PARIS — Countless students of anthropology and international politics, colonialism, and revolution know the book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism by Benedict Anderson, certainly one of the most brilliant works we have about the ideas that make a nation and the nations that may, or may not, make us.
But fewer people realize that Anderson also gave us, in an essay written in 1990, what may well be the keys to Barack Obama’s no-drama personality.
Anderson, who reportedly died in his sleep on Sunday on a visit to the East Java city of Malang, was first and foremost a scholar of Indonesia. But his vision of nationalism, forged through his experiences in Southeast Asia, was as original and ultimately as universal as it was complex.
Where the experiences of Europe in the troubled 19th and the disastrous first half of the 20th century created a deep suspicion of nationalism as something akin to racism (a problem that remains with us here in France today ), Anderson saw the great good that could come from the forging of a national identity.
“It is useful to remind ourselves that nations inspire love, and often profoundly self-sacrificing love,” Anderson wrote. He believed that, “No more arresting emblems of the modern culture of nationalism exist than the cenotaphs and tombs of Unknown Soldiers.”
Anderson noted that the modern concept of nationalism first took root in the New World, where heterogeneous collections of immigrants were building their nations in what they considered virgin lands (albeit peopled by Native Americans they defeated, enslaved, or exterminated). As they asserted their independence militarily and politically, they also created new identities as part of the nations to which they now belonged and which they loved.
“The cultural products of nationalism—poetry, prose fiction, music, plastic arts—show this love very clearly in thousands of different forms and styles,” Anderson wrote.
Yet when the idea of the nation was picked up in Europe, and eventually transplanted or imposed on colonized societies, it might grow violent, or might not take at all.
Perhaps the most fascinating chapter in Imagined Communities outlines the way colonial occupiers tried to build national identities among peoples who had little or none and who eventually demanded their independence.
The colonizers would take a census, counting the people as a whole; they would create maps, to show where the people existed on the planet; and they would create museums, exalting the history, especially the ancient history, of the colonial subjects, to give them a sense of their place in time as well as space.
When Anderson published Imagined Communities in 1982, that sort of nationalism still seemed a powerful force. But in the 21st century, transnationalism has called all that into question: Globalism in its various guises, from the European Union to the World Trade Organization and universalized pop culture, has downgraded national identities without supplying replacements that can be, to use Anderson’s word, “loved.”
The most sensational response to this change, to date, is the so-called caliphate of the self-declared Islamic State: a brutal attempt to assert and impose medieval religious identities where modern national identities have foundered and failed.
And where does Barack Obama fit into all this? Why, in Indonesia, the land of Anderson’s greatest scholarship and passion.
As Edward L. Fox pointed out in a delightful essay a couple of years ago, the no-drama character of the American president is best understood as behavior learned when he was a boy, from the time he was 6 until he was 10, going to elementary school on the island of Java in Indonesia.
When Obama was being mocked by the other kids because of his dark skin, his mother encouraged him to adopt the kind of bearing and conduct associated with Javanese kings and the word halus, a regal sort of imperturbability. To this day, there are little tells, like the way Obama points with this thumb on top of his hand, rather than with his forefinger, which was considered very impolite; or the way he sometimes stands with his eyes down in a debate, not a broken man, but one containing his emotion.
In Anderson’s 1990 essay “The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture,” he wrote that halus is “the quality of not being disturbed… Smoothness of spirit means self-control, smoothness of appearance means beauty and elegance, smoothness of behavior means politeness and sensitivity. Conversely, the antithetical quality of being kasar means lack of control, irregularity, disharmony, ugliness, coarseness, and impurity.”
The ideal Javanese ruler, Anderson told us, lets his enemy rant and rage while remaining consummately cool. He has “the ability to contain opposites and to absorb his adversaries.”
Looking at Anderson’s own life story, one suspects he learned those qualities as well.
Born to British parents in China in 1936, he fled with them to California during World War II, then moved to Ireland in 1945. At Cambridge as an undergraduate, Anderson identified with the Egyptians fighting the last gasps of imperial domination during the Suez Crisis of 1956. Later, he went to Cornell, where he focused on the study of Indonesia. In 1967, the CIA-backed Suharto dictatorship took over there and waged a ferocious war of extermination against real and suspected communists (a period depicted dramatically in the Mel Gibson-Sigourney Weaver film “The Year of Living Dangerously”).
Anderson used his scholarship and linguistic skills to try to counteract the propaganda of Suharto and the CIA, and from 1972 until 1998, when Suharto fell at last, Anderson could not go back.
But, mainly from the United States, Anderson continued to write about the culture, the history, the imagined communities and the halus of that world he understood so well.