Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Obama's Horribleness Discovered After 17 Years in Plain Sight

One of the recent conservative fauxrages is over Barack Obama's supposed deception and hypocrisy in his 1995 autobiography, Dreams from My Father. The main complaints come from people who never bothered to read it – and they're determined not to change that now.

Roy Edroso nicely sums up "scandal" #1:

Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama came out in 1995 and has sold over a million copies, but to rightbloggers it is a constantly fresh source of discovery.

For years, some of them have insisted that Obama didn't really write it. A few weeks back, they made much of the fact that a passage from it revealed as boy in Indonesia he had eaten dog meat.

Last week somebody noticed that some people in the 17-year-old book were described in the introduction as "composites." Rightbloggers were outraged. Whoever heard of such a thing -- besides, that is, the hundreds of thousands of people who read it?

A little background: The introduction to Dreams contains these lines: "For the sake of compression, some of the characters that appear are composites of people I've known, and some events appear out of precise chronology," and "With the exception of my family and a handful of public figures, the names of most characters have been changed for the sake of their privacy."

Writer David Marranis went looking for people who might have been the originals of the people in Obama's book. Marranis got some good access -- to an ex-girlfriend of Obama's, Genevieve Cook, and to Obama himself -- and part of his material appeared last week in Vanity Fair in advance of a new book. (Obama affirmed that the girlfriend in the book was, like others, a composite.)

In the normal world, this all makes sense: An ambitious young politician uses, and wisely admits up front to using, plausibly deniable composite characters so he can evade potentially explosive tell-all interviews with named characters later. A writer looks up possible sources, and gets the author, now President, to comment on them.

In rightblogger world, however, this was a major scandal, despite 17 years of advance notification.

Head over for the accusations that Obama "lied" and that the whole composite thing was news. (Surely you're already reading Roy Edroso's weekly rightblogger roundups, though!)

"Scandal" #2 involves Obama's supposed hypocrisy in dating a white woman. In "Oedipus Schmedipus," TBogg catches Ann Althouse writing, "Imagine being a heterosexual man and feeling that you weren’t supposed to be attracted to a woman who reminds you of your mother." I also found the preceding section of Althouse's post interesting, though:

By the way, in his book "Dreams From My Father," Obama writes of being openly critical of a black man with a white girlfriend:

Tim was not a conscious brother. Tim wore argyle sweaters and pressed jeans and talked like Beaver Cleaver. He planned to major in business. His white girlfriend was probably waiting for him up in his room, listening to country music. He was happy as a clam, and I wanted nothing more than for him to go away. I got up, walked with him down the hall to my room, gave him the assignment he needed. As soon as I got back to Reggie’s room, I somehow felt obliged to explain.

“Tim’s a trip, ain’t he,” I said, shaking my head. “Should change his name from Tim to Tom.”

ADDED: I get the feeling that the hostility expressed toward "Tim" was displaced hostility toward himself. It's very sad if he resisted loving Genevieve because she was white. Don't you think Genevieve resembles Obama's mother, who was white? Imagine being a heterosexual man and feeling that you weren't supposed to be attracted to a woman who reminds you of your mother. There's this alternate never-to-be-written Obama search-for-identity book titled "Dreams From My Mother."

Several Althouse commenters hold up the Tim/Tom bit as proof of Obama's hatred of certain black people, his hatred of white people already being firmly established in their minds. (Other commenters suggest Obama is gay.) Several other conservative blogs linked Althouse's post, used the Tim/Tom passage and accused Obama of being a hypocrite (among other things).

Astute readers might wonder, 'Hmm, what's the context of this passage? What does Obama write next?' As it so happens, it's not hard to read it for yourself:

I thought back to that time when I was still living in the dorms, the three of us in Reggie's room—Reggie, Marcus and myself—the patter of rain against the windowpane. We were drinking a few beers and Marcus was telling me about his run-in with the L.A.P.D. "They had no reason to stop me," he was saying. "No reason 'cept I was walking in a white neighborhood. Made me spread-eagle against the car. One of 'em pulled out his piece. I didn't let 'em scare me, though. That's what gets these storm troopers off, seeing fear in a black man…"

I watched Marcus as he spoke, lean and dark and straight-backed, his long legs braced apart, comfortable in a white T-shirt and blue denim overalls. Marcus was the most conscious of brothers. He could tell you about his grandfather the Garveyite; about his mother in St. Louis who had raised her kids alone while working as a nurse; about his older sister who had been a founding member of the local Panther party; about his friends in the joint. His lineage was pure, his loyalties clear, and for that reason he always made me feel a little off-balance, like a younger brother who, no matter what he does, will always be one step behind. And that's just how I was feeling at that moment, listening to Marcus pronounce on his authentic black experience, when Tim walking into the room.

"Hey, guys," Tim had said, waving cheerfully. He turned to me. "Listen, Barry—do you have that assignment for Econ?"

Tim was not a conscious brother. Tim wore argyle sweaters and pressed jeans and talked like Beaver Cleaver. He planned to major in business. His white girlfriend was probably waiting for him up in his room, listening to country music. He was happy as a clam, and I wanted nothing more than for him to go away. I got up, walked with him down the hall to my room, gave him the assignment he needed. As soon as I got back to Reggie’s room, I somehow felt obliged to explain.

“Tim’s a trip, ain’t he,” I said, shaking my head. “Should change his name from Tim to Tom.”

Reggie laughed, but Marcus didn't. Marcus said, "Why you say that, man?"

The question caught me by surprise. "I don't know. The dude's just goofy, that's all."

Marcus took a sip of his beer and looked me straight in the eye. "Tim seems all right to me," he said. "He's going about his business. Don't bother nobody. Seems to me we should be worrying about whether our own stuff's together instead of passing judgment on how other people are supposed to act."

A year later, and I still burned with the memory, the anger and resentment I'd felt at that moment. Marcus calling me out in front of Reggie like that. But he'd been right to do it, hadn't he? He had caught me in a lie. Two lies, really—the lie I had told about Tim and the lie I was telling about myself. In fact, that whole year seemed like one long lie, me spending all my energy running around in circles, trying to cover my tracks.

Dreams from My Father, Chapter 5, "Origins," pp.101-102.

Boy, that passage sure reads differently in context, doesn't it? As presented by conservative bloggers, it reads as a story of Obama attacking someone for not being "black" enough, with the implication that Obama was proud of this, still thinks this way, and is a hypocrite since he dated a white woman himself. In context, it's a story of Obama being called out for mocking a black classmate to get a laugh and approval from his peers, and the lasting shame he felt for doing so. It's also about older, author Obama looking back on his young self and calling out himself for saying something stupid and his own hypocrisy and self-deception at the time. (All that said, this incident is one moment in a larger rite of passage, hardly some great crime, and completely forgivable.)

As it so happens, I read Dreams from My Father back in 2008, and remembered this passage. However, even if I hadn't remembered this specific incident, I would have remembered the central themes of the book, which include struggling with racial identity. Even if I had never read the book, I would wonder about the context of Althouse's quotation, especially since Obama is a politician and is describing an incident that occurred in the past, when he was a college student (when many young people struggle with their sense of identity). Althouse writes of Obama that "I get the feeling that the hostility expressed toward "Tim" was displaced hostility toward himself," but Obama himself says essentially that on the very same page. Obama's insight into this incident is the main point of the story; Althouse essentially cribs this and denies Obama this level of reflection.

Quoting out of context is one of the oldest tricks around (remember Andrew Breitbart's attacks on Shirley Sherrod?), not that many conservative bloggers bothered to read much, if any, of Obama's book in the first place. Bad faith and hatred of the Kenyan usurper drive most rightblogger commentary on Obama (as is evident here if one cares to follow the links above and read all the posts and comments on this passage). Hey, if it makes Obama look bad and/or fits a rightwing narrative about him, they'll just run with it. But what about Althouse herself? Apparently, she doesn't like to be labeled conservative despite her policy preferences, and claims she voted for Obama in 2008. Was her highly selective quoting deliberately misleading, or ineptitude?

While bad faith is a defining feature of modern conservative politics, let's be more, um, charitable and consider ineptitude for the moment. Perhaps Althouse quoted Obama out of context to try to make him look bad, but is it possible she honestly didn't understand the entire point of Obama telling this story? (These factors are not mutually exclusive.)

It may help to put these "scandals" about Dreams from My Father in a larger context. In terms of wonks, hacks and zealots, unfortunately, very few conservative wonks can be found on the national stage. Conservative wonks and conscientious citizens do exist, of course, but they have been almost entirely purged from the Republican Party. Conservative political figures tend to be hacks, obsessed with power, while conservative bloggers, with lesser power, tend to be zealots. Both types, but particularly the zealots, tend to use a scorecard approach to most issues, especially race. If they ever cared about good policies, they tend to lose sight of that in the burning need to destroy their perceived enemies. They don't care about responsible governance. They don't really care about substance. It's all about power and winning. As we've examined before, conservatives and liberals simply do not speak the same language. Sometimes, conservatives seem genuinely mystified by concepts such as the social contract, rich liberals wanting to pay higher taxes to help their communities, and social justice.

Consider the Trayvon Martin case – it upset many people (non-conservatives, mostly) because Martin's killer, George Zimmerman, was free and not on trial. (Thankfully, he is now awaiting trial.) Why did so many conservatives clamor to defend Zimmerman's pursuit and shooting of an unarmed teenager? Why did so many seek to smear Martin? There's really no rational reason for it. It only makes sense in the context of the rightwing Wurlitzer and a world of scorecard politics, where conservatives believe that liberals and all non-conservatives are insincere and raise racial issues solely for political advantage (in conservative minds, "playing the race card"), not because they mourn the unnecessary death of a young person. It only makes sense from a political movement that insists that racism largely doesn't exist, and that all accusations of racism, no matter how well-founded, must be fought vehemently. Moreover, if you followed the story and the conservative reactions, you may have noticed that many conservatives fundamentally did not understand why the Martin case was disturbing to so many people. For a sampling of conservative reactions chronicled and dissected, see John Cole, Roy Edroso, TBogg, Gawker, Angry Black Lady, and the more extensive archives of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Chauncey DeVega. Some of the conservative commentary is mind-boggling. Some of it is pure bad faith and knee-jerk political combativeness, but there's also a heavy dose of sheer incomprehension. We are simply not speaking the same language.

This brings us back to Obama and Dreams from My Father. Obama is a pretty good writer, especially for a politician. Likewise, his much heralded speech on race in Philadelphia in 2008 was insightful, frank, and deft – at least, for a politician. Dreams from My Father is full of dialogue presented in direct quotations when it's unlikely Obama remembered all the exact words said – but this is a standard convention in memoirs, that the writer fill in the gaps of memory. The composite characters and shuffling of events isn't surprising, either, and Obama reveals it upfront. The implicit promise from the author is that these accounts have the essence of truth, that the particulars may be off (sometimes deliberately so, to preserve the privacy of those depicted), but that there was some real-life analogue to this or that incident, that a conversation did occur that went something like this.

In Dreams from My Father, Obama explores the turmoil of identity many young people wrestle with, and in his case, this also involves dealing with an absent father and being biracial. Perhaps most to the point, Obama's book is one of self-reflection, and naturally it invites the reader to engage in the same self-reflection, and consider these issues of identity (including racial identity) with some nuance. There are certainly other works that mine the same territory, including some classics in American letters. The most cynical of critics may feel that Obama's book is mostly careful fabrication (although it's hardly as warm, fuzzy, shallow or self-aggrandizing as many politician's books). Regardless, the book does invite substantive discussion on race, which can be, um, a touchy subject in certain crowds.

Movement conservatives are not noted for their empathy – in fact, they're proud of their lack of it – and the stereotypical conservative does not care much for nuance either. The conservative "scandals" over Dreams from My Father are fake, but the selective, ideological reading of it reveals a genuine tragedy – a substantive discussion on race is there to be had, but as usual, most conservatives have no interest in engaging in it.

1 comment:

Comrade Physioprof said...

Yeah, every single public figure these days who claims to be a "conservative" is a lying bagge of dickes. And itte's a feature, not a bugge.