Thursday, March 20, 2008
Clues In Obama's Speech
I've long had a private theory about Barack Obama, that one way to understand his life's journey is as a man who deliberately chose an African-American identity. Obama's background, his abilities, and the unprecedented opportunities open to a young dark-skinned man in the America of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s offered him an apparent chance to refuse this identity. Obama chose otherwise.
My personal view is that it was a brave choice, even a noble one. But it was not a necessary one or an altogether natural one. I am only about one-third of my way through Obama's memoir, Dreams of My Father. Thus far, my major take-away is how overwrought the book is. Literally overwrought: not just emotionally high-pitched, but artificially contrived. This is not a story of self-discovery. It is a story of self-invention.
Here is where the Rev. Jeremiah Wright comes in. The inner Barack Obama is a highly educated left-liberal, shaped by a peculiarly American dilemma of material comfort and psychic pain. He hungered for what he saw as a more authentic experience - and Wright seemed to offer it, just as the Black Panthers seemed to offer authenticity to the white liberals memorialized in Tom Wolfe's great essay, "Radical Chic."
Did Barack Obama share the beliefs or endorse the rhetoric of his pastor? Very possibly he did, at least for a few intense moments of imaginative sympathy with the historical sufferings of American Americans. But those were not his sufferings or the sufferings of his parents and grandparents, and imaginative sympathy is in the end a feeble and short-lived emotion.
My guess - and again I am just guessing - is that much of the time Obama regarded Jeremiah Wright as much as a specimen to be studied rather than as a mentor to be emulated. Remember that line in Obama's Philadelphia speech about "the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance" that Obama found in his church? Who do you think he's talking about there?
Obama reminds me often of George Eliot's character Daniel Deronda. Daniel is raised as a Victorian English gentleman, discovers in his young manhood that his parents were in fact Jewish, and then devotes himself to the task of becoming Jewish - including turning his back on a much more interesting non-Jewish woman to marry a rather annoying girl who can anchor him more deeply in Jewish life.
So if the question is: Does Obama share the Rev. Wright's Afrocentric prejudices and passions? I can easily accept the candidate's insistence in his latest speech that he does not.
Yet if not, that only leaves me more puzzled to understand: what was Obama doing in that church? The answers Obama offered are not very convincing. The church does good works? OK, so do other churches that don't teach that AIDS was concocted by the US government. And the answers that Obama invites me to infer - that he was in this church to partake of the African-American experience at its fullest only leave me more baffled than ever by the question: Who is this man really?
Hillary Clinton, I get. I don't like her, but I get her. She is the hall monitor who reported me to the teachers in third grade, the dietician who mistrusted any food that had not been thoroughly steamed, an unlikeable but thoroughly recognizable type.
Obama? "I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible." That's a great line! It's also true however that no previous serious candidate for president could ever have claimed that much of his family held a citizenship other than that of the United States. Perhaps for that reason, through Obama's speech I kept thinking of another, on a very different subject but on a surprisingly related theme:
I will go as far as anyone in world service, but the first step to world service is the maintenance of the United States. ... [A] n American I was born, an American I have remained all my life. I can never be anything else but an American, and I must think of the United States first .... I have never had but one allegiance - I cannot divide it now. I have loved but one flag and I cannot share that devotion .... National I must remain, and in that way I like all other Americans can render the amplest service to the world.
That's Henry Cabot Lodge on the League of Nations in 1919. Not really a very nice person, Lodge. His speech surely brought no joy to the faces of old men in Uganda, and there are parts of it that would stick in anybody's craw today. But Lodge talked the way American politicians have historically talked. And of all the things that Obama is proposing to "change" in this remarkable year of change, it is his change in that way of talking that may ultimately prove the most remarkable thing about this very remarkable man.
03/20 08:38 AM