The Ubud Writers and Readers Festival has managed to pull in a number of interesting people over the years, some with overwhelmingly political backgrounds. This year is no exception, with Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka and Fatima Bhutto in the line-up.

As journalist-turned-arbitrator Michael Vatikiotis commented, the UWRF has become something of a writer’s talk show. There is a tendency for the audience/participants to expect the enlightened sound bite from the panel, and there is of course the reciprocal tendency to be absolutely charming and witty in return. But those are more the sideshows.

With a bit of luck one gets to sit in on discussions that truly open one’s mind to other points of view presented eloquently. Not that one has to agree, but it is always of value to have a different perspective or even a challenge to one’s complacently held ideas.

Today’s discussion on Obama and the ‘honeymoon’ from the perspective of novelist Jamal Mahjoub, journalist Antony Loewenstein, and journalist/writer Fatima Bhutto was something of an example. The latter, who lost her father and aunt to political violence, had a very skeptical view of Obama’s achievement of all that was promised during his meteoric campaign. As a Pakistani, her assessment of Obama is perhaps understandable in the light of the increased “droning“ predators of death hanging over so much of her country – and the incessant trips by US envoy Holbrooke telling Pakistan what to do.

She was joined by Loewenstein, whose dissenting Jewish take on the state of Israel’s aggressive sabotage of the peace process has been hardened by much direct observation of what actually goes on in Palestine. Talking about the two states within Palestine concept, he saw no possibility of the US sponsored concept to ever materialize. This largely because he saw how aggresively and flagrantly the Israelis continue to violate the West Bank, . It seems Obama is, for him, a kind of icing on a very bitter cake.

Mahjoub on the other hand was a little more aligned to the Obama friendly crowd. Obama is an important symbol of change, he argued, and Obama’s rhetoric is important. I think everyone agrees it’s a damn sight better than Bush’s.

Personally I feel that expecting Obama to right all of the dysfunctional US foreign policy legacy in 9 months is naive at the very best. But far worse than that is the tendency to overlook the fact that civic movement and dissent should address itself to the rot and insidious players who are the obstacles to Obama’s vision and hopes that he expresses in his rhetoric. Both those for and against this embattled man in Washington are creating impossible benchmarks for him. Give the man a few more months!

Super liberal members of his own party seem to have cornered him into tackling the toughest political stumbling block of all US presidents, the health care debacle, far too early in his term. His detractors are watching with glee, whilst at the same time quietly preparing more obstacles to prevent him exorcising the dark and arcane phantoms of power that haunt the US capital’s political corridors.

His attempt at reaching out across the aisle are reflected in his foreign policy diplomacy. Here too his ambitious efforts at diplomacy is dangerously exposed to defeat as the big hustlers in real politik (not least the US military machine) hunker down for a long battle for influence over US foreign policy. He is being pushed perilously close to fatal commitment in Afghanistan. Israel is playing hardball on the West Bank despite stern reminders. And Iran is a nasty itch that could turn into a dangerously infected tropical ulcer.

So when (ok, if) Obama fails to attain these impossible benchmarks, and his critics gather for the kill, what will have happened? Once again the true villains of the system will have eluded attention. And this is really my main objection to Bhutto’s and Lowenstein’s skepticism – by being cynical about Obama we are missing the point.

Putting aside all vicarious chauvinistic sentiments (after all Obama lived in my childhood district of Jakarta), I feel it is very special that Obama won a free election as a man of colour in a country where less than half a century ago a black man, Martin Luther King, was very publicly assassinated simply because he had a dream of having equal rights as a white man. That in itself is an extraordinary achievement, and of enormous significance. On top of that, as Mahjoub pointed out, he did it without getting himself into debt with Big Business – basically the people financed his victory. He has become a true leader, and at the same time an easy target. In reality, the whole world voted for him.

An eerie sense of the twilight zone came over me when an hour after this public discussion, my mobile vibrated with the messages of Obama’s Nobel prize. I was incredulous at first, and then apprehensive. To have been nominated in February meant that he was only two weeks into office. Quite obviously the Nobel Prize committee has it’s own political agenda. But now, yet again, Obama has been handed a very sharp double edged sword.

While theoretically it might give him more clout, it seems that this is exactly the kind of speculation that an academic committee locked up in an ivory tower would come up with. Outside, the wolves in the realpolitik landscape wait and prowl. Will they focus on the dead, rotten meat in the system? Or are they too fond of living, presidential flesh? Will the people in the US take the “people’s revolution” a step further and actually unite against all the pernicious Washington lobbyists et al? Should the Nobel prize committees have psychological evaluation/their heads examined regularly?

Meanwhile, back in Ubud, it’s party time for the writers.

3 Responses to “OBAMA – THE ADDED BURDEN”

  1. C S Mangum

    Hmmm where to start? First I do not have the sophistication of your thoughts and verbiage that you have on my country. So my attempts will seem sophomoric and well typical American.

    As an American it is our constitutional right for civic movement and dissent even if we are the rot and insidious players that so distress you over your concern for our president’s visions and hopes to shape our country into one that most Americans will no longer recognize.

    Part of the problem for Americans, who did not vote for this man, is that he is truly not American. Now I am not a birth-er, I know he was born in Hawaii, but he grew up in your neighborhood, instead of playing baseball in the sandlot, he was going to mosque. It is a bitter pill for a lot of us to take. He wants to be a citizen of the world not an American. Most of us want red blooded, flag waving, freedom loving people holding the highest office in our nation.

    In my humble opinion, it is the world that is naive believing that Obama is the answer to it’s problems. The love and admiration the world has for him is solely based on the conceived notion that GW Bush was dumb, and evil when in fact he protected this nation from an enemy that is forcing it’s dark-ages beliefs on the world by spreading hate for all those who do not worship at the feet of a pedophile prophet.

    As for the “public assassination” of Martin Luther King, let me remind you that he was murdered by a lone gunman. It was not a white man conspiracy to have him killed. I admire, as most Americas do, what MLK stood for. Our country is the least racial country in the world. I have traveled outside the the US and have been shocked by blatant bigotry in other nations that sneer at the US while all the while treating others (different races/religions) with disdain.

    As for the way Israel treats Palestine…perhaps you need a refresher course on history. It was the Jews that opened the door to the Palestinians. The Jews wanted to live and work side by side with them, but Arab nations convinced the Palestinians to trust them and side with them and they would force the Jews into the ocean…well as history played out it was the Jews who stood strong and protected their homeland from an enemy that was bent on killing them. After that ill fated war, the Arab nations turned their backs on the Palestinians leaving them refugees and now use them to further their own goals at destroying Israel. Why does no one ask these rich Arab nations why they do not help the Palestinians? It is much easier to blame the Jews and the United States and most of all Bush.

    Pity the world that truly does not know freedom or the price our nation has paid to remain the one shining light in the darkness.

    I too am a chauvinist…I love my country and thank god that I was born here!

  2. Rio Helmi

    Dear CS,

    First of all thank you for taking the time to respond – I think it is important to hear all sides of the story, whether one agrees or not. It gives one a better perspective and more insight. I don’t necessarily have to consider an American’s response as sophomoric as I am well aware that there many kinds of Americans – which is precisely one of the great things about your country.

    I don’t lump all Americans into one heap of “rot” etc. I was referring to those elements in the political system who really do have their own greedy agendas and are not that concerned about the welfare of people like yourself who love your country.

    Which brings me to your point about “really American”. Being born and raised all your life in America might not always mean that one is molded in the image that you personally might like. For example there are many who are born in ghettos of certain ethnic cultures who maintain their language and traditions. Does that fit the bill? Then there are those, like perhaps yourself, who are descended from settlers – so perhaps one might even posit that all non-Native Americans are in fact one huge ghetto. It starts to get a bit absurd. The present America is what it is, complex and heterogenous. You can try and deny that but it is a fact.

    As to the world being naive about Obama, I have no argument with that, I even state it in my post. Regarding Martin Luther King, he was assassinated in public, yes by a lone gunman, but the intent was clearly to make it public.

    Lessons in history regarding Israel I think we both could benefit from. However you totally disregard how the state was founded in the first place, the terrorist tactics employed in it’s founding, and the history of disempowerment that the Israelis have carried out against the Palestinian people.

    Many nations have paid dearly for their freedom, many nations have been violated by more powerful ones in the name of some idealism.

    Best regards,


    PS: I am not that much of a chauvinist. I strive to be more of a universalist.


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