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Shelby Steele Plumbs Obama's Depths

Steele, the author of the best book on Obama, gets to the core of Obama's emptiness and discovers white guilt:

... Mr. Obama always knew that his greatest appeal was not as a leader but as a cultural symbol....

A greater problem for our nation today is that we have a president whose benign--and therefore desirable--blackness exempted him from the political individuation process that makes for strong, clear-headed leaders. He has not had to gamble his popularity on his principles, and it is impossible to know one's true beliefs without this. In the future he may stumble now and then into a right action, but there is no hard-earned center to the man out of which he might truly lead.

And yes, white America conditioned Barack Obama to emptiness--valued him all along for his "articulate and clean" blackness, so flattering to American innocence. He is a president come to us out of our national insecurities.

This I could anticipate from Shelby, but what came over Maureen Dowd?  Liberals have the most to fear from a second term of Carter.

I look at Obama somewhat differently from Steele.  Postmodern Obama inverts the order of the 10 moral virtues found in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.  The Philosopher goes from courage to wittiness.  Obama has no use for courage--probably viewing it as an atavism (hence his trouble addressing military issues)--but this disembodied voice is all wit.  That is the postmodern stance:  Being above it all.  Aristotle had it right, that courage and its psychic source of spiritedness is a necessary part of moral, political, and philosophic life.  A fully human life requires wit but does not begin with it. 

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Discussions - 17 Comments


This essay hits the nail on the head.

"Depths"? This is embarrassing. Ken Thomas should be embarrassed.

Steele, whom I used to respect, is selling books. He tells us the deepest truth about our president -- that he is acting white!! Can a black liberal be authentic -- that is, without being Jesse Jackson?

Of course it is subtler than that, says Steele. Yeah, right.

Such psychobabbly nonsense. When do you get back to discussing politics?

I agree that Obama (and his followers) have little use for the virtue of courage. But when has Obama ever demonstrated wit? When he made fun of poor old Nancy Reagan? JFK he ain't.

Steve, if you want him to "get back to discussing politics" then you were browsing the wrong category within the blog. Ken's post was filed under "race" not "politics."

I thought Steele was complaining that Obama had no principles. It is not that he is acting "white, it is that he is acting like too many other politicians. Perhaps that most other politicians of that type are white is where Steve leaps to his conclusion.

I don't know about the "emptiness" charge. I know Obama does not fill the Presidential "suit" well yet, but I hope that he might. I did not see that GWB or Clinton filled that most necessary national image or position all that well, either. Part of filling that role well is a matter of principles and much of it is about character, but some of it is also about good sense. Both immediately previous presidents were lacking in one or all of those areas. I hope our current president develops his principles, character and good sense and fills the office the way America needs him to. He is not doing that right now. Who doesn't know it?

Yes, he was elected in part because of his race. I don't know about the white guilt part of all that. Most whites I know would be relieved not to have to deal with racism at all, either what remains of the real thing or the lingering and often deceptive perceptions. For many, the vote for Obama was a vote against having to think of racism as an American political disease. How is race not an aspect of American politics? It is not so much guilt; we are just sick of it.

I know that if I had voted for Obama it would have been for his skin. I did not like his policies and what he claimed as principles were often out of step with those policies outlined on his campaign page. He has been trying to put those policies into effect. I can only assume that most of the people who voted for him who are disappointed in him now did not read those proposals and voted for the elevated rhetoric that seems like a an illusionists trick to them today.

The difference between Obama's campaign rhetoric, which sounded grandly principled, and the way he is performing in office makes him sound inadequately principled now. That has nothing to do with race except inasmuch as race helped get him elected. As to that, folks must have wanted him to fill his current role as if a cinematic Morgan Freedman, not the junior senator from Illinois. People feel pulled in by a bait and switch trick and it makes them angry.

That is all probably a ramble, but my point is that Steele has some good points in that article and they are about American politics.

Steve (no relation) Thomas: I think you've misread Steele, who blames not Obama but the voters, especially young (i.e., immature) ones for their expectations. Didn't many of your students swoon over him? Obama, through a series of accidents, Bush incompetence, and his own drive, simply saw his opportunities, and he took them. Is Steele a one-trick pony? Some of us are still looking for that pony.

Steve is egregiously misreading Steele, who is a subtle thinker. Despite its wrong but bold subtitle "Why we love him and why he can't win," and whether or not it is the best book on Obama we currently have, Bound Man is a very good book which still deserves to be read. Steele's long-trumpeted theory of "bargainers" and "challengers" being primary black roles taken on to navigate the overlapping phenomenons of white racisim and white guilt has a degree of patness to it, but it is very much worth thinking about. And I don't know anyone who hss written better than Steele about white guilt.

Two elegant written and wise sayings from the piece: "I think that Mr. Obama is not just inexperienced; he is also hampered by a distinct inner emptiness—not an emptiness that comes from stupidity or a lack of ability but an emptiness that has been actually nurtured and developed as an adaptation to the political world." Steele is saying Obama has deliberately fostered a sort of Chauncy Gardiner image/disposition of neutrality/unreadability.

What is needed is someone who can explain why this deliberate cultivation of a reader-response-theory political image fits with the obvious progressivism of Obama. I.e., to read Obama, we need a way to combine Steele's insights with Kesler's insights.

Here's the second quote: "And yes, white America conditioned Barack Obama to emptiness—valued him all along for his "articulate and clean" blackness, so flattering to American innocence. He is a president come to us out of our national insecurities."

He is a president come to us out of our national insecurities...yes, oh yes, and what I don't think Steele understands as well as he should is that Obama and the Obama style flatters American innocence in ways that go beyond the racial angle that Steele's theorries best capture.

Ross Douthat has a good column on this subject (though without the racial angle) http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/26/opinion/26douthat.html?_r=1

I think one reason (I suspect that there actually many explanations, all partly true) is that Obama has spent most of his adult life in left-leaning environments (academia, Chicago Democratic politics) at a time when the Left seemed to be in retreat on the national level. He seems to have absorbed a socially liberal, and social democratic approach to politics while recognizing that the way that this politics was being sold to the country in general was not working in the sense of being able to win majorities outside of a few constituencies. So he worked incredibly hard to craft a persona and a rhetoric that could inspire liberals while seeming nonthreatening and even reasonable to people who don't think of themselves as liberal. This allowed him to be both more liberal (in terms of his record and less alienating than Howard Dean). This does in part include white a bit of dissembling. Look at his abortion record and his abortion rhetoric.

I think that another element of his approach to politics was his experience of hardball politics in Chicago. I suggest, if anybody can find it, the Boston Globe's story on the time that Obama ran for Bobby Rush's House of Reps seat. I imagine that he found it very educational as to what happens when ideals and talent meet ruthlessness. I think that one thing that Obama took away from that experience was that the best way to advance his agenda was to project a goo goo public image with a willingness to play the game hard and dirty - though through henchmen. Look at his promise of transparency on healthcare policy development in 2008 (all negotiations on tv, ect,) and the vote buying

While the slur against young (ie, "immature") voters seems to me (as a young voter) a bit gratuitous, couldn't it be argued that many presidents reach high office through a "series of accidents?"

Literature has been written in just that tone about 1860, or, in another example, 1980. Whether it is true or not is beside the point -- calling a politician an "opportunist" is just a cheap cop-out; what pol wouldn't be? It seems to be rather what the particular individual in question does with his moment of opportunity, whether Lincoln, Reagan, or Obama.

I was distinguishing between young and immature. I don't blame Obama for ambition or craftiness, and most certainly not for attempting to control chance or accidents. But his desire for high office seems to far outweigh his ability to perform and assume his responsibilities.

Oh believe me, we are agreed on that point. This, despite Rahm's call to "never let a crisis go to waste."

Rahm's statement by itself is not objectionable: it's the purpose they come up with that is.

I seem to recall a similar remark was made by one of his confederates at the Harvard Law Review, that he was more interested in holding the title than working the job. It is a recurring theme. Admitted to the bar, he spends the equivalent of perhaps three years actually practicing law; hired to teach by the University of Chicago Law School, he selects what is (per William Dyer) the subdiscipline (constitutional law) for which mastery can be faked in a lecture hall; employed by this very scholarly institution, he publishes nothing in academic journals. He spends a dozen years sitting in legislative bodies. Legislators commonly have policy specialities. Some of those of Sen. McCain, Sen. Biden, and Gov. Palin come readily to mind (the military, the judiciary and criminal law, and the oil and gas industry. What was his? (We know it was not economics, finance, or insurance).

Nothing unsual about this...Obama is simply the best example of the absurdities of affirmative action. The Left has thrown title after title his way, but he remains (a rather incompetent) symbol "for his people"...all "hope and change" and no substance. Unfortunately, unlike your typical black Ivy League "public intellectual" who can while away his time however he sees fit, the POTUS has to perform. Who was it said that promotion beyond competence was a staple of modern society?

That would be the point of my post, Ken.

And Redwald: Do you do any favors to the right by stereotyping the "typical black Ivy League 'public intellectual'" -- whatever shade of truth there might be?

Must dissent.

Per William Dyer ('Beldar'), his academic record indicates that his general intelligence is ample, and that he was not mismatched to the institutions he attended. Mr. Dyer knows law schools from the inside and is an ardent Republican; he is also an astringent critic of the President. Looking at B.O. in schematic outline, one does not see anything particular problematic: no divorce, no adultery, no alcoholism, no abuse of street drugs, no disturbed or rebellious children, no gross trouble with employers, no academic failure. There are a mess of things wrong with the man (as there are with any of us), but discerning a common theme is a challenge. And you cannot attribute it to social policy.

Thank you!

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