No drama, King Obama

In Javanese culture, a ruler must stand chivalrously above strife: cool, intelligent and self-contained. Sound familiar?

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Illustration by Richard Wilkinson

Illustration by Richard Wilkinson

Edward L Fox is a writer and associate lecturer in creative writing at the Open University. His latest book is River Spirits: An Amazonian Fantasy (2012).

Like a lot of people in the autumn of 2012, I watched the TV debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. It was the last big performance in that interminable presidential election campaign in the United States. Every now and then, as Obama did verbal battle with his adversary, I noticed something I didn’t expect to see. It was a gesture he made with his hand: for emphasis, he would point at Romney with his thumb. I wasn’t the only one to have seen this. In a short piece on the BBC website, a reporter wrote:
Featured in the three presidential debates were Romney, Obama, and Obama’s thumb. At the debates, the president frequently jabbed his hand, with his thumb resting atop a loosely curled fist, to emphasise a point. The gesture — which might appear unnatural in normal communication — was probably coached into Obama to make him appear more forceful … And pointing the index finger is simply seen as rude and too aggressive.

But I’d seen this gesture before, and Obama hadn’t learnt it from a debating coach. Whether consciously or not, he was revealing his boyhood in the Indonesian island of Java, where it is considered impolite to point with your index finger. Seeing Obama point with his thumb in the debates confirmed something I had suspected for some time. Whatever else he might be, Obama is America’s first Javanese president.

Some time ago, I devoted a significant period of time and study to the traditions of Javanese kingship. I was writing a book called Obscure Kingdoms (1993) about traditions of kingship in non-Western societies, and I spent a period of time in Indonesia. One of the book’s chapters was about kingship in Java and, in the course of my research, I had become well-acquainted with a certain Javanese mannerism. I was struck to see that mannerism once again, uncannily echoed by Obama during the televised US presidential debates.

Unlike most political analysts, I see the imprint of Java in Obama far more than the imprint of Hawaii (where he was born and later went to high school); more than the imprint of Chicago (where he began his political career), and certainly more than Kenya (a highly popular notion that is particularly far-fetched). Indeed, it was in Java that Obama spent his childhood, had his primary education, and where his mother made her career. It was the country where his stepfather and his half-sister were born, and which he visited several times in his early adulthood. Obama still speaks some Indonesian.

Considerable time and energy has been spent speculating and theorising about Obama’s Kenyan background. There is a ridiculous book called The Roots of Obama’s Rage (2011) by Dinesh D’Souza. It’s a piece of popular controversialism which suggests that the key to understanding Obama — as a man and as a president — lies in his Kenyan background. Obama’s father, whom he barely knew, was a government economist in the early days of Kenyan independence. D’Souza argues that Obama inherited his father’s Kenyan anti-colonial mindset, and that this is what motivates Obama politically and informs how he sees the world.

Traditionally, the Javanese ruler triumphs over his adversary without even appearing to exert himself

Naturally, the idea caught on in the loony blogosphere, and as a result there are now millions of people in America who hold the view that Obama’s political approach is somehow ‘Kenyan’, and that by the end of Obama’s term of office the US will be governed according to a pernicious form of Kenyan socialism. Absurd, certainly, but then again there are also Americans who believe in black helicopters and alien abduction.

It’s true that Obama has written comparatively little about his time in Java in either of his books. His first autobiographical book, Dreams from My Father (1995), is principally about his search for Barack Obama Snr’s Kenyan roots. In fact, he only went to Kenya to research this book. The search for his African roots was important to him in his journey of self-discovery and self-invention, a process that was completed in his adoption of African-American cultural and social identity, and his choice of the black neighbourhoods of Chicago as the place where he began his political career. Part of the process of forging his own identity and his own path in life involved distinguishing himself from the world view of his mother, Ann Dunham, which was based on her international development work in Java. Most telling of all perhaps, when it comes to Obama’s own downplaying of his time in Java, was a comment in his second book, The Audacity of Hope (2006), in which he wrote: ‘Most Americans can’t locate Indonesia on a map.’

While Dreams from My Father was about the father who returned to Kenya when Barack was a baby, undoubtedly the strongest influence on Obama throughout his childhood was his mother. A truly extraordinary person, Dunham was an anthropologist who devoted her life to the study of small-scale industry in rural Java, while also working as a development economist and raising two children. When Barack was six, he and his mother moved from Hawaii, where he was born, to Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, where he spent the formative years of his childhood. It was in Java where Obama learnt and adopted the cool, calm, unflappable personal and presidential style that has earned him the nickname ‘No Drama Obama’. It’s a genuinely Javan ideal.

Anyone who has visited the island of Java will know what great value the Javanese people place on maintaining a serene demeanour, harmonious social relations, and not appearing visibly angry. Acutely aware of local norms of behaviour, Dunham made a point of ensuring that her son adopted Javanese manners. In his memoir, Obama recalls how his mother ‘always encouraged my rapid acculturation in Indonesia. It made me relatively self-sufficient, undemanding on a tight budget, and extremely well-mannered when compared with other American children. She taught me to disdain the blend of ignorance and arrogance that too often characterised Americans abroad.’

But this formative period entailed more than a process of pragmatic acculturation. 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.’ What the young Barack had to take was being taunted by Indonesian children — his classmates and the children he played with in his Jakarta neighbourhood — for his dark skin colour. At first he was often thought of as an Indonesian from one of the outer (racially Melanesian) islands of the Indonesian archipelago. Yet of this period in Jakarta, Obama’s biographer David Maraniss wrote that the young Barack ‘had become so fluent in the manners and language of his new home that his friends mistook him for one of them’.

The Javanese have a word for this kind of bearing. They call it halus. The nearest literal equivalent in English might be ‘chivalrous’, which means not just finely mannered, but implies a complete code of noble behaviour and conduct. 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.

Even now, four decades after leaving Java, Obama exemplifies halus behaviour par excellence.

Halus is also the key characteristic of Javanese kingship, a tradition still followed by rulers of the modern state of Indonesia. During my period of study in Indonesia, I discovered that halus is the fundamental outward sign or proof of a ruler’s legitimacy. The tradition is described in ancient Javanese literature and in studies by modern anthropologists. The spirit of the halus ruler must burn with a constant flame, that is without (any outward) turbulence. In his classic essay, ‘The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture’ (1990), the Indonesian scholar Benedict Anderson describes the ruler’s halus as:
The quality of not being disturbed, spotted, uneven, or discoloured. Smoothness of spirit means self-control, smoothness of appearance means beauty and elegance, smoothness of behaviour means politeness and sensitivity. Conversely, the antithetical quality of being kasar means lack of control, irregularity, imbalance, disharmony, ugliness, coarseness, and impurity.

One can see the clear distinction between Obama’s ostensibly aloof style of political negotiation in contrast to the aggressive, backslapping, physically overbearing political style of a president such as Lyndon Johnson.

Traditionally, the Javanese ruler triumphs over his adversary without even appearing to exert himself. His adversary must have been defeated already, as a consequence of the ruler’s total command over natural and human forces. This is a common theme in traditional Javanese drama, where the halus hero effortlessly triumphs over his kasar (literally, unrefined or uncivilised) enemy. ‘In the traditional battle scenes,’ Anderson notes:
The contrast between the two becomes strikingly apparent in the slow, smooth, impassive and elegant movements of the satria [hero], who scarcely stirs from his place, and the acrobatic leaps, somersaults, shrieks, taunts, lunges, and rapid sallies of his demonic opponent. The clash is especially well-symbolised at the moment when the satria [hero] stands perfectly still, eyes downcast, apparently defenceless, while his demonic adversary repeatedly strikes at him with dagger, club, or sword — but to no avail. The concentrated power of the satria [hero] makes him invulnerable.
Even to seem to exert himself is vulgar, yet he wins. This style of confrontation echoes that first famous live TV debate in the election of 2012 between Obama and Romney, in which Obama seemed passive, with eyes downcast, apparently defenceless (some alleged ‘broken’) in the face of his enemy, only to triumph in later debates and in the election itself.

Like a Javanese king, Obama has never taken on a political fight that he has not, arguably, already won

But such a disposition is not just external posturing. 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. To allow a multiplicity of contending forces in the kingdom is a sign of weakness. Power is achieved through spiritual discipline — yoga-like and ascetic practices. The ruler seeks nothing for himself; if he acquires wealth, it is a by-product of power. To actively seek wealth is a spiritual weakness, as is selfishness or any other personal motive other than the good of the kingdom.

That’s the theory, though highly simplified. The modern Republic of Indonesia is in many ways the direct successor and continuation of the ancient Javanese kingdom. Java remains the political centre of an empire of islands. The first president of Indonesia, Sukarno, was inaugurated in 1945 in Yogyakarta, the Javanese city that remains the capital of the Javanese kingdom, in the very spot in the royal palace where the Sultans of Yogyakarta were crowned. Yogyakarta was briefly the capital of the Republic of Indonesia, and the Sultan of Yogyakarta was its second vice president. Sukarno began his term as president with a policy that combined communism, Islam and nationalism, a weird combination in Western terms, but one that makes sense in Javanese terms: in claiming ownership of these political forces, Sukarno was seeking to subjugate them and harmonise them under his own kinglike authority.

I can’t help but feel the parallels with Obama are striking. He dismayed many liberals in the first term of his presidency, by persisting in a political approach that sought to absorb the Republican Party — his political opponents — into his policy-making, just as Sukarno sought, at first, to absorb all political forces in Indonesia, and as the Javanese king absorbed all natural and human forces. Four years later, of course, with political dramas such as the fiscal cliff behind him, one can see an Obama that has adjusted to American political conditions; he is now playing American, not Javanese politics. But then again, like a Javanese king, Obama has never taken on a political fight that he has not, arguably, already won.

There is, however, another reason why I persist in looking at Obama in the context of traditional Javanese kingship. After Barack left Indonesia to attend high school in Hawaii, his mother Ann Dunham moved from Jakarta to the very cradle of Javanese civilisation, the compound of the palace (Kraton) of the Sultan of Yogyakarta, in central Java. The Kraton is the past and present home of Javanese kings; in recognition of the role of Sultan Hamengkubuwono VIII in the struggle for independence from Dutch colonial rule, the area around Yogyakarta was given special political status inside Indonesia, and the sultans retain political status within the Indonesian republic. Not only does the sultanate of Yogyakarta represent the theoretical and cultural model of government and political power in the modern state of Indonesia, the Kraton is the home of traditional Javanese culture. The Kraton’s walled compound — essentially, a densely populated urban village — is traditionally the residence of members of the royal family and of palace servants and officials. Foreigners are forbidden from living here, but Dunham secured the unusual privilege of being allowed to live there because her mother-in-law, Eyang Putri, the mother of her second husband, Lolo Soetoro, was believed to be a distant relative of the royal family and lived in the compound. Although the old lady was in very good health, Obama’s mother was allowed to move into her house in the palace compound for the nominal purpose of looking after her.

Let your opponent yell and scream, and listen politely

Now it might or might not be true that Dunham’s mother-in-law — Obama’s step-grandmother — was a blood relative of the Sultan. Maraniss, Obama’s biographer, found no evidence either way. But Obama’s stepfather believed it, as did Obama’s mother, and so did their daughter, Obama’s half-sister Maya Soetoro-Ng. This belief or family myth is by itself significant. It places the family firmly within the system of Javanese kingship. Growing up, in Java or back in Hawaii, Obama would have known about this connection and its meaning.

After leaving Java for his education, Obama visited his mother regularly over the years. The palace compound (bekel, in Javanese) is a beautiful place. While I was researching my book on non-Western traditions of kingship, I would walk around it in the evenings, glimpsing the interiors of the houses, with their green and pink glowing aquariums, and blue and grey glowing televisions. Stars could be seen through the palm-tree branches, the air was filled with birdsong. I looked back at my own book and found the following reflection of the place: ‘Tourists are forbidden from staying here, but a few academic researchers had managed it, and I envied them.’ I didn’t know then about Dunham.

As Obama entered adulthood, he sought to create a new identity for himself that was based on an American and, within that, a black American identity. He distanced himself from what he saw as his mother’s ‘internationalist idealism’. But the influence of Javanese ways remained, unconsciously perhaps, a crucial part of him. When he was a community organiser in Chicago, working with black churches and local institutions, people noticed his unusual tendency to prefer harmony to confrontation, to bringing all forces together under his quiet leadership. Maraniss quotes an informant who was present at a meeting of church leaders when one of the leaders attacked Obama as a ‘do-gooding outsider’:
To Barack’s credit, he didn’t get up from the back of the room and come to defend himself. He left it there and let the guy say what he needed to say …. Barack absorbed it. But then, as soon as it was over, he waited until the guy left, and said, ‘Now, what just happened? Let’s make sure we understand what just went on so we can go from here.’ Civility, being respectful, was always very important to him.

He would use this same technique again and again in later political conflicts: let your opponent yell and scream, listen politely, and then, when your adversary has exhausted himself, somehow end up winning. Indeed, that is halus through and through.

*This article was amended on 7th February 2013. It should have stated that the Sultan of Yogyakarta was the second vice president, rather than the first.

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  • Christopher Basile

    But, sadly, Bpk. Obama has not proven to be the *Ratu Adil* many in the US and the world hoped for and needed post-BushJr. Outwardly *halus* true, but in terms of policy comparison with Suharto more apt than Bung Karno. Thank you for this insightful article.

    • Begja Slamet Waras

      I agree. We, javanase, at least some anyway, see him not to different than Pakde Bush, Jr.

      • Tim Behrend

        Pakde? Wouldn't Buta or Danawa be a better appellative? Same for Barak.

  • Patricia Webb

    Wonderful article - thank you so much for this thoughtful piece!

  • david maraniss

    Fascinating article, Mr. Fox. I agree with your perceptive insights, though I think perhaps you know more about Indonesia than Hawaii, so naturally bend a bit more in that direction. They are not mutually exclusive in the making of Barack Obama, but complimentary, This only makes me wish that you had agreed to talk to me more when i contacted you.

    • edwardfox

      David Maraniss: Did you try to contact me?

  • Joss Wibisono

    I don't think "halus" is a Javanese word, as the author writes (The Javanese have a word for this kind of bearing. They call it halus). As a Javanese myself I wonder whether the author speaks Javanese at all and knows the difference between kromo and ngoko.

  • Paul Setiyaputra

    The flipside of Javanese leadership is of course most of the time nothing gets done.. Hahaha... Just in the case with Indonesian leaders at present and recent past.

    • Hidayat Febiansyah

      yet.. they accomplished Borobudur.. :)

      • papah bonbon

        and borobudur temple - a buddhist Vihara built by a Hindi King. Rakai Pikatan. harmony eh ? :)

        • Sinta Yudisia

          Actually Borobudur was built by Syailendra family, which is a buddhist dynasty. The shaivite Rakai Pikatan built the buddhist Plaosan Temple, though, for his buddhist consort.

  • Nick Grace

    This article is full of crap and basically an exercise in slapping the author's idealized and romantic view of benevolent Javanese leadership onto Obama. Ah, yes, Obama as the unflappable "Ratu Adil," keris by his side, who has never lost a political battle. Then again why should we trust the depth of this author's understanding of Indonesia? "Halus" and "keras" aren't even Javanese words. Plus living in Jakarta exposes one to Betawi culture and urban life. Jakarta does not equal Javanese culture. Duh. Nice try, professor. The premise of this article is as loony and racist as those claiming that Obama maintains a Kenyan POV.

    • Claudia Nauli Htg

      There are A LOT of Javanese in Jakarta, probably even more than Betawi people. If you're coming to Jakarta as a tourist, you might not have enough time to adopt all those cultural habit but if you live there for a couple of years, then chances are you will adopt the Javanese culture.

      • papah bonbon

        i agree. if you living at jakarta, i think you will adopt many facet of javanese mindset and also facets of nyablak and aggresive culture of Betawi people. hehehe

        • Loserificus

          and thus, partially the reason why Jokowi was elected as governor last year.

    • yesco

      if you been lived for long time in Jakarta nick you must be notice how many percentage of Javanese in that city and how many javanese are high level goverment person in Jakarta and all over Indonesia

  • Joseph Hendra Gunawan

    Using Geertz and Anderson quotes doesn't make you an expert in Indonesian or Javanese culture. Last time I checked, all of the Javanese leaders have been corrupt and totalitarian. Some, like Soeharto, even had their own thugs to kill their opponents. Do you really want to compare President Obama to this? I guess Chicago politics is like Jakarta politics and DNC is like Golkar. Here you have Black Panthers, Acorn and SEIU thugs while Indonesia has Pemuda Pancasila and Front Pembela Islam thugs. You realize that by suggesting Obama is a closet Javanese you are insinuating that he is Muslim, right? He only used his right-hand thumb to point at Romney during the debates! BTW, Geertz and Anderson's works are no longer relevant unless you think of Indonesia as the great unwashed masses separated into aliran santri and abangan.

    • Claudia Nauli Htg

      The thing about being corrupt and totalitarian has nothing to do with the Javanese culture -- it's just within everyone regardless which culture he/she is coming from. That also applies to what you said about "killing their opponents." What I see come out strongly here is the importance of group harmony and avoiding confrontation which are typical of collectivism culture, on which Java (and Indonesia for the most part) is running. By the way, how can you correlate what the author suggest about Obama being a closet Javanese and insinuating that he is Muslim?

  • Dhanny Jauhar

    Good article. However, there are some facts that need to be corrected. 1. Satria means Knight and therefore the word 'Ksatria' (chivalry) is always linked to Satria. I can not find word in Javanese that equivalent to "hero", I think it might means it is un-acceptable ("saru" in Javanese) to exert an individual contribution, 2. The first Indonesian Vice President is Mr. Mohammad Hatta, he is from West Sumatra (certainly not a Javanese), 3. In 1945, Soekarno was not inaugurated as the first president in Jogjakarta, 4. the doctrine of NASAKOM (Nasional, Agama dan Komunis) was not introduced by Soekarno at his earliest stage of administration, this NASAKOM doctrine was introduced in c. late 1950's early 1960's, 5. There are some Javanese Kings that behaved aggressively, and this is recorded in Babad Tanah Jawi.

    • Sam Dresser

      Hi Dhanny, thanks very much for this comment. Appropriate changes will be duly made.

      • Lelek

        How about: hero = wirå ?

        • Tim Behrend

          "Wira" (and its slightly nobler form "wirya") is more an alus word for "manly, brave, courageous", and is frequently used as an element in compound names; the word "sura" has a similar meaning and is likewise more commonly found in the five-syllable names of males, not just in literature, but in general name giving as well. Satria doesn't mean "hero", exactly, but more a "warrior" or member of the refined, aristocratic classes. These words derive mostly from Sanskrit which has greatly enriched the Javanese lexicon for well over a thousand years. Pahlawan, of Persian origin, is the most common word for hero in Indonesian and is also used in Javanese. There are now more than 150 designated "pahlawan nasional", or officials heroes of the state; most are the subjects of hagiographic biographies, school children's zealous nationalist songs, and cheap posters to adorn the walls. Indonesia aggressively cultivates a form of civil or nationalist religion, as do most countries, including the United States.

          In traditional Javanese a number of words are similar to hero. Two similar ones that leap to mind are wiratama and purusotama, both meaning "person of highest courage, manliness". A feminine form is also possible, "wanitatama". More Javanese philology than will be of interest to most people, i'm sure.

          • Dhanny Jauhar

            Pakde/Mas Tim, I salute your knowledge and enthusiasm to Javanese culture/language. Being raised in Javanese culture myself, I am not really exposed to Javanese Krama Inggil. I grew up in Surabaya (a place that is known to be the Kasar place and was historically the place where the Java Kings found difficulties to conquer, put it simply this is the city where bandits and rebels stationed itself in the past).

            Sura Dira Jayaningrat Lebur Dining Pangastuti, you will notice that Sura can have a different meaning in this sentence and this is an expression (to my knowledge) that expresses how the alus/good will triumph over kasar/evil. Like any other language, the whole sentence might have an influence to the meaning of a word. Maybe the same goes for Surabaya and Surakarta ... the word Sura for Surabaya means shark (shark as a noun not as an expression such as shark as a lawyer in English).

            I also thank Pakde Edward L. Fox for his interest to Javanese culture.

          • Tim Behrend

            Dhanny, when i lived in Solo, Semarang was also called the most kasar place in Java by some, especially in terms of rude speech (am thinking of some references to the maternal body). Surabaya was famously kasar as well, with more criminal violence thrown in for good measure. Surabaya was the place to get knifed, but that was because of "the character" of the Madurese who had "immigrated" from across the strait in droves. You know how so many native speakers say, "i can't really speak Javanese", meaning they don't master the Solo (or Jogja , take your pick) aristocratic style of unggah-ungguh. I always remind them what a "feudal" sort of mentality that reflects. In any event, Surabaya is just as close to Suralaya in my mind as any other place in Java.

          • Untoro Widagdo

            I think it is true that Surabaya and Malang in eastern java more "kasar" than any other place in java in terms of speech and maybe body language (gesture).. I think the reason is based on historically, these places are geographically far enough to Solo and Yogyakarta where most javanese empire was ever exist.. I think feodalism and aristocratic style are highly developed in these area (Solo and Yogyakarta)...

  • Kate Walton

    This is a fascinating article; thank you for writing it. That said, 'halus' is an Indonesian word, isn't it, rather than Javanese?

    • Dhanny Jauhar

      I think so. Halus literally means soft in bahasa Indonesia, interchangeable in some extent to "lembut". It is not totally wrong to say that halus is a word in Javanese. In the ngoko javanese dialect it' "alus" (note it is without "h"). Javanese language it's a bit tricky, it has hierarchy to follow .... Krama, Madya and Ngoko .... Not only the verb changes but also the nouns ...

      • Tim Behrend

        In the anthropological and cultural scholarship about Javanese tradition (including characterisation in wayang and dance), the Javanese form of alus is often used; its similarity to Indonesian halus makes them somewhat interchangeable in lots of the literature. Its opposite can be kasar, but in dance is also gagah, which alludes to masculinity, bravery, aggressiveness., forcefulness. Gagah characters can be "good guys", but they don't have the refinement that alus connotes, and alus always trumps. The greatest heroes in wayang iconography, like Yudistira and Arjuna, are extremely alus. Their movement is markedly different to the gagah characters and kasar ones (often giants, monsters, ogres) as is their appearance, bearing, speech and so forth. Most characters are represented in forms that mix alus and gagah characteristics.

        In the case of ngoko/krama "synonym pairs", scholars often choose the ngoko (familiar as opposed to formal) when seeking to make a technical import into English/Dutch/French, preferring an indigenous calque to never-quite-equivalent European translations. "Inappropriate" commingling of words from different social or class registers is more common in the Javanese wikipedia than it is in works of scholarship.

        • Kate Walton

          Really interesting. Thanks for explaining is such a good way!

  • Papah Bonbon

    Hero usually translated as pahlawan in indonesia literacy. I think pahlawan came from melayu language, not javanese

  • Tim Behrend

    The author's romanticised view of Javanese kingship is no more grounded than his image of Obama. There are numerous mistakes in the specifics of Javanese culture as others have noted, quite glaringly among them calling the palace compound "bekel" (whose actual meaning, depending on pronunciation of the two /e/'s, is a low ranking official without blood ties to the sultan, a game like jacks, or a type of fish). What Fox is talking about here is not the practice of kingship, but the attributes of noble kingship within the literary realm of wayang purwa stories -- the famous puppet theatre that is the ancient, master performing art of Java. In practice, Javanese kings were a lying, poisoning, murdering lot both before and after their enfeebling by the ascent of Dutch power. Alus was a performance art; kasar the true integument of the species. In this they were much like monarchs everywhere. Like Obama, a Javanese raja, sultan, susuhunan or other sovereign could order strangers killed in far away places without having to answer to anyone. Apart from this i don't see the similarities.

    Whether Obama's thumb on fist gesture is Javanese, i would have to say probably not; in Java, that gesture (right hand only) is used as an alus way of pointing at something, of pointing the way, of inviting a guest to enter or sit, and of begging pardon for walking near a person of rank; in the latter case it is accompanied by a posture of obeisance somewhere between bowing and crawling, depending on rank, and the left hand tucked behind the backside.

  • Tim

    The "thumb point" was popularized by Bill Clinton. Did Obama learn this gesture subconsciously from ancient Javanese kingship traditions, OR did he (as many politicians now do) copy this move from Bill Clinton?

    • Tim Behrend

      It's different from Bush's thumb point, which also involved sitting and rotating.

  • AnnaR

    You wrote: "I see the imprint of Java in Obama far more than the imprint of Hawaii (where he was born and later went to high school)…" and "…it was in Java that Obama spent his childhood, had his primary education...."

    Thοse statements sound deliberately misleading. Obama spent only 4 years in Java, from age 6 to age 10 (1967-1971). His lived in Hawaii for his first 6 years, and then for another 8 years (from ages 10-18) until he moved to L.A. to go to college in 1979. That means Obama lived in Hawaii for *14* of his first 18 years — nearly 78% of his life until he went away to college, and he spent only 4 of his first 18 years as a young foreigner in Java. That's a significantly different picture from the one you're trying to portray.

    Also, you seem unfamiliar with the sociocultural environment of Hawaii, and particularly Honolulu County, where Obama lived. Many of the characteristics you describe as Javanese also apply to the largely pan-Asian Honolulu social milieu, perhaps even more so in the '60s and '70s. "Cool, calm, unflappable" is both a Japanese and a Pacific Islander ideal, and so are maintaining a "serene demeanour, harmonious social relations, and not appearing visibly angry." Etc., etc.

    So…nah. It's interesting to speculate about the effects on Obama's personality of having spent 4 years as a foreign child in Java — and I'm sure there are some — but your theories and conclusions just hang way too loose.

  • Bufod

    John Kennedy frequently used the thumb-pointing gesture, as did his brothers Bobby and Ted and subsequent copycat politicians. In fact, JFK may have used it in stating his famous inaugural injunction, "Ask not what you can do . . . ."

  • RP

    If you listen to Martin Luther King's speeches and pay attention to the respect that he expresses with respect to the humanity of those who oppose him, perhaps you will find another way to explain Obama's behavior. Seriously, I feel that both MLK and Obama are better human beings than I am because I lack the ability to respect to such a degree those who disagree with me.

  • rizs


  • calvin

    that's very nice interpretation of barrack's obama introvert personality. Susan cain would have explained obama's introvertism to explain his no drama behaviour. but again, this article explained where that intorverted personality might be rooted from. well done.

  • Edo

    Very interesting hypothesis! Language experts say that age between 10-15 is the best time for language acquisition, and age 11-15 is the second best. I live in the 'kasar' region of East Java, but my ancestors came from the 'halus' area of Yogyakarta (Kota Gedhe). I am still able to speak the low, middle, and high Javanese language, because during this crucial time my parents educate me how to use the language properly. Until now, I feel that I still have tight emotional connection with the former culture of Central Java though I live in somewhere else. I assume that I am governed much by the halus cultural values, particularly when I face with confrontation. It could be the case of Obama, that --in some points-- he is influenced by his childhood in Java and later in Hawaii (anyway the influence of Javanese culture in Jakarta is significance, both in the past (at least when Sultan Agung run his political campaign to Batavia in 15th century) and certainly in present day. The roles of his step father as part of keraton circle (no mater how close he was) and his mother as anthropologist are also significant.

  • Andri

    Very interesting and GREAT Article !

  • Bayu Dardias

    Sultan whose struggle for Independence was Sultan IX not Sultan VIII. Sultan VIII died in 1939.

  • Helly

    Thanks for the writer and all discussants who generously shared their knowledge and interest... to me, this article proves to provoke and trigger a lively discussion. the writer suggests that Obama visited his Mom in Indonesia in his early adulthood - which he didn't mention in his first memoir. Reading it, I was under impression that they simply got in touch via mails, or it was his Mom who visited him in Hawaii. Anyone could clarify this? Just wish to share that a Jakarta-based retired Javanese cultural administrator observed that Obama took a position of Javanese 'ngapurancang' in the picture when he was posing with the ex US Presidents not long after his first inauguration - in contrast of the others in line (both Bush Sr and Jr, Clinton and Carter). Then I was amused to hear that...

  • vcragain

    I loved this article - the ideas are correct, I had long thought that Obama was exhibiting English-like coolness - this is typical "upper-class" English behavior, so it is very interesting to me to learn about the Javanese roots of these ideas too. I myself am chock-full of this 'above the fray' notion of looking at things - unless you get me mad enough when I may eventually let-it-rip, regarding the ability to do that as something I welcome from my American 'training' since I have lived in the US. However in the end watching your enemies basically suffocate themselves in their fury at you is something very satisfying - and Obama has certainly got them furious and looking stupid !!
    This is the reason the Republicans hate him so-o-o-o much - they want to kill him for his coolness - hysterical !

  • Aaron Sylvan

    Clinton did the thumb gesture all the time.

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