Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Commander Obama's younger sister embodies soft power

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Maya Soetoro-Ng (left) and her daughter, Suhaila Ng, 6, as they look at Soetoro-Ng's new book, Ladder to the Moon, at their home in Honolulu.

EUGENE TANNER / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

Maya Soetoro-Ng (left) and her daughter, Suhaila Ng, 6, as they look at Soetoro-Ng's new book, Ladder to the Moon, at their home in Honolulu.

WASHINGTON -- While her brother was arming the cannon of August and aiming them at a Damascene despot, Barack Obama's sister-from-another-mister was all rainbows, roses and moonbeams. "Great ideas come gently as doves," she said, quoting Camus, but the cooing was scarce heard amid the guns below.

We had come to the Center for American Progress, a well-funded left-wing wellspring, to see and hear the raven-haired Maya Kassandra Soetoro-Ng, MA, MA, PhD, the Jakarta-sired, American-mothered, Canadian-espoused younger sibling of the first Nobel laureate since Henry Kissinger to make more war than peace.

Engaged in far-off Honolulu as an instructor of peace education for the humanities at the University of Hawaii, Soetoro-Ng was appearing here in support of an organization named Odanadi that invades brothels in India and spirits off young slaves to safety, assailing yet another nexus of misery in an age -- like all human ages -- of intractable hatred, calumny, violence, vengeance, exploitation and woe, with her big brother Barry foundering in the whirlpool. She is nine years and 11 days younger than Obama.

"You have more soft power than your brother," a Vietnamese woman informed her during her presentation, while the headline on the Washington Times in a box outside on H Street hollered: Obama's 'soft power' policy in a world of hurt.

"With grasshoppers by my feet may I walk," the president's sister sighed in response, invoking a Navajo prayer. "It is finished in beauty."

In Hawaii, Soetoro-Ng told us, she encourages her students to dig to "a more multi-faceted version of the truth." She called for "powerful acts of storytelling," reported she yearns to teach warring, factional tribes how to tend gardens of peace and boasted of how she trains former youth-gang leaders to sheathe their shivs and "engage in benevolent leadership."

("This course will be project-centered and will have no final exam," noted her syllabus for the 2012 school year, but students were required to keep a Daily Journal of Reflection and to write a reconciliation plan for a current global conflict. Neither of Barack Obama's bestsellers was on her list of required texts. "Prof. Soetoro was really smart," one matriculant gushed on ratemyprofessors.com. "Plus, this is definitely the best-looking professor I've ever had in my life.")

Her innate tendency toward peacefulness, she said, had been sown and sewn into her own soul through the agency of her extraordinary mother's uncommonly colour-blind and progressive world view. Through Stanley Ann Dunham, the white mid-American seeker and social anthropologist who married first an African and then an Indonesian man, she said, "I was granted comity, I was granted tolerance, I was granted artistry, I was granted sweetness."

"When she was dying," the president's mother's daughter said, "she asked for her ashes to be cast to the sea. She said, how else can I see all the beautiful places and the people I love so much?"

In glimpses like this of his origins, we see the Barack Obama that Barack Obama most deeply might wish to be -- the commander-in-chief of a "reset," not with Vladimir Putin or Bashar Assad, who are incorrigible and ultimately irrelevant to the universal hopes of men, but with the human heart itself; to wield the power, in his half-sister's words, "to take something soft and make enormous changes to something jagged and explosive."

Two years ago, Maya Kassandra Soetoro-Ng, whose husband, Konrad, also an educator at the U of Hawaii, is from Burlington, Ont., wrote a children's book that was inspired by a Georgia O'Keeffe painting and titled Ladder to the Moon. In it, a little girl's deceased and semi-mythical grandmother -- the embodiment of Stanley Ann Dunham -- emerges in a dream and leads the child to the moon, where they grant succour to victims of the 2004 tsunami ("a 50-foot wave sweeping from the ocean to the land") and the World Trade Center ("two tall towers that trembled and swayed on quaking soil").

Lifted thus from mundane tragedy, the children drink moon dew from silver cups and are joined by "people whose hand pointed upward from a synagogue, a temple, a mosque, and a steepled church... connecting with each other in hope's massive stream."

"They're praying," the grandmother whispers, "For one another, and for us. And to make the fighting stop."

Gripped by the same desire, but with no weapon other than to wage even more war, a fatherless, motherless president prepared to pull the trigger. A few blocks away, his closest living kin spoke of King and Gandhi, and of building "a bridge between the self of the learner and the many people who are living in the world."

 

Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 3, 2013 A13

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