Sunday, July 20, 2008

"The Audacity of Hope" by Barack Obama (Review: Part 1)

I became interested in the senator after his speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention and have become a bit of a fan since seeing a number of speeches and interviews, including his appearance on the Jon Stewart show. That's when I first got a look at Obama’s laid-back humour, something that appealed to my Australian-grown sensibilities.

It is true, I have weakness for funny. My other favourite candidate was Mike Huckabee, despite disagreeing with him on almost every issue. I am actually somewhat grateful that the current crop Australian politicians are completely devoid of any such sense of humour, or I might have to refrain from voting. We can't risk voting for a guy who wants teach creationism now can we?

Of course it also helps that my political views align very well with Obama’s and that I find him refreshingly candid about his positions. And whatever side of politics you are on, I think the following is a safe call to make: the elite list of orators that one can compare Obama to is a rather small list indeed.

Since 2004 we have been given ample evidence of Obama's skill with rhetoric. There was that commencement address for SNHU in which he asked graduates to broaden their 'ambit of concern'. Then I read 'Call to Renewal' a deeply empathetic speech on faith, recently brought to deserved prominence by a woefully misguided attack from James Dobson. Then came a slew of remarkable speeches during the democratic primary, beginning with that Iowa victory speech, in which he celebrated the nation 'coming together under a common purpose'. That was followed by the 'Yes We Can' speech in Nashua, the cadence and rhythm of which inspired Will.I.Am and others to sample it in their musical tribute to the candidate. There was also his Victory speech in South Carolina, where a tough defiance came through in response to the Clinton antics during that rough and dirty primary battle.

Then there was the gem of the lot; 'A More Perfect Union'. It was a difficult speech on race, given when the campaign was faltering with the Wright controversy. I along with most others was definitely expecting Obama to come out with his A game. I was expecting soaring, optimistic and beautiful. I was expecting another moving and inspiring tribute to ‘all of us working towards common dreams’ etc, etc…

Instead, what we heard was something unexpected. The speech he ended up giving was stripped of the rising cadence that Obama had become famous for. It was bare and matter-of-fact. It was respectful and empathetic. Most of all it showed a deep understanding of the painful and tortured elements of an issue that was not going to go away any time soon. What was always going to be an amazing speech turned out to be a historical one.

I'd read Dreams of My Father when he had just started out on the presidential campaign. Hillary was on around 40 points in the national polls. But I believed my most trusted political analyst (look at the date on that post) when he said it was going to be close. I read the memoir as a show of support. It was same logic that keeps me up at night when Arsenal loses a match that I failed to see.

As modern literary work on race and identity it is impressive. The guy can definitely write. There were your eloquent literary flourishes and artistic licenses but the book displayed a rare sense of self-awareness, almost to the point of being annoying. It was a memoir written when he was 30 and before his adventures into the political limelight.

I knew I couldn't expect that same candid inward-looking thought processes in his next book, and that is more or less the case. But not unfortunately so. The image that he portrays of himself is clean and careful, and the book revolves around policy and government more so than his own failings and struggles. Revealing personal truths as those found in Dreams of My Father are comparatively scarce. However, it is still a great insight into how the man thinks on the issues, and his overarching philosophical framework and his understanding of the idea of America. In comparison to the guarded and inscrutable faces of most of those in similar public positions, this book is indeed informative for those who want to come to a decision about the candidate.

The media furor over the New Yorker cartoon seemed rather ludicrous to me, especially after reading this. How can anyone mistake him for being unpatriotic? In his two books, and over all of his speeches, lies an underlying theme that reflects his deep affinity with the American ideal. It is almost as if his personal destiny is inextricably linked to the founding documents and the twists and turns in the American experiment. More so than his Christian faith, I feel that it is this that holds up and motivates the man's moral framework.

This is most evident when it is not explicitly stated, but rather when they are weaved through his descriptions of Capitol Hill, the White House, his meeting with elder senators like Robert Byrd and in his long discussion of the Constitution and the tension and compromise between the various ideals that it demands from the country. However he does come close to stating as such explicitly, in the opening of the chapter on values:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Those simple words are our starting point as Americans; they describe not only the foundation of our government but the substance of our common creed. Not every American may be able to recite them; few, if asked, could trace the genesis of the Declaration of Independence to its roots in eighteenth-century liberal and republican thought. But the essential idea behind the Declaration—that we are born into this world free, all of us; that each of us arrives with a bundle of rights that can’t be taken away by any person or any state without just cause; that through our own agency we can, and must, make of our lives what we will—is one that every American understands. It orients us, sets our course, each and every day.
What follows is an excursion on the continual difficulty of finding the right balance between competing values. He speaks of historical compromises and concludes with the ones dominating the news today. The compromise between civil liberties and national security, and the dual needs of those blue collar workers whose manufacturing jobs are getting shipped overseas and the needs of the economy to remain competitive. His earnest appeal seems to be the need to show an understanding of where the opposition is coming from and to acknowledge that they were all working for same thing.

From there Obama resumes his observations of the politics as it stands today. The central theme of this book, and particularly the first six chapters, is the "troubling gap between the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics." He doesn't rail against it in the normal hackneyed manner but rather makes an almost exhaustive analysis of why things are the way they are, without assigning blame on any one party. He speaks of the spiraling cycle of vitriol and misrepresentations that seem to swallow up even the most genuine policy makers. His explanation for the political discourse is so compelling that you wonder if there really is any hope of changing this state of affairs, but he then has this to say:
Maybe the critics are right. Maybe there’s no escaping our great political divide, an endless clash of armies, and any attempts to alter the rules of engagement are futile. Or maybe the trivialization of politics has reached a point of no return, so that most people see it as just one more diversion, a sport, with politicians our paunch-bellied gladiators and those who bother to pay attention just fans on the sidelines: We paint our faces red or blue and cheer our side and boo their side, and if it takes a late hit or cheap shot to beat the other team, so be it, for winning is all that matters.

But I don’t think so. They are out there, I think to myself, those ordinary citizens who have grown up in the midst of all the political and cultural battles, but who have found a way—in their own lives, at least—to make peace with their neighbors, and themselves. I imagine the white Southerner who growing up heard his dad talk about niggers this and niggers that but who has struck up a friendship with the black guys at the office and is trying to teach his own son different, who thinks discrimination is wrong but doesn't see why the son of a black doctor should get admitted into law school ahead of his own son. Or the former Black Panther who decided to go into real estate, bought a few buildings in the neighborhood, and is just as tired of the drug dealers in front of those buildings as he is of the bankers who won’t give him a loan to expand his business. There’s the middle-aged feminist who still mourns her abortion, and the Christian woman who paid for her teenager’s abortion, and the millions of waitresses and temp secretaries and nurse’s assistants and Wal-Mart associates who hold their breath every single month in the hope that they’ll have enough money to support the children that they did bring into the world.

I imagine they are waiting for a politics with the maturity to balance idealism and realism, to distinguish between what can and cannot be compromised, to admit the possibility that the other side might sometimes have a point. They don’t always understand the arguments between right and left, conservative and liberal, but they recognize the difference between dogma and common sense, responsibility and irresponsibility, between those things that last and those that are fleeting.

They are out there, waiting for Republicans and Democrats to catch up with them.
This is what Barack Obama is about, this is the value added in electing him to office. It's not about implementing a progressive agenda and it is not about sweeping revolution. His brand is not about liberalism. Those that had thought otherwise are those who had seen a reflection of their own values on a blank slate.

Obama is about compromise and finding common goals. He is an incrementalist and a very cautious one at that. And this is precisely the antidote that is needed after President Bush's resolute belief in his own rightness. We need someone who recognises that the choices before us are complicated and nuanced. Someone who understands that there is a possibility that their own views are wrong. However, after repeatedly calling for such tolerance of views he concludes his thoroughly fascinating chapter on the Constitution thus:
The best I can do in the face of our history is remind myself that it has not always been the pragmatist, the voice of reason, or the force of compromise, that has created the conditions for liberty. The hard, cold facts remind me that it was unbending idealists like William Lloyd Garrison who first sounded the clarion call for justice; that it was slaves and former slaves, men like Denmark Vesey and Frederick Douglass and women like Harriet Tubman, who recognized power would concede nothing without a fight. It was the wild-eyed prophecies of John Brown, his willingness to spill blood and not just words on behalf of his visions, that helped force the issue of a nation half slave and half free. I’m reminded that deliberation and the constitutional order may sometimes be the luxury of the powerful, and that it has sometimes been the cranks, the zealots, the prophets, the agitators, and the unreasonable—in other words, the absolutists—that have fought for a new order. Knowing this, I can’t summarily dismiss those possessed of similar certainty today—the antiabortion activist who pickets my town hall meeting, or the animal rights activist who raids a laboratory—no matter how deeply I disagree with their views. I am robbed even of the certainty of uncertainty—for sometimes absolute truths may well be absolute.
Those who are disappointed by his so called 'shift to the center' haven't been paying attention. They haven't read The Audacity of Hope. The whole book revolves around finding common ground and empathising with the other side. They've been employing some selectivity when listening to what he says.

He has always been respectful to the second amendment and gun owners. He has always shown difference to the anti-abortion movement. People should not be surprised by his support for faith-based initiatives nor his position on Iraq, both of which have been consistent throughout the campaign.

I think the FISA compromise and the refusal to accept public financing are legitimate causes of disagreement. FISA was not a 'capitulation' as some have been saying but it is a reversal of position. On the campaign finance issue, we need to step back and acknowledge how successful the RNC will be at accumulating funds and at carpeting the swing states with attack ads. It is understandable that Obama chose the option that leaves him with the highest amount of ammunition for a counter attack. However, the way in which he made that announcement was with your garden variety double-speak and he deserves to get some flak for being such a tool.

The storyline that he is abandoning those who carried him out of the primary is a very interesting one, and the media has jumped on it with gusto. Unfortunately, once that storyline gets repeated often enough, every decision a politician makes will be defined through that prism. Every time Obama speaks out on his more centrist views it will be interpreted cynically. Every time he says something about 'absent fathers' it is going to be 'sister soulja moment'. A common-sense statement about listening to the generals on the ground becomes 'flip floping'.

Developing a new storyline and gaining traction with a disinterested public takes effort. Although he has enjoyed favourable press till now, things are going to change. He is no longer the underdog. He will have to take McCain on in an even playing field as far as the media is concerned.

In the book he acknowledges that he has been "the beneficiary of unusually—and at times undeservedly—positive press coverage", before going on to speak about the mechanisms by which partisan talking points take a stranglehold on the discussion:
Every reporter in Washington is working under pressures imposed by editors and producers, who in turn are answering to publishers or network executives, who in turn are poring over last week’s ratings or last year’s circulation figures and trying to survive the growing preference for PlayStation and reality TV. To make the deadline, to maintain market share and feed the cable news beast, reporters start to move in packs, working off the same news releases, the same set pieces, the same stock figures. Meanwhile, for busy and therefore casual news consumers, a well-worn narrative is not entirely unwelcome. It makes few demands on our thought or time; it’s quick and easy to digest. Accepting spin is easier on everybody.

1 comment:

Metron said...

Obama does know how to use the language. We probably should be wary of a guy like this but it's hard not to get carried away after the last eight years.