Mama Obamanomics
May 08, 2008, 10:05 PM
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Barack Obama spent the mid-1980s trying to politically mobilize the black poor in Chicago, giving him, presumably, lots of first-hand insight into their problems. Yet, the 163 pages he devoted to his community organizer years in his 1995 autobiography, published at the height of the debate over welfare, are strikingly lacking in insight. For example, he only mentions the world "welfare" twice, both times in neutral to positive contexts. Similar terms such as "food stamps" and "Aid to Families with Dependent Children" aren`t mentioned at all. The notion that "welfare ... did create some perverse incentives when it came to the work ethic and family stability" (to quote from Obama`s 2006 campaign book, The Audacity of Hope, of which he says "This book grew directly out of those conversations on the [2004] campaign trail" — i.e., he`s playing back what he heard from voters) simply never comes up in Dreams from My Father.

So, if welfare wasn`t a problem, according to Obama, what was?

I apologize for quoting another slab of Obama`s 1995 prose, which was carefully engineered to be unquotable, but it`s interesting to see the influence on him of what appears to be his mother`s worldview (as exemplified by the title of her 1,067 page anthropology dissertation "Peasant Blacksmithing in Indonesia: Surviving and Thriving Against All Odds"):

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 betelnut and swatting flies off their fruit with whisk brooms. I’d always taken such markets for granted, part of the natural order of things. Now, though, as I thought about Altgeld and Rose-land, Rafiq and Mr. Foster, 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. 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; it was that loss of order that had made both Rafiq and Mr. Foster, in their own ways, so bitter. For how could we go about stitching a culture back together once it was torn? How long might it take in this land of dollars?

Longer than it took a culture to unravel, I suspected. I tried to imagine the Indonesian workers who were now making their way to the sorts of factories that had once sat along the banks of the Calumet River, joining the ranks of wage labor to assemble the radios and sneakers that sold on Michigan Avenue. I imagined those same Indonesian workers ten, twenty years from now, when their factories would have closed down, a consequence of new technology or lower wages in some other part of the globe. And then the bitter discovery that their markets have vanished; that they no longer remember how to weave their own baskets or carve their own furniture or grow their own food; that even if they remember such craft, the forests that gave them wood are now owned by timber interests, the baskets they once wove have been replaced by more durable plastics. The very existence of the factories, the timber interests, the plastics manufacturer, will have rendered their culture obsolete; the values of hard work and individual initiative turn out to have depended on a system of belief that’s been scrambled by migration and urbanization and imported TV reruns. Some of them would prosper in this new order. Some would move to America. And the others, the millions left behind in Djakarta, or Lagos, or the West Bank, they would settle into their own Altgeld Gardens, into a deeper despair.

If only Andrew Carnegie hadn`t put all those black peasant blacksmiths out of business ...