Barack Obama’s “understanding” of all things Muslim

When I was six years old, within a few short months, I went from having perfect vision to being extremely nearsighted. I was discussing that fact with a friend today, and noted that I have no memory of ever having seen well without help from glasses or contacts.

This comment made me realize how little of our childhood sticks with us. As adults, we have few large and coherent memories of our first five years. From the years between six and ten, our memories expand, but they’re still spotty and they’re bounded by the limitations of our child-world, which boils down to school-life, home-life, and the occasional memorable vacation.

I grew up during a time of tremendous social and political upheaval (it was the 1960s and early 1970s, after all), but have only the most limited recollection of that time. What I remember are my teachers (some of them), my school friends (some of them), the continuity of my home life (same mom, same dad, same sister, same house), and the highlights of my life (summers in Tahoe, a Renaissance Faire, my first trip to Disneyland). For me, the Vietnam War boiled down to Walter Cronkite announcing the day’s dead and wounded on the news. The Chicago Democratic Convention, which happened when I was 8, didn’t make it to my radar at all. The hippies, who were a far-reaching social phenomenon, were simply smelly people to me.

I also had such a limited frame of reference that, when I heard information that fell outside my knowledge, I manipulated the information that so that it would mesh with my mental furniture. My favorite example of this is the story of my Dad’s brother; or, rather, how I completely misinterpreted the story of my Dad’s brother. My uncle was, apparently, a genius amongst geniuses. In the years leading up to WWI, many of his teachers at Berlin’s Jewish gymnasium considered him to be the most brilliant student the school had ever produced. Considering that this was a school that, for more than a hundred years had taught the academic Jewish students living in an academic German nation, that was saying a lot.

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My uncle lacked drive however and made nothing of his brilliance. Indeed, as I often told my friends, he ended up life as a janitor! One day, when I was already in junior high school, my parents heard me telling this story and were, to say the least, perplexed. It turned out he wasn’t a janitor at all. Instead, he was a low level civil servant in the Danish government. My confusion stemmed from the fact that my parents had given me his job title: “Custodian of Foreign Property” or something like that. In my youthful world, a “custodian” was a “janitor” — and so a story was born.

I wasn’t unique in that I really didn’t “get” what was going on around me, or that I put my own child-like spin on things. The other night, when my husband went to kiss our 11 year old son goodnight, he found him punching himself in the stomach. In response to a query from my husband, my son announced that Mom had told him that, if he wanted to get good stomach muscles, he should sock himself in the stomach. My husband came to me to investigate this peculiar piece of body-building advice, and learned what I had really said: “One of the good ways to improve your muscle tone (and get the six pack abs my son so desperately desires), is to suck in your stomach when you walk around.”

(I call this active walking, meaning that you simply keep your abs engaged as part of regular movement. Up until two pregnancies wrecked havoc with my abdominal muscles, I could have been on the cover of one of those ab workout videos, so I know this technique works.)

Children are bright, observant and absorptive. They also do not know how to process all of the information they take in, they do not always understand the information headed their way and, by the time they are adults, they’ve forgotten large chunks of their childhood. That’s normal. The developing brain is a wondrous thing, but it’s not a fully functional thing. Also, as my little “janitor”/”custodian” story shows, children live in a very small world. Their understanding is bounded only by their immediate knowledge.

Think about how children understand their little world, and then think about Barack Obama. He lived in Indonesia from the time he was six until he was nine or ten. He was part of an expatriate community, and went to a slightly more ecumenical school than would be the norm in a Muslim country. Also, he was in an East Asian, not an Arab, Muslim country, one that, even today, is somewhat liberal by Muslim standards( starting with the fact that the women traditionally did not wear veils there). His exposure to a rather singular type of Islam occurred at a time in his life when he was processing experiences through a very narrow, youthful frame of reference.

Nevertheless, David Ignatius assures us that this limited exposure, during a time in life when even the brightest child isn’t tracking things that well, makes Obama a Middle East expert:

As President Obama watched events unfold this past week in Egypt and the surrounding Arab world, he is said to have reflected on his own boyhood experiences in Indonesia – when the country was ruled by a corrupt, authoritarian leader who was later toppled by a reform movement.

Obama looks at the Egyptian drama through an unusual lens. He has experienced dictatorship first-hand, a world where “the strong man takes the weak man’s land,” as he quoted his Indonesian stepfather in his autobiography. The president came of age reading Frantz Fanon and other theorists of radical change. He is sometimes described as a “post-racial” figure, but it’s also helpful to think of him as a “post-colonial” man.

Based upon my memories of my own childhood, and my day-to-day observations of the children with whom I spend a great deal of time today, Ignatius’ take is just horse pucky. Unless Obama was a political savant, he was almost certainly unaware of or had, at most, limited awareness of the political and social dynamics in Indonesia.

It’s entirely possible that, as Obama grew older, his exposure to Indonesia as a child meant that, as an adult, he paid attention to Indonesian politics. That would make sense. But to say, as Ignatius does, that Obama, the former community organize, has the innate ability to negotiate the pitfalls of this Egyptian revolution because he lived in Indonesia when he was 7 or 8 years old is nothing more than an insult to our intelligence.

Cross-posted at Bookworm Room

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