A few posts ago, I wrote "The most interesting puzzle I've come across for a long time is Barack Obama ... I haven't figured out what Obama is loyal to, except to himself. ... What he is I've long suspected. Who he is, I've yet to make up my mind about." I had made up my mind that Obama was a hustler; but not who he was a hustler for. If that sounds pretty vague, its comforting to know that Mark Steyn is thinking along the same lines. But he supports his thinking with extracts from Barack Obama's half-fictional autobiography. Describing Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance Steyn writes:
It’s not the usual political memoir in which the guy retells a dull story of how he got the airport parking lot extension bill passed. It’s actually, it actually feels as if Barack Obama is an invented character. ... I think in a sense, he decided to invent a novelistic character called Barack Obama. I think it reads like, instead of an autobiography, it reads like a sort of Gatsbyesque tale of self-invention.
Steyn plays audio extracts from the book to record the process of how Obama constructed himself. Obama was driven by a need to define himself as one thing and not another. If anything is demonstrates his belief in the impossibility of truly being all things to all men, his autobiography must be Exhibit A. Obama said:
Only Malcolm X’s autobiography seemed to offer something different. His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me. The blunt poetry of his words, his unadorned insistence on respect, promised a new and uncompromising order, martial in its discipline, forged through sheer force of will. All the other stuff, the talk of blue-eyed devils and apocalypse, was incidental to that program, I decided. Religious baggage that Malcolm himself seemed to have safely abandoned toward the end of his life. And yet, even as I imagine myself following Malcolm’s call, one line in the book stayed with me. He spoke of a wish he’d once had, the wish that the white blood that ran through him, there by an act of violence, might somehow be expunged. I knew that for Malcolm, that wish would never be incidental. I knew as well that traveling down the road to self-respect, my own white blood would never recede into mere abstraction. I was left to wonder what else I would be severing, if and when I left my mother and my grandparents at some uncharted border.
I wondered whether his mother and grandmother ever knew, those who at first glance should know him best of all, if and when they had been left at "some uncharted border" as excess baggage on his way forward? Or that their white blood would always weigh on Barack like the poison which ran through Malcom X, impregnated "by an act of violence"? Over and over again the theme that exclusion is the key to belonging emerges.
To avoid being mistaken for such a sellout, I chose my friends carefully: the more politically active black students, the foreign students, the Chicanos, the Marxist professors and structural feminists, and punk rock performance poets. We smoked cigarettes and wore leather jackets. At night in the dorms, we discussed neocolonialism, Frantz Fanon, Euro-centrism, and patriarchy. When we ground out our cigarettes in the hallway carpet, or set our stereos so loud that the walls began to shake, we were resisting Bourgeois society’s stifling constraints. We weren’t indifferent or careless or insecure. We were alienated.
That last line -- "we were alienated" -- is too wrong to have been written in literary error by a man as smart as Obama. Surely what he meant to write was "we were resisting". Choosing. Choosing Frantz Fanon, Marxism, structural feminism, black political activism instead of choosing the other. Alienation was the flip side of realization; leaving was the other half of joining. But joining what? Here Steyn seems to agree with my belief that Obama found the Sharpton/Jackson narrative too cheesey for his own liking. The closest he comes to a hypothesis is to suggest that Barack saw himself as a member of the "club of disaffection".
I spent the last two years of high school in a daze, blocking away the questions that life seemed insistent on posing. I kept playing basketball, attended classes sparingly, drank beer heavily, and tried drugs enthusiastically. I discovered that it didn’t make any difference whether you smoked reefer in the white classmate’s sparkling new van, or in the dorm room with some brother you’d met down at the gym, or on the beach with a couple of Hawaiian kids who had dropped out of school, and now spent most of their time looking for an excuse to brawl. Nobody asked you whether your father was a fat cat executive who cheated on his wife, or some laid-off Joe who slapped you around whenever he bothered to come home. You might just be bored or alone. Everybody was welcome into the club of disaffection. And if the high didn’t solve whatever it was that was getting you down, it could at least help you laugh at the world’s ongoing folly, and see through all the hypocrisy and bullshit and cheap moralism.
But that was the Obama of many decades ago. The Obama of Hawaii. Where had his limitless invention taken him since, after Harvard, Chicago and Democratic politics? Here the dialogue between Mark Steyn and his interviewer, Hugh Hewitt gets speculative because they are trying to figure out the same puzzle I've been wrestling with. We know what Barack is. But who is he now?
Hugh Hewitt: "It’s all sort of, piece by piece, he’s putting himself together."
Mark Steyn: Yes, and the interesting thing about it is, which strikes you when you see Obama live, there’s a reserve about him, and a remoteness about him when you see him on stage at one of these rallies, as if he is, in some sense, unknowable. And I think that’s true when you listen to this book, too, that he’s talking about neocolonialism and patriarchy and Euro-centrism. And there’s a kind of air of amused detachment about it. He’s using the terms ironically. But it’s never clear, and never swims into focus what it is he really believes. And it’s an interesting contrast with his wife. If you listen to Michelle Obama, and she was using words like Euro-centrism and patriarch and neocolonialism, you would feel for sure that she meant that for real, and meant it seriously. With Obama, again, there seems to be something empty deep down inside him. What is it that he really believes? Who is he really?
Of course one could ask why it should it matter. There are those who will argue that a man who constantly reinvents himself is in a process of growth. His supporters want Barack Obama to grow, to keep reinventing himself because "our more perfect union" depends on it. Some might even maintain that Barack Obama's constant reinvention proves him the existential superior of a stick in the mud like John McCain. But that's not entirely true. It is perhaps deserving of more notice that the title McCain's own biography is uncannily similar in name to Obama's. And in Faith of My Fathers McCain's grandfather and father come to him in dreams too: perhaps not in so literary a fashion, in his moments of hell-raising; and in the darkest holes in Hanoi. In truth John Sidney McCain III reivented himself too, from a Naval Lieutenant Commander into what he is today. A Republican with many liberal positions except in matters of national defense.
But maybe the key to decoding the problem lies in looking away from Obama and McCain and into ourselves. What are the dreams of our fathers; what is the faith of our dreams? The elections of 2008, like all elections, is about what the country wants to be; what it wishes reinvent itself into. Who Barack and McCain are, we can all guess. John LeCarre, writing the only words he will always be remembered for, said "love is whatever you can still betray." Who in their heart of hearts, after the last deal has been cut; the final compromise made, do Barack Obama and John McCain still love? What is it that they will not betray? Can we ever know? Perhaps not. Maybe all we can figure out is who we are, and by implication, who we want. And ah, there's the hard part.
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