Monday, March 19, 2007

Dreams from My Father

I am reading Barack Obama's first book. There is a lot in it that -- taken out of context -- could be pretty damaging in the hands of an enemy, and he won't lack for enemies capable of paying someone to read the book. But -- I'm now at Chapter 5 -- I think it would be a mistake to read it as anti-white or an embrace of simple-minded black nationalism. Obama is subtle, maybe too subtle.

Here he is on his white liberal mother became an (apparently unsuccessful) avatar of Midwestern Anglo values in fatalistic Muslim Indonesia (the typos are mine):

Honesty — Lolo [Obama’s Indonesian stepfather] should not have hidden the refrigerator in the storage room when the tax officials came, even if everyone else, including the tax officials, expected such things. Fairness — the parents of wealtheir students should not give television sets to the techers during Ramadan, and their children could take no pride in the higher marks they might have received. Straight talk […] Independent judgment — just because the other children tease the poor boy about his haircut doesn’t mean you have to do it too.

It was as if, by traveling halfway around the globe, away from the smugness and hypocrisy that familiarity had disclosed, my mother could give voice to the virtues of her midwestern past and offer them in distilled form. The problem was that she had few reinforcements; whenever she took me aside for such commentary, I would dutifully nod my assent, but she must have known that many of her ideas seemed rather impractical. Lolo had merely explained the poverty, the corruption, the constant scramble for security [in Indonesia]; he hadn’t created it. […] My mother’s confidence in needlepoint virtues depended on a faith I didn’t possess, a faith that she would refuse to describe as religious; that, in fact, her expereience told her was sacrilegious: a faith that rational, thoughtful people could shape their own destiny. In a land where fatalism remained a necessary tool for enduring hardship, where ultimate truths were kept separate from day-to-day realities, she was a lonely witness for secular humanism, a soldier for New Deal, Peace Corps, position-paper liberalism.

On Malcolm X:

Only Malcolm X’s autobiography seemed to offer something different. His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me; the blunt poetyr 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 seemd to have safely abandoned toward the end of his life. And yet, even as I imagined myself following Malcolm’s call, one line in the book stayed 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-respct 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 unchartered border. (p. 86)

More later...

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