“When classmates in college asked me just what it was a community organizer did, I couldn’t answer them directly. Instead, I’d pronounce on the need for change. Change in the White house, where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds. Change in the Congress, compliant and corrupt. Change in the mood of the country, manic and self-absorbed. 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.”
In this self-deprecating account of how he came to his calling, Barack Obama now identifies this choice as “part of that larger narrative,” more an “impulse, like a salmon swimming blindly upstream toward the site of his own conception.” But now his whimsy, written when he was 33, has become his signature theme! (Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance [1995, 2004], 133-134). Who’s he snickering at now?
As a politician Barack Obama has been creative and resourceful. But his mind has been predictable in the sense that we have had laid out for us his intelligence and insight, as well as his blindness and hubris-—by himself. Indeed, early in 2008 in A Bound Man: Why We are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win, Shelby Steele saw a tragedy in the making, a Zelig, a protean character who tries to live in too many worlds at once--“an iconic figure who neglected to become himself.” (And of course Sarah Palin accused him of running for president in order to discover who he is.)
But Dreams from My Father is of greater significance than the Palin riff on it; if that were all to it, Obama’s excellent Socratic adventure would not have carried him this far. This elegant, compelling work is a fountain of insight into his mind. (These recently raised authorship issues, while worth pursuing, are not relevant to my analysis.) Since he may well be our next President, we are obliged to ask: What did he know about himself, and when did he know it? The fact that he admits he makes some things up (xvii) does not compromise the book’s importance as his narrative, his love-song to his bi-racial, far-flung family, “an honest account of a particular province of my life.” And in fact Dreams from My Father is an insightful book on race and American life.
In the course of several postings on his book, I’ll compare it with other notable autobiographies, including the recent one by Clarence Thomas. I’ll note the significance of both the Declaration of Independence and of the now-notorious Reverend Wright (his declaration of dependence). I will bring forth the book’s (and its author’s) underlying theme, its post-modern pathos. This intellectual radicalism, not his connections with William Ayers, etc., is the fundamental problem with Obama. His conception of himself and the country he would lead make him misunderstand it. More an Oedipous than a Socrates, he is crippled in his capacity to protect and defend his country.