Munivara Ashram, Ubud, Bali. Lifting my torso into cobra pose one afternoon, my sweating face was suddenly gripped between the powerful hands of Mr Ketut Arsana. Are you Obama? he said. And so began my curious resonance with the Black President.
As I write, from Kinokuniya bookstore in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia is adjusting itself to vague disillusionment at the non-result of the 13th general election. Shortly after midnight last night, the ruling party, Barisan National, was announced as the winner. BN is the current version of the same power base that has ruled this young country since the legendary Mahatir Muhammad (aka Dr Umum) architected Malaysia’s particular mix of nationalism, federalism, corporatism, ethnic and religious diversity in 1981. Umum held his post as Prime Minister and head of UMNO (then ruling party, now incorporated into the BN coalition) for a record 22 years.
Ethnically mamak (Malaysian Indian Muslim) Dr Umum was (is) a living legend. In his time he was the man who stood up to the old colonial powers in trade battles. On several famous occasions – Apartheid South Africa and Bosnia for instance – he called them on their hypocrisy and double standards. In turn he was criticised – not unlike the late Hugo Chavez perhaps – for his centralisation of power and erosion of civil liberties. There was the famous showdown with former UMNO deputy Anwar Ibrahim, which lead to the latter’s imprisonment on charges of buggery. Malaysia still has no free press. (Well, does anyone?) To the West, Dr Umum became “Asia’s Dr No.”
As with any power base that resists change over time, stagnant channels begin to stink. Croneyism, money and houses for votes for instance. To be expected, you could argue, and all rather innocent against the politrix of big boys like Bush and Blair. This morning, Malaysians – a sizeable minority at least – suffered a blue Monday. The blue BN pennants continue to flutter from every available lamppost and railing. Probably they’ll still be fluttering there in six months time. The will of the people – a sizeable minority at least – has failed.
Probably the majority of Malaysians voted for no change. The choice after all was between BN and a coalition including Chinese, Sikh, Hindu, Islamic and assorted other elements – in other words Barisan National or not. A magician’s choice. One imagines the long, deft hand of Dr Umum behind this strategy. Or perhaps this is a little too 007.
The heavily televised BN victory stumbled home last night amidst odd notes. Live TV crews battled exhaustion then studio hysteria to think of new angles on what was in effect an ordeal of televised absurdity. As the night wore on the only surprise was the extent of the BN majority. In the closing moments there were cries of foul play. Bus, plane, ship loads of illegal Bangladeshi labourers had been spotted outside polling stations. The live vote count website went down. The electricity supply to the main counting centre was switched off in honour of Earth Hour.
With no independent press to follow up these stories – easily dismissed on TV by BN officials – their shadows linger. Facebook Malaysians are today expressing their disgust by blacking out their profile pictures. It’s not activism Argentina or Bolivia style, exactly, but then it’s very hot here today. Others are calling for President Obama to come to Malaysia’s rescue.
It is an entirely understandable lament. Despite broken election promises (e.g. failure to dissolve that grizzled fragment of Hell on Earth known as Guantanamo) the Black President remains the most powerful icon of democratic power on the planet. Skeptics are quick to point out Obama’s many u-turns, swerves and dips, but his image continues to soar. He is a Good Man doing his best within a corrupt system. He is playing their game. If he didn’t he’d be assassinated. Or his family would. He sees the way forward for America and has the unenviable task of transmitting some tough truths to the Gung Ho nation. And so on and so forth. Arguments you will have heard in discussion with friends and relatives already.
I rather like Obama. I look a bit like Obama. To the political skeptic, the reader of indie news feeds on the internet, liking Obama is woefully – dangerously – naive. It is to labour in the black sleep of illusion. The skeptics might goad me into a fact fight. Leftie healthcare versus American involvement in Syria perhaps. But I find myself less and less interested in the facts. Obama did this, signed that, said he’d do this and then didn’t. Rather than political heat, I prefer the shade of my Obama icon.
It is an act of what Carlos Castaneda called controlled folly. I know that Obama could be torn down – not unlike those statues of Saddam Hussein – yet I choose to prefer that he isn’t. Why? Energetically speaking it is preferable that he’s there. For now. For millions of people he is a projection of hope. Are we asleep, deluded, suckered by the telly? No we’re not. I’ll wager that – to varying degrees consciously – we’ve weighed up fact versus feeling and decided to keep the Obama figure on the inner altar. It feels better. Maybe we just like his face. Otherwise what? Obviously it wasn’t Mitt Romney.
Nor is it the ‘truth’ that all of it is illusion. Iraq, Iran, Syria, Democracy. How do we feel pulling up the flagstones and watching the quicksand squirming beneath? Anxious? Depressed? Cynical? At the very least deeply skeptical in anything like the Goodness of Humanity or a Divine Plan or Evolution out of the eternal human condition of – well – damnation really, isn’t it? How’s that feel?
Of course, there are times when we must turn from our smiling icon – be it Buddha, Ganesha or Obama – and face the facts. From time to time we must stare into the Abyss of Not What We Believe. We must have our faces pushed into the dirt. The bubble bursts. We see the illusion for what it is and are no longer – can no longer be – illuded by it. An illusion is only an illusion when it is not an illusion. Amongst many benefits, the process of disillusionment elevates one beyond the reaches of duff illusions like Malaysian Prime Minsiter Najib, rival Anwar Ibrahim, or for that matter British Prime Minister David Cameron. Maybe we just don’t like their faces.
Strip by strip the onion is peeled. (I read earlier that onions have more genes than humans.) Ultimately we become our own icon. Or rather, we realise that the blackness, presidentness, earthiness, goodness, fairness and love we project onto the icon is our own. In the final election, we vote Inner Obama. In my case the campaign seems to be going well. Apparently I look like him.