Obama and the Balinese Cockfight

From the age of four to six years, young Barry’s role model was Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian man studying at the University of Hawaii who later married his mother and moved the family to Jakarta, Indonesia. Lolo tried to fill in the shoes of the absent Kenyan father whom young Barry met only twice in his life.

Barry’s home environment in Indonesia was like a page out of Kipling’s Jungle Book. Barry’s memory was vivid and filled with encounters with wild animals and colorful characters. On his trip into Jakarta he first encountered the giant size Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god with supernatural powers, miniaturized replica of which Obama carries with him as a talisman to this day.

When Barry arrived at what became his new home till the age of ten years, he was greeted by a pet ape named Tata, whom Lolo had brought from New Guinea. That’s not all, though. A whole jungle of animals greeted him in their backyard zoo, including ‘chickens and ducks running every which way, a big yellow dog with a baleful howl, two birds of paradise, a white cockatoo, and finally two baby crocodiles, half submerged in a fenced-off pond toward the edge of the compound’.

It was in this backyard that Lolo taught Barry boxing as a self defense, how to fend for himself, and to enjoy different kinds of carnivorous meals, including snake and tiger meat. Barry also learned what it means to be a strong man. ‘Men take advantage of weakness in other men. They are just like countries in that way. The strong man takes the weak man’s land. He makes the weak man work in his fields. If the weak man’s woman is pretty, the strong man will take her. What would you rather be,’ asked Lolo?

One day when Lolo picked up a rooster from a street vendor and wished to take it home for dinner, Barry’s mother objected to the young boy observing the decapitation. Reminiscent of a dénouement of a Balinese cockfight made famous by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, the street vendor proceeded to butcher the bird.

‘I watched the man set the bird down, pinning it gently under one knee and pulling its neck out across a narrow gutter. For a moment the bird struggled, beating its wings hard against the ground, a few feathers dancing up with the wind. Then it grew completely still. The man pulled the blade across the bird’s neck in a single smooth motion. Blood shot out in a long, crimson ribbon. Lolo rubbed his hand across my head and told me and my mother to go wash up before dinner,’ described Obama.

Cockfight is a window on to the Balinese life. The cock that loses the fight is slaughtered at the ring. Either you win or you lose and die. It symbolizes life and death. The Balinese male temperament is in full display at the cockfight, not unlike the Spanish males at their bullfighting arenas. It portrays the theme popularized by Hemingway’s novels that life is worth fighting for when challenged.

While cockfighting is banned in many states in the US, it is still legally practiced in few of the states. People in many parts of the world settle a dispute or a duel by engaging in a cockfight. According to many anthropologists, the popularity of the sport around the world reveals a male obsession with blood sports, masculinity and power.

Contemporary political theater may resemble a Balinese cockfight, especially, if you feel you have to constantly defend your wife against personal attacks or when you are elevated to the dubious status reserved for blonde celebrity divas like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. As we approach the critical months of the national campaign, Obama may need to recall the oedipal lessons learned from his step-father or consult his notes on the Balinese cockfight.