Monday, March 26, 2007I have just finished Barack Obama's first book, Dreams From My Father, which he wrote when he was a law student over a decade ago. It's a book of great earnestness and reflection, and one feels as if its publishing is merely incidental: Obama is writing mainly for himself. He's a good writer, but, thank god, not a great one. As Brazen Hussy said, that would be intolerable.
It's a story of a young man trying to discover his own identity. Not a new subject by any means, but intriguing from someone with such an unusual background. Born in Hawaii to a Kansas mother and an Kenyan father, subject to all the difficulties of being a black man in American, but due to his parentage always questioning his membership in any tribe. Functionally abandoned by his father, doubting his identity, Barack's early life is a war with adjectives - black, white, immigrant, native, none of these and all of them.
Barack travels to the mainland and after college becomes a community organizer in Chicago's South Side, where he witnesses the brief Harold Washington mayoralty - one that seems a lacuna now between Daleys. Before beginning law school, he travels to Kenya to meet his father's family, and there realizes that his father's struggles are his struggles, that identity is never a given. No matter how we romanticize the past, there was never a place or time where people could take for granted an easy conscience. It is our unwillingness to openly confront our own pains, to share them with those that love us, that makes our challenges into tragedies. It is our silence in the face of the world's grief that makes it that much sadder.
Barack is badly misunderstood by many, I think. Those that call him "post-racial" haven't bothered to read his book. Obama has made a deliberate decision to accept his status as a black man. What he has refused to do, and what so confuses the old (and delights the young) is that he refuses to be determined solely by this identity. Barack Obama is a black man, but before that he is an American, and before that he is Barack Obama. In an age in which authenticity has been put up on a pedestal, here is man who both exemplifies authenticity and dispenses with it.
It is clear to me now why Barack is running for President. Part of it is certainly ambition - who doesn't want to rise to the top of their profession? But more than that, I think Barack senses an opportunity. Not just a chance for his own candidacy that may never come again, but a historical opportunity.
Barack wants to make peace. He believes, I think, that he can help form the bridge not just between black and white, but the warring political tribes our society. Barack has said as much - to end the long pscyhodrama of the baby boomer generation, and to get on with our lives. History can no longer be held frozen in the year 1968.
I can see why the likes of Matt Stoller and Kos will never warm to Barack. They want to continue the war, to imitate the Right's discipline and ferocity, and then crush them into oblivion. I can certainly sympathize with that feeling - I have felt it myself. It is both natural and in many senses perfectly justified. But there is no "victory" in this war. Destroy George Bush and Karl Rove and some other authoritarian junta will take their place. You won't defeat conservatism by imprisoning its leaders (of whom there is an inexhaustible supply), but by taking away its constituency.
I think Barack believes that when Bush is gone the American people will be so exhausted by the struggle, and so disillusioned by decades of political tribalism, that there will be a fleeting moment when reconciliation is possible. And that is how one will bury the radical right. End the kulturkampf and the Right will be forced to return to drunk talk and leefleteers on the street for lack of an audience.
A risky strategy, certainly. One that many on the left will resist, that the D.C. establishment will consider banal naivete, and that the hard right will see as weakness. But I can think of no better rationale for a Presidency than trying to finally make peace, not through surrender or victory but through reconciliation.