World, or at least have spent a good deal of time in the Third World, to comprehend quite how agonizing is the plight of failing peoples. One response is to blame the hated hegemony of America; that is precisely what President Obama did at the United Nations on Sept. 23, 2009 when he said:
No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold. The traditional divisions between nations of the South and the North make no sense in an interconnected world; nor do alignments of nations rooted in the cleavages of a long-gone Cold War.
That statement appears absurd; as Charles Krauthammer pointed out, Henry Kissinger observed that peace is only maintained by hegemony or balance of power. The Obama administration is doing a number of things that leave the world baffled, alienating friends, propitiating rivals and appeasing enemies, with foreseeably disastrous results for America’s position in the world. These destructive actions, I maintain, are the predictable impulses of a man whose deepest loyalties pertain to the existentially-challenged peoples of the Third World.
I stand by this analysis. I believe that events since I wrote my essay on “Obama’s Women” confirm it. Whether a particular phrase crossed the line is a subject I don’t care to debate. As a teenager I raced small sailboats, and was taught that if you don’t turn over once in a while, you’re not taking the risks you need to win. Sailors and writers who don’t take risks are boring.