Tuesday, July 21, 2009

dreams from obama

I took advantage of visiting day at camp to finish reading Barack Obama's autobiographical book, Dreams From My Father, which he wrote in the mid-1990s. (Obama's second, more overtly political book, The Audacity of Hope, is better known but considerably less interesting).

The book is surprisingly good, if not as literature, then as an insight into the President's values, mindset, and character. The story is divided into three parts: "Origins," which describes Obama's youth in Hawaii, Indonesia, and other locations; "Chicago," which describes his work as a community organizer; and Kenya, which describes his trip to his father's homeland in the late 1980s (before law school) and what he discovered there. The first part is by the far the most entertaining, describing the contradictions in Obama's family and upbringing with wit and humor; surely it is the only book in which a presidential candidate admits that he tried every drug he could get his hands on and avoided others out of fear rather than morality. By contrast the second and third parts drag a bit--I found myself putting it down at times to read newspapers and other fare. But it is worth the wait, for in the last thirty pages or so Obama comes to terms with his father's limitations, learning lessons that are vital to understanding his approach to politics and his presidency.

What Obama learns is that his father, although extremely intelligent, failed to accomplish his dreams because he lacked the political and human skills to match his intellect; more precisely, because he clung to inflexible, outmoded values rather than attaching himself to a larger community that could mediate the tensions between old and new in a constructive manner. Obama himself puts it this way, describing his thought upon viewing his father's grave:

"Oh, Father, I cried. There was no shame in your confusion. . . . There was only shame in the silence fear had produced. . . . It was the silence that betrayed us. . . . [Western technology] could be absorbed only alongside a faith born out of hardship, a faith that wasn't new, that wasn't black or white or Christian or Muslim but that pulsed in the heart of the first African village and the first Kansas homestead--a faith in other people."

I think this passage is extremely important because it reveals a number of repeating patterns in Obama's thought. The first, reflecting his experience in Africa, Hawaii, and Indonesia, is that human connections are more important than abstract beliefs: that there is an essential core of human values which is common across religions and cultures and can be appealed to notwithstanding these differences. This is an extremely noble sentiment, and accurately reflects the direction of progressive thought in our era, but can be dangerous in dealing with places (the Middle East, the Republican Party) that have not necessarily signed on.

The second is that flexibility, compromise, and adjustment--dare I say feminine values--are ultimately the key to human happiness rather than stubborn adherence to principles however deeply held. This is, interestingly, almost precisely the opposite lesson that George W. Bush learned from his father, whose presidency was believed to have failed because he did not adhere to principle on taxes and other matters. Once again, Obama's view is closer to that of progressive, postmodern thinking on politics and other matters: but it may result in an exaggerated willingness, even desire to compromise on principles (in health care, Iran, etc.) where they would better be held to.

I don't want to overstate the parallels between Bush and Obama: the latter obviously has far more self-awareness, and his substantive values are almost precisely opposite in nature. But it is interesting that each of them--both raised primarily by their mothers--is so obsessed, in his own way, with righting his father's perceived mistakes. In Bush's case many observers believe that he wound up less successful than his progenitor. Will Obama do better?


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