Mark Steyn analyzes the postmodern mess that is Barack Obama’s autobiography, Dreams From My Father
HH: When we’re lucky on Thursday, we start with Columnist To the World, Mark Steyn. You can read all of his writing at www.steynonline.com. Mark, good Thursday to you.
MS: Happy Thursday to you, too, Hugh.
HH: Thank you. Now I know you’ve read Dreams From My Father. I don’t know if you’ve listened to it yet. Do you think looking back, it was a wise idea for Barack Obama to record this book?
MS: Well, let me say first of all, about the book, I’m not a big audio book man, so when I read the book, I read it in old fashioned print form. And the reason I think it’s better than so many political autobiographies is because it feels like a novel. In a sense, you get the feeling that he created a character for this book. 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. And that’s one reason why the book works, but it also gets to the heart of some of the problems he’s had in the last few weeks.
HH: As a way of talking about that, I’m going to play some of the clips, some my audience has heard before, some new ones today. And let’s just walk through it. Cut number one, Barack talking about Malcolm X and what it meant to him. It’s audio number three:
BO: 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.
HH: Mark Steyn, clearly a first for presidential memoirs, if he becomes president.
MS: Yes, I think so, and I think as we were saying earlier, the key word there, what he identifies with in Malcolm X, is self-creation. And I think it’s, in a sense, there’s a tragedy about Barack Obama, because he didn’t have to be a guy who mired himself in all the grim pathologies of the racial grievance industry. I thought when he first appeared on the national stage, that he was a character more like Colin Powell. Colin Powell and Barack Obama are both the children of British subjects. In Colin Powell’s case from the West Indies, in Obama’s case, from Kenya. And the advantage of that is that they’re not part, they’re not part of what we call now the African-American experience. They’re not part of the Jesse Jackson-Al Sharpton narrative. So there’s something very bizarre about Obama in effect artificially trying to find ways of identifying with that particular, I would regard, that particular self-defeating narrative.
HH: That’s almost the perfect analytical tool, as will become obvious in the next two clips. Cut number four:
BO: 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.
HH: Cut number five. He’s in college at Occidental:
BO: 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.
HH: Alienated, but not so atypical. Cut number eight:
BO: Freshman year, when I was still living in the dorms, there’d be the same sort of bull sessions that I’d had with Ray and other blacks back in Hawaii – the same grumblings, the same list of complaints. Otherwise, our worries seemed indistinguishable from those of the white kids around us: surviving classes, finding a well-paying gig after graduation, trying to get laid.
HH: Mark Steyn, it’s all sort of, piece by piece, he’s putting himself together.
MS: 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?
HH: A deep ambiguity continues. Cut number 13:
BO: In 1983, I decided to become a community organizer. There wasn’t much detail to the idea. I didn’t know anyone making a living that way. When classmates in college asked me just what it was that a community organizer did, I couldn’t answer them directly. Instead, I’d pronounce on the need for change. Change won’t come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilized grass roots. That’s what I’ll do. I’ll organize black folks. At the grass roots. For change. And my friends, black and white, would heartily commend me for my ideals before heading toward the post office to mail in their graduate school applications.
HH: But before he became a community organizer, he had to go to work for a little bit. Cut number 14:
BO: Eventually, a consulting house to a multinational corporation agreed to hire me as a research assistant. Like a spy behind enemy lines, I arrived every day at my mid-Manhattan office, and sat at my computer terminal, checking the Reuters machine that blinked bright emerald messages from across the globe. As far as I could tell, I was the only black man in the company, a source of shame for me, but a source of considerable pride for the company’s secretarial pool.
HH: Mark Steyn, throughout the memoir, there is a hostility, sometimes not concealed at all, to basic capitalism, and a sort of profound economic ignorance. And we heard that today in a speech he made on the economy. But he doesn’t disguise it, at least.
MS: No, and when he says he’s a spy behind enemy lines at this company he was working for in midtown Manhattan, this is ridiculous. This is a fellow who’s had a privileged upbringing, been to some of the best educational institutions on the planet. What is fake is not the job in mid-town Manhattan. What smells phony is his decision to become a “community organizer”. As he says, he can’t explain to any of his college pals what it actually is. In fact, I still don’t know what it is. What is a community organizer? I mean, it has a sort of Marxist air, as if you’re in a sense corralling the proletariat into, and honing them into a tool to overthrow capitalist oppression. But other than that, nobody can tell me what it is that a community organizer is. It’s a ridiculous thing.
HH: Let’s skip to the end before the break. This is Barack at his father’s gravesite, weeping and reflecting on his life. Cut number 24:
BO: For a long time, I sat between the two graves and wept. When my tears were finally spent, I felt a calmness wash over me. I felt the circle finally close. I realized that who I was, what I cared about, was no longer just a matter of intellect or obligation, no longer a construct of words. I saw that my life in America, the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I’d felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I had witnessed in Chicago, all of it was connected with this small plot of Earth an ocean away, connected by more than the accident of a name, or the color of my skin. The pain I felt was my father’s pain. My questions were my brothers’ questions. Their struggle, my birthright.
HH: Mark Steyn, thirty seconds to the break, do you think he set out to write a classic of African-American literature?
MS: 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.
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HH: We’re listening to some audio, trying to figure out what Barack Obama’s memoir of his early life means. Let’s go to Africa. Barack’s in a conservation with his half-sister, Aoma, about family in-fighting over the house that they have inherited from their father and his mixed up estate. And here, she’s complaining about being responsible for upkeep on the house, and fixing things. Just take a listen. Cut number 16:
BO: It would belong to them. We can do all that, Aoma, I said. She shook her head. Let me tell you what I start thinking then. I think of who will take care of the house if I’m not here. I think who can I count on to make sure that a leak gets fixed, or that the fence gets mended. It’s terrible, selfish, I know. All I can do when I think this way is to get mad at the Old Man, because he didn’t build this house for us. We are the children, Barack. Why do we have to take care of everyone? Everything is upside down, crazy. I had to take care of myself, just like Bernard. Now I’m used to living my own life, just like a German. Everything is organized. If something is broken, I fix it. If something goes wrong, it’s my own fault. If I have it, I send money to the family. And they can do with it what they want, and I won’t depend on them, and they won’t depend on me. It sounds lonely, I said. Oh, I know, Barack. That is why I keep coming home. That is why I’m still dreaming.
HH: It doesn’t sound lonely to me, Mark Steyn. It sounds like home ownership, but this is sort of the self-pity that pervades this whole Kenyan side of the family.
MS: Yes, it’s interesting to me. I mentioned Colin Powell earlier. Again, they come from similar backgrounds, you might think, except that Colin Powell, whatever one feels about him, and I certainly have differences with him as a so-called moderate Republican, but he’s very secure in his sense of himself. And clearly, Barack Obama isn’t. There’s a big hole. That hole, in part, was left by, I think, that hole inside him is in many ways the fault of his father. And he has been trying to fill that hole his whole life. And one way he’s been trying to fill that is by trying on various identities in hopes that he can find something that fits. That, I think, explains largely his twenty years at Trinity Church with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. But there is something missing. The story of his life and his book is this great sense of something missing. And that is what differentiates him from, say, Colin Powell when you read Colin Powell’s autobiography.
HH: One last cut, it’s fairly long. It’s two minutes, but we’re back with Barack at his father’s gravesite in Kenya, and he’s reflecting on the stern, old man that was his grandfather, and his great-grandfather. And it goes right to what you’ve been saying. Cut number 23:
BO: I dropped to the ground and swept my hand across the smooth, yellow tile. Oh, father, I cried, there was no shame in your confusion, just as there had been no shame in your father’s before you. No shame in the fear or the fear of his father before him. There was only shame in the silence fear had produced. It was the silence that betrayed us. If it weren’t for that silence, your grandfather might have told your father that he could never escape himself, or recreate himself alone. Your father might have taught those same lessons to you. And you, the son, might have taught your father that this new world that was beckoning all of you involved more than just railroads and indoor toilets, and irrigations ditches, and gramophones, lifeless instruments that could be absorbed into the old ways. You might have told him that these instruments carried with them a dangerous power, that they demanded a different way of seeing the world, that this power 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. The silence killed your faith. And for lack of faith, you clung to both too much and too little of your past, too much of its rigidness, its suspicions, its male cruelties, too little of the laughter in Granny’s voice, the pleasures of company while herding the goats, the murmur of the market, the stories around the fire, the loyalty that could make up for a lack of airplanes or rifles, words of encouragement, an embrace, a strong true love. For all your gifts, the quick mind, the powers of concentration, the charm, you could never forge yourself into a whole man by leaving those things behind.
HH: Mark Steyn, I’m not a cynic. I just don’t think this is the sort of language Americans expect out of political leaders.
MS: No, I was just listening to it, and it does sound very much someone spent way too much money on a really bad creative writing course. That, when he talks about the conversations that were never had, those are the conversations that you have if you’ve got nothing else to do. They’re the conversations that people have sometimes when they’re at college at 3:00 in the morning, and they’re just sitting around, and as he was saying earlier, you know, they’re pleasantly high on whatever substance they’ve been toking, and they’ve got nothing better to do. But real people, particularly hard working grandfathers and great-grandfathers in Kenyan villages, do have things to do. And you don’t even have to make the Kenyan comparison. If you say imagine Calvin Coolidge sitting down and writing a memoir with that kind of narcissistic introspection riddled all the way through it, in other words, not an interesting narrative, but almost like a postmodern commentary on the narrative, I mean, Calvin Coolidge, it’s an alien language to most American presidents.
HH: One more cut. This is the dream sequence. Cut number 21:
BO: Aoma shook her head. Can you imagine, Barack, she said looking at me. I swear, sometimes I think that the problems in this family all started with him. He is the only person who’s opinion I think the Old Man really worried about, the only person he feared. We all decided to turn in. The bunks were narrow, but the sheets were cool and inviting, and I stayed up late listening to the trembling rhythm of the train, and the even breaths of my brothers, and thinking about the stories of our grandfather. It had all started with him, Aoma had said. That sounded right somehow. If I could just piece together his story, I thought, then perhaps everything else might fall into place. I finally fell asleep, and dreamed I was walking along a village road. Children dressed only in strings of beads played in front of the round huts, and several old men waived to me as I passed. But as I went farther along, I began to notice that people were looking behind me fearfully, rushing into their huts as I passed. I heard the growl of a leopard, and started to run into the forest, tripping over roots and stumps and vines, until at last I couldn’t run any longer, and I fell to my knees in the middle of a bright clearing. Panting for breath, I turned around to see the day turned to night, and a giant figure, looming as tall as the trees, wearing only a loincloth and a ghostly mask. The lifeless eyes bored into me, and I heard a thunderous voice saying only that it was time. And my entire body began to shake violently with the sound, as if I were breaking apart.
HH: Mark Steyn, do we need to know all this?
MS: Well, I think that’s actually useful if you’re doing your first draft for the film version, and hoping that Miramax will pick up the option. That’s what it sounds like. As I said earlier, this is a very unusual memoir. It reads a lot…if you imagine, say, Joe Biden writing a political autobiography, it would be yawnsville from the word go. In a sense, he’s written a beautiful, self-absorbed book in which Barack Obama is an invented character in a bizarre postmodern narrative.
HH: Mark Steyn, always a pleasure, www.steynonline.com.
End of interview.