Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) or The Making Of A Myth

December 6, 2013

Politicians and people around the globe pay tribute to Nelson Mandela, who died on December 5, 2013. Nelson Mandela guided South Africa from apartheid to multiracial democracy after spending almost three decades in prison.

President Bill Clinton with Nelson Mandela at the Independence Hall in Philadelphia, PA, July 4, 1993. Photo: Executive Office of the President of the United States

President Bill Clinton with Nelson Mandela at the Independence Hall in Philadelphia, PA, July 4, 1993. Photo: Executive Office of the President of the United States

“Now that he’s dead, and can cause no more trouble, Nelson Mandela is being mourned across the ideological spectrum as a saint. But not long ago, in Washington’s highest circles, he was considered an enemy of the United States. Unless we remember why, we won’t truly honor his legacy,” argues foreign policy analyst Peter Beinart in The Daily Beast.

“In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan placed Mandela’s African National Congress on America’s official list of terrorist groups. In 1985, then-Congressman Dick Cheney voted against a resolution urging that he be released from jail. In 2004, after Mandela criticized the Iraq War, an article in National Review said his ‘vicious anti-Americanism and support for Saddam Hussein should come as no surprise, given his longstanding dedication to communism and praise for terrorists.’ As late as 2008, the ANC remained on America’s terrorism watch list, thus requiring the 89-year-old Mandela to receive a special waiver from the secretary of State to visit the U.S.”

Read full story.

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President Bill Clinton receives Presidential Medal of Freedom

November 19, 2013

U.S. President Barack Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former U.S. President Bill Clinton in the East Room at the White House on November 19, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Bill Clinton


Israelkongress 2013: Verleihung des Arno-Lustiger-Ehrenpreises an Michael Sommer

November 10, 2013

Laudator: Jochen Feilcke, MdB a.D., Vorsitzender Deutsch-Israelischen Gesellschaft Berlin und Potsdam

“Lieber Michael, wir ehren deine langjährigen Verdienste um den Staat Israel und freuen uns, dir diesen Preis zu überreichen “

Preisträger: Michael Sommer, Bundesvorsitzender, Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund (DGB)

“Ich möchte daran erinnern, dass bereits vor der Aufnahme deutsch-israelischer diplomatischer Beziehungen, die Gewerkschaften beider Länder Beziehungen zueinander pflegten.” Michael Sommer


“Zwischen Populismus und Aufklärung” – 4. Freiheitskongress am 19. Januar 2011

December 27, 2010

Die Stiftung für die Freiheit veranstaltet in Berlin ihren vierten Freiheitskongress am 19. Januar 2011 unter dem Thema “Zwischen Populismus und Aufklärung”.

Teilnehmer sind Wolfgang Gerhardt, Vorsitzender des Vorstandes der Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit, Walter Krämer, Professor für Wirtschafts- und Sozialstatistik an der TU Dortmund und Autor des Buches “So lügt man mit Statistik”, Christel Happach-Kasan, Vorsitzende der Arbeitsgruppe Ernährung, Landwirtschaft und Verbraucherschutz der FDP-Bundestagsfraktion, Hans von Storch, Klimaforscher und Meteorologe, sowie Vince Ebert, Wissenschafts-Kabarettist und Physiker.

Zur Anmeldung.


35 Years of Boston Review: An Interview With Susan Sontag

August 6, 2010

Boston Review is a jewel; it contains serious discussion at the highest level of pressing issues in economics, politics, and political philosophy, as well as of art and literature. Don’t miss it! (John Rawls)

The following interview with Susan Sontag was originally published in the June 1975 issue of Boston Review. Interviewer was Geoffrey Movius, Harvard-Radcliffe Class of 1962.

Geoffrey Movius: In one of your recent essays on photography in The New York Review of Books, you write that “no work of imaginative literature can have the same authenticity as a document,” and that there is “a rancorous suspicion in America of anything that seems literary.” Do you think that imaginative literature is on the way out? Is the printed word on the way out?

Susan Sontag: Fiction writers have been made very nervous by a problem of credibility. Many don’t feel comfortable about doing it straight, and try to give fiction the character of nonfiction. A recent example is Philip Roth’s My Life as a Man, a book consisting of three novellas: the first two are purportedly written by the first-person narrator of the third one. That a document of the writer’s own character and experience seems to have more authority than an invented fiction is perhaps more widespread in this country than elsewhere and reflects the triumph of psychological ways of looking at everything. I have friends who tell me that the only books by writers of fiction that really interest them are their letters and diaries.

Movius: Do you think that is happening because people feel a need to get in touch with the past—their own or other people’s?

Sontag: I think it has more to do with their lack of connection with the past than with being interested in the past. Many people don’t believe that one can give an account of the world, of society, but only of the self—”how I saw it.” They assume that what writers do is testify, if not confess, and a work is about how you see the world and put yourself on the line. Fiction is supposed to be “true.” Like photographs.

Movius: The Benefactor and Death Kit aren’t autobiographical.

Sontag: In my two novels, invented material was more compelling than autobiographical material. Some recent stories, such as “Project for a Trip to China” in the April 1973 Atlantic Monthly, do draw on my own life. But I haven’t meant to suggest that the taste for personal testimony and for confessions, real and fictitious, is the principal one that moves readers and ambitious writers. The taste for futurology, or prophecy, is of at least equal importance. But this taste also confirms the prevailing unreality of the real historical past. Some novels which are situated in the past, like the work of Thomas Pynchon, are really works of science fiction.

Movius: Your contrast between autobiographical writers and the science fiction writers reminds me of a passage in one of the New York Review essays, in which you write that some photographers set themselves up as scientists, others as moralists. The scientists “make an inventory of the world,” whereas the moralists “concentrate on hard cases.” What sort of cases do you think the moralist-photographers should be concentrating on at this point?

Sontag: I’m reluctant to make prescriptive statements about what people ought to be doing, since I hope they will always be doing many different things. The main interest of the photographer as moralist has been war, poverty, natural catastrophes, accidents—disaster and decay. When photojournalists report that “there was nothing to photograph,” what this usually means is that there was nothing terrible to photograph.

Movius: And the scientists?

Sontag: I suppose the main tradition in photography is the one that implies that anything can be interesting if you take a photograph of it. It consists in discovering beauty, a beauty that can exist anywhere but is assumed to reside particularly in the random and the banal. Photography conflates the notions of the “beautiful” and the “interesting.” It’s a way of aestheticizing the whole world.

Movius: Why did you decide to write about photography?

Sontag: Because I’ve had the experience of being obsessed by photographs. And because virtually all the important aesthetic, moral, and political problems—the question of “modernity” itself and of “modernist” taste—are played out in photography’s relatively brief history. William K. Ivins has called the camera the most important invention since the printing press. For the evolution of sensibility, the invention of the camera is perhaps even more important. It is, of course, the uses to which photography is put in our culture, in the consumer society, that make photography so interesting and so potent. In the People’s Republic of China, people don’t see “photographically.” The Chinese take pictures of each other and of famous sites and monuments, as we do. But they’re baffled by the foreigner who will rush to take a picture of an old, battered, peeling farmhouse door. They don’t have our idea of the “picturesque.” They don’t understand photography as a method of appropriating and transforming reality—in pieces—which denies the very existence of inappropriate or unworthy subject matter. As a current ad for the Polaroid SX-70 puts it: “It won’t let you stop. Suddenly you see a picture everywhere you look.”

Movius: How does photography change the world?

Sontag: By giving us an immense amount of experience that “normally” is not our experience. And by making a selection of experience which is very tendentious, ideological. While there appears to be nothing that photography can’t devour, whatever can’t be photographed becomes less important. Malraux’s idea of the museum-without-walls is an idea about the consequences of photography: our way of looking at painting and sculpture is now determined by photographs. Not only do we know the world of art, the history of art, primarily through photographs, we know them in a way that no one could have known them before. When I was in Orvieto for the first time several months ago, I spent hours looking at the facade of the cathedral; but only when I bought a book on the cathedral a week later did I really see it, in the modern sense of seeing. The photographs enabled me to see in a way that my “naked” eye could not possibly see the “real” cathedral.

Movius: This shows how it is possible for photography literally to create an entire way of seeing.

Sontag: Photographs convert works of art into items of information. They do this by making parts and wholes equivalent. When I was in Orvieto, I could see the whole facade by standing back, but then I couldn’t see the details. Then I could move close and see the detail of whatever was not higher than, say, eight feet, but there was no way whereby my eye could blot out the whole. The camera elevates the fragment to a privileged position. As Malraux points out, a photograph can show a piece of sculpture—a head, a hand—which looks superb by itself, and this may be reproduced alongside another object which might be ten times bigger but, in the format of the book, occupies the same amount of space. In this way, photography annihilates our sense of scale.

It also does queer things to our sense of time. Never before in human history did people have any idea of what they looked like as children. The rich commissioned portraits of their children, but the conventions of portraiture from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century were thoroughly determined by ideas about class and didn’t give people a very reliable idea of what they had looked like.

Movius: Sometimes the portrait might consist of somebody else’s body with your head on it.

Sontag: Right. And the vast majority of people, those who could not afford to have a portrait painted, had no record of what they looked like as children. Today, we all have photographs in which we can see ourselves at age six, our faces already intimating what they were to become. We have similar information about our parents and grandparents. And there’s a great poignancy in these photographs; they make you realize that these people really were children once. To be able to see oneself and one’s parents as children is an experience unique to our time. The camera has brought people a new, and essentially pathetic, relation to themselves, to their physical appearance, to aging, to their own mortality. It is a kind of pathos which never existed before.

Movius: But there’s something about what you say which contradicts the idea that photography distances us from historical events. From Anthony Lewis’ column in the New York Times this morning I jotted down this quote by Alexander Woodside, a specialist in Sino-Vietnamese studies at Harvard. He said: “Vietnam is probably one of the contemporary world’s purest examples of a history-dependent, history-obsessed society… The U.S. is probably the contemporary world’s purest example of a society which is perpetually trying to abolish history, to avoid thinking in historical terms, to associate dynamism with premeditated amnesia.” It struck me that, in your essays, you too are asserting about America that we are deracinated—we are not in possession of our past. Perhaps there is a redemptive impulse in our keeping photographic records.

Sontag: The contrast between America and Vietnam couldn’t he more striking. In Trip to Hanoi, the short book I wrote after my first trip to North Vietnam, in 1968, I described how struck I was by the Vietnamese taste for making historical connections and analogies, however crude or simple we might find them. Talking about the American aggression, the Vietnamese would cite something that the French had done, or something that happened during the thousands of years of invasions from China. The Vietnamese situate themselves in an historical continuum. That continuum contains repetitions. Americans, if they ever think about the past, are not interested in repetition. Major events like the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Depression are treated as unique, extraordinary, and discrete. It’s a different relation to experience: there is no sense of repetition. Americans have a completely linear sense of history—insofar as they have one at all.

Movius: And what would the role of photographs be in all this?

Sontag: The essential American relation the past is not to carry too much of it. The past impedes action, saps energy. It’s a burden because it modifies or contradicts optimism. If photographs are our connection with the past, it’s a very peculiar, fragile, sentimental connection. You take a photograph before you destroy something. The photograph is its posthumous existence.

Movius: Why do you think Americans feel that the past is a burden?

Sontag: Because, unlike Vietnam, this isn’t a “real” country but a made-up, willed country, a meta-country. Most Americans are the children or grandchildren of immigrants, whose decision to come here had, to begin with, a great deal to do with cutting their losses. If immigrants retained a tie with their country or culture of origin, it was very selective. The main impulse was to forget. I once asked my father’s mother, who died when I was seven, where she came from. She said, “Europe.” Even at six I knew that wasn’t a very good answer. I said, “But where, Grandma?” She repeated, testily, “Europe.” And so to this day, I don’t know from what country my paternal grandparents came. But I have photographs of them, which I cherish, which are like mysterious tokens of all that I don’t know about them.

Movius: You talk about photographs as being strong, manageable, discrete, “neat” slices of time. Do you think that we retain a single frame more fully than we retain moving images?

Sontag: Yes.

Movius: Why do you think we remember the single photograph better?

Sontag: I think it has to do with the nature of visual memory. Not only do I remember photographs better than I remember moving images. But what I remember of a movie amounts to an anthology of single shots. I can recall the story, lines of dialogue, the rhythm. But what I remember visually are selected moments that I have, in effect, reduced to stills. It’s the same for one’s own life. Each memory from one’s childhood, or from any period that’s not in the immediate past, is like a still photograph rather than a strip of film. And photography has objectified this way of seeing and remembering.

Movius: Do you see “photographically”?

Sontag: Of course.

Movius: Do you take photographs?

Sontag: I don’t own a camera. I’m photograph junkie, but I don’t want to take them.

Movius: Why?

Sontag: Perhaps I might really get hooked.

Movius: Would that be bad? Would that mean that one had moved from being a writer to being something else?

Sontag: I do think that the photographer’s orientation to the world is in competition with the writer’s way of seeing.

Movius: How are they different?

Sontag: Writers ask more questions. It’s hard for the writer to work on the assumption that just anything can be interesting. Many people experience their lives as if they had cameras. But while they can see it, they can’t say it. When they report an interesting event, their accounts frequently peter out in the statement, “I wish I had had my camera.” There is a general breakdown in narrative skills, and few people tell stories well anymore.

Movius. Do you think that this breakdown is coincidental with the rise of photography, or do you think there is some direct causal relationship?

Sontag: Narration is linear. Photography is antilinear. People now have a very developed feeling for process and transience, but they don’t understand any more what constitutes a beginning, middle, and end. Endings or conclusions are discredited. Every narrative, like every psychotherapy, seems potentially interminable. So any ending seems arbitrary and becomes self-conscious, and the form of understanding with which we are comfortable is when things are treated as a slice or piece of something larger, potentially infinite. I think this sensibility is related to the lack of a sense of history that we were talking about earlier. I am astonished and disheartened by the very subjective view of the world that most people have, whereby they reduce everything to their own personal concerns and involvements. But perhaps, once again, that’s particularly American.

Movius: All of this also relates to your reluctance to rely principally on your own experience in your fiction.

Sontag: To write mainly about myself seems to me a rather indirect route to what I want to write about. Though my evolution as a writer has been toward more freedom with the “I,” and more use of my private experience, I have never been convinced that my tastes, my fortunes and misfortunes have any particularly exemplary character. My life is my capital, the capital of my imagination. I like to colonize.

Movius: Are you aware of these questions when you’re writing?

Sontag: Not at all when I write. When I talk about writing, yes. Writing is a mysterious activity. One has to be at different stages of conception and execution, in a state of extreme alertness and consciousness and in a state of great naivete and ignorance, Although this is probably true of the practice of any art, it may be more true of writing because the writer—unlike the painter or composer—works in a medium that one employs all the time, throughout one’s waking life. Kafka said: “Conversation takes the importance, the seriousness, the truth out of everything I think.” I would guess that most writers are suspicious of conversation, of what goes out in the ordinary uses of language. People deal with this in different ways. Some hardly talk at all. Others play games of concealment and avowal, as I am, no doubt, playing with you. There is only so much revealing one can do. For every self-revelation, there has to be a self-concealment. A life-long commitment to writing involves a balancing of these incompatible needs. But I do think that the model of writing as self-expression is much too crude. If I thought that what I’m doing when I write is expressing myself, I’d junk my typewriter. It wouldn’t be liveable-with. Writing is a much more complicated activity than that.

Movius: Doesn’t this bring us back to your own ambivalence about photography? You’re fascinated by it but you find it dangerously simple.

Sontag: I don’t think the problem with photography is that it’s too simple but that it’s too imperious a way of seeing. Its balance between being “present” and being “absent” is facile, when generalized as an attitude—which it is now in our culture. But I’m not against simplicity, as such. There is a dialectical exchange between simplicity and complexity, like the one between self-revelation and self-concealment. The first truth is that every situation is extremely complicated and that anything one thinks about thereby becomes more complicated. The main mistake people make when thinking about something, whether an historical event or one in their private lives, is that they don’t see just how complicated it is. The second truth is that one cannot live out all the complexities one perceives, and that to be able to act intelligently, decently, efficiently, and compassionately demands a great deal of simplification. So there are times when one has to forget—repress, transcend—a complex perception that one has.

Reprinted by permission of Geoffrey Movius.


Independence Day: July 4, 1776

July 4, 2010

John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence, showing the five-man committee in charge of drafting the Declaration in 1776 as it presents its work to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

         Live free or Die! The Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson
On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence, announcing the colonies‘ separation from the Kingdom of Great Britain. The Constitution provides the legal and governmental framework for the United States of America, with its assertion “all Men are created equal”.

The political philosophy of the Declaration with its ideals of individual liberty had been expressed by English philosopher John Locke. Drafted by Thomas Jefferson between June 11 and June 28, 1776, the Declaration of Independence is the nation’s most cherished symbol of liberty.

Here, in unforgettable words, Thomas Jefferson expressed the convictions in the minds and hearts of the American people.


IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

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.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.

The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.


The 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence:

Georgia: Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton

North Carolina: William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn

South Carolina: Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., Arthur Middleton

Massachusetts: John Hancock

Maryland: Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone, Charles Carroll of Carrollton

Virginia: George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton

Pennsylvania: Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson, George Ross

Delaware: Caesar Rodney, George Read, Thomas McKean

New York: William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, Lewis Morris

New Jersey: Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart, Abraham Clark

New Hampshire: Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple

Massachusetts: Samuel Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry

Rhode Island: Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery

Connecticut: Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington, William Williams, Oliver Wolcott

New Hampshire: Matthew Thornton


The Making of Barack Obama: Honolulu, Harvard, and Hyde Park

May 1, 2010

Where the willingness is great, the difficulties cannot be great. (Niccolo Machiavelli)

David Remnick,   editor of The New Yorker, delivers with The Bridge fresh insights about Barack Obama’s personal and political odyssey – particularly when it comes to understanding the degree to which Obama is a product of New England’s commitment to social and global reform.

A Book Review by Walter Russell Mead 

Barack Obama’s appeal has always been something of a paradox. On the one hand, Obama’s election as the United States‘ first African American president can be seen as a triumph for “identity politics” and a blow to the near hammerlock that white Protestant males have had on the presidency since George Washington.

On the other hand, it moves the country closer to an era of nonracial or postracial politics, in which racial identity will matter less and less.

Obama is a clear break from past generations of black politicians. In the parlance of the civil rights movement, he is a member of “the Joshua generation” — a term drawn from the Bible that refers to the generation of Jews who did not remember the Exodus but lived to enter the Promised Land. And he has embraced a very different political style from those of other black politicians, such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. With a white mother and a Kenyan father who lived in the United States only briefly, Obama had little personal connection to the forces and history that shape African American identity. Growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia, two places where black-white relations were a marginal and distant force, young Barry Obama’s life was touched only tangentially by race. From this start, Obama emerged as the most commanding figure in African American politics ever and was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win a majority of the popular vote since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Who is Obama? What does he really believe? How has his quest to find and understand his place in American life shaped him and his vision for the United States? These are the questions that David Remnick, the author of Lenin’s Tomb and the editor of The New Yorker, sets out to investigate in The Bridge, an intelligent and searching biography of Obama. Although he covers ground that has already been examined by other writers (most notably, Obama himself), Remnick nevertheless manages to frame important questions about the current occupant of the Oval Office. The Bridge is a significant accomplishment and a compelling read. At its best, it illuminates some very dark corners.

The book is not always at its best. Most readers will feel that Remnick spends entirely too much time on detailed accounts of the ultimately irrelevant candidates who tried and failed to stop Obama’s march to the Senate in 2004. Instead, Remnick should have put his intelligence to work on the mostly white world of liberal Hyde Park activism, which had a profound effect on Obama during his years in Chicago. This is a regrettable oversight, since, as Remnick’s narrative makes clear, white (and often Jewish) friends and associates formed a critical part of Obama’s network. Remnick has a gift for laying bare the cultural and intellectual forces at work in a person or a milieu; had he turned that searchlight on Hyde Park, he would have produced a much richer account of the president’s intellectual and political journey.

When it comes to the world of black Chicago, Remnick gets closer to the story. His portrait of Representative Bobby Rush, the former Black Panther who defeated Obama in a congressional primary, is particularly sharp; his take on Jeremiah Wright, the spellbinding preacher who built the church in which Obama found his faith, although good, leaves readers wanting more. The book’s dominant metaphor is a bridge — Remnick compares Obama’s role in society to the bridge in Selma, Alabama, that was the site of one of the most significant struggles of the civil rights movement — and to some degree, the image closes as many doors as it opens. The image is a compelling one, but African American politics, religion, and culture are about much more than civil rights. By scanting this complexity, Remnick leaves readers with a less than totally satisfying depiction of Obama’s encounter with the world of black Chicago.

THE PRESIDENT FROM NEW ENGLAND

Nevertheless, Remnick delivers some fresh insights about the president’s personal and political odyssey that open up new perspectives on American society as a whole — particularly when it comes to understanding the degree to which Obama is a product of New England’s commitment to social and global reform. The Bostonian vision of the United States as “a city on a hill,” whose government is the moral agent of a society of good people determined to suppress vice and establish virtue, has fueled some of the country’s most important and lasting social movements, and it is this tradition that seems to have shaped Obama most profoundly.

The high school that Obama attended in Hawaii, the elite Punahou School, was founded in 1841 to educate the children of the New England missionaries who led the kingdom of Hawaii into both Christianity and the United States. In 1851, it was opened up to students from all racial and religious backgrounds, and today, like any good New England boarding school, it attempts to infuse its students with an ethic of service, along with solid academic skills. This Exeter of the Pacific did more than give Obama the academic skills he would need at Columbia and Harvard Law School; socially and culturally, it helped prepare him for both the ideas and the people among whom his lot was to be cast.

At its best, the tradition of New England reform, with its moral earnestness and its willingness to call on the full powers of a strong state, is a nonracial or postracial vision. Punahou’s 1851 decision to open its doors to nonwhite and non-Christian students reflected more than the missionary ambitions of its founders; it represented the New England faith in the essential equality, and even similarity, of all people under the skin.

That same faith led more modern representatives of the New England spirit to promote the admission of increasing numbers of nonelite and nonwhite students to schools like Punahou and Harvard Law. But the goal of these powerful establishment reformers was less the celebration of diversity than its abolition. That is, just as the missionaries believed that given Christian values and education, the Sandwich Islanders would build their own version of a New England commonwealth, so modern reformers have believed that giving African Americans, Roman Catholics, and other formerly marginalized Americans greater access to better education would ultimately lead them to embrace New England’s core values.

This seems to have worked in Obama’s case. Just as President John F. Kennedy, the Harvard-educated scion of Boston Irish-ward politicians, out-WASPed the WASPs by placing himself firmly in the line of high New England moral and political leadership, so Obama has used his eloquence and conviction to emerge as the leading representative of this old and deeply American political tradition. Yet the perception among some Chicagoans that if pressed, Obama would say, like the narrator of the famous William Blake poem, “I am black, but O, my soul is white!” nearly ended his political career in 2000, when Rush humiliated him in a congressional race.

For Obama to emerge as a postracial candidate, he first had to become racial; he had to find a way to become culturally black. The quest to connect with African American history, culture, and values shaped much of his personal and political activity from adolescence through 2006. Remnick does a better job with this aspect of Obama’s development than many writers because he grounds much of his story in Obama’s struggle to find his place in black America. And for a white writer, he gives an unusually detailed and nuanced portrait of the intellectual and political world in which Obama had to find his way.

More would have been better. In particular, readers would have benefited from a fuller and richer treatment of Wright. He represents the road that Obama ultimately chose not to take: Wright’s Afrocentric theology and impassioned black nationalist rhetoric offered a competing vision with which Obama had to come to terms to find his place in black Chicago — but that could never adequately express either the hopes or the vision that Obama brought with him from Hawaii and Harvard. Forced to choose between the spirit and legacy of New England reform as embodied in the likes of Oliver Wendell Holmes and McGeorge Bundy on the one hand and the Afrocentric vision of Wright on the other, Obama stands with Massachusetts every time.

BLACK LIKE HIM

The path Obama had to navigate as he built an identity and found friends and allies within the world of Chicago’s African American politics was a winding one. Remnick moves rather too quickly along it, but he does help readers appreciate the magnitude and difficulty of Obama’s progress. Although the circumstances of Obama’s need to connect his cosmopolitan upbringing and education with the hopes and fears of a particular community of voters were unique, the task is common. The U.S. educational system is largely deracinating: it aims to do more than take the boy out of Iowa; it wants to take the Iowa out of the boy. For those graduates who seek a career in electoral politics, the process must be reversed.

Returning to Arkansas after his years as a Rhodes scholar and Yale law student, Bill Clinton, the great chameleon of modern American political history, had to reconnect with an American vernacular. George W. Bush had to navigate the transition from Andover, Yale, and Harvard Business School back to the pork rinds of Texas. The declining political fortunes of the Kennedy dynasty seem connected to the way that each succeeding generation has been more Harvard and less South Boston; by contrast, each generation of the Bush clan has moved further away from its blue-blooded, bluenosed Connecticut roots toward a more total immersion in rising American subcultures.

Given the unique and uniquely charged history of black America, African American politicians face tougher challenges than their white, Latino, and Asian peers. The loyalties are deeper, the suspicions on all sides greater, the questions to be addressed more explosive. Obama’s success in finding a path through these obstacles and developing a political stance and style that has attracted both black and white voters to his side reveals a powerful intellect linked to a capacity for empathy and a receptiveness to others that recalls both Clinton and Ronald Reagan.

Reflecting on Obama’s path from Harvard Law to the South Side of Chicago also helps one understand the limits of his political appeal. Learning to integrate his New England value system into a public persona that could reach Chicago’s black voters gave Obama a potent and even mythic political appeal, but it also left him with a weak suit: the folks out in the hills clinging to their God and their guns. For many Americans, the New England vision of a strong state acting as the enforcer of a common moral purpose has always been something to resist. Jeffersonian and Jacksonian radicals fought to abolish the state establishment of religion in Connecticut and Massachusetts, the South fought the abolitionists and then the Freedmen’s Bureau during Reconstruction, the white working-class South and North united in defiance of Prohibition, and so on.

Obama’s effect on this populist tradition is like that of a red flag on a bull. As a New England reformer building a larger, more intrusive state, and as the most prominent beneficiary of New England’s determination to broaden access to its most elite institutions, Obama represents forces that many populists instinctively oppose. At the same time, nothing in Honolulu or Cambridge or Chicago taught Obama what Clinton learned in Arkansas: how to reach out to these people and to know what, and what not, to say to them. The economic crisis of 2008 and the country’s unhappiness with the Bush administration gave Obama an opportunity to be heard by populist voters; since his inauguration, they have shown signs of retreating to their former loyalties and ideas. Obama’s hopes for reelection in 2012 may turn on his ability to bridge yet another divide in America’s soul and to reach out to a constituency that so far has proved resistant to his charms.

THE WORLD BEYOND

Students of foreign policy will be bemused and somewhat alarmed by the near-total absence of evidence in Remnick’s book that Obama ever showed any interest in foreign policy before running for president. There is a casual mention of the human rights scholar Samantha Power as an adviser to and influence on Obama, and there are narrative descriptions of Obama’s sojourns abroad with his mother and a fascinating account of his father’s troubled career in Kenya. But to judge from this book, Obama spent little time dealing with foreign policy until he failed to get the Senate committee assignment he really wanted and was forced to make the best of an appointment to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. While traveling with Senator John Kerry and others in 2005, Obama saw the poor security surrounding Russian nuclear materials and was seized by the importance of getting the world’s nuclear material under better control. This is a worthwhile idea, and it bore fruit at the recent Nuclear Security Summit, but one looks in The Bridge in vain for more clues to the future of U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration.

It seems reasonable to infer that Obama’s foreign policy instincts, like his domestic policy ideas, are rooted in the New England tradition that blends a form of moralism tempered by pragmatism, a faith in strong government, and a commitment to leading by example. One could look to John Quincy Adams for an example of the foreign policy ideas to which Obama might aspire. Like Adams, Obama believes in American power and in an American destiny to do well by doing good; yet also like Adams, he prefers to hold power in reserve when he can and is conscious of the United States’ capacity to err. Whether he can succeed in foreign policy as well as Adams did remains to be seen; Adams was immersed in diplomacy all his life, whereas Obama is still finding his way.

The Bridge is a biography of a life still being shaped; everyone, including Obama, will know much more about who he is and what really counts to him once his presidency has drawn to a close. This makes for a book that in some ways is frustratingly open ended and sometimes feels unfinished. Nevertheless, it accomplishes the one thing that it needed to do: it encourages readers to ask the right questions about Obama.

Reprinted with kindly permission of The Council on Foreign Relations.