Newt Gingrich said to National Review Online recently, “What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anticolonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?” Gingrich’s comment sparked off Dinesh D’Souza’s Forbes article, which argues that America is “governed by the ghost” of Obama’s “Luo tribesman” father.
But let’s not forget the white-liberal neocolonialism of his mother, which influenced him too. In Dreams from My Father, Obama reveals just as many or more dreams from his mother, the Ford Foundation anthropologist who introduced enlightened liberal ideology to the native tribes of Indonesia. There in that “land” of “fatalism,” Obama writes, “she was a lonely witness for secular humanism, a soldier for New Deal, Peace Corps, position-paper liberalism.”
The patronizing tone that Obama adopts in the book when discussing his father’s failures makes him sound more like a neocolonialist cut from his mother’s cloth than an anticolonialist. While he approves of the anticolonials’ anti-western anger, he still thinks they could use some direction from western liberals. He expresses disappointment with his father for not swallowing the liberal faith whole. His father lacked “faith in people” and held too tightly to certain Luo ways — “too much of its rigidness, its suspicions, its male cruelties.” If only, he implies, the African anticolonials were less stubborn and let neocolonialists at the Ford Foundation guide them to Planned Parenthood clinics and schools bankrolled by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, all would have been well.
It is an open question how much of the book is real or made up. Obama casually drops into the introduction that quotes in the book are “an approximation of what was actually said or relayed to me,” and that for “the sake of compression, some of the characters that appear are composites of people I’ve known, and some events appear out of precise chronology.” One wonders if he too is a composite in his postmodern memoir. The book is long on affected literary flourish and short on candor. He does a lot of “listening to the wind and its whispers of mortality.”
But here and there amidst the pretentious throat-clearing he makes some accidental revelations. I didn’t know that his Kenyan grandfather converted from Christianity to Islam, which comes out in a story told to Obama by his grandmother, a story that doesn’t exactly lend credence to Obama’s Islam-is-a-religion-of-peace line: “What your grandfather respected was strength…This is also why he rejected the Christian religion, I think. For a brief time, he converted, and even changed his name to Johnson. But he could not understand such ideas as mercy towards your enemies, or that this man Jesus could wash away a man’s sins. To your grandfather, this was foolish sentiment, something to comfort women. And so he converted to Islam — he thought its practices conformed more closely to his beliefs.”
Obama writes about his trip to Kenya with the anthropological detachment of his mother, not so much learning from his relatives during the “emotional odyssey” as looking down on them. But he is happy when his sozzled half-brother Roy turns up at his Jeremiah Wright-presided-over wedding as a convert to Islam. “The person who made me proudest of all,” he writes of the reception, “was Roy.” He had decided to “reassert his African heritage,” “converted to Islam,” and “sworn off pork and tobacco and alcohol.” His “conversion has given him solid ground to stand on, a pride in his place in the world.”
But Obama can’t resist a final moment of looking down on him. “Not that the changes in him are without tension… The words he speaks are not fully his own, and in his transition he can sometimes sound stilted and dogmatic,” he writes.
The implication left from all the self-important ruminations about “his divided inheritance” is that the anticolonial dreams of his father can only be completed through the neocolonial dreams of his mother.