alien & sedition.
Monday, February 05, 2007
  Audacity and All That

Andrew Ferguson, who is my favorite conservative writer (and I'm not being sarcastic here) has a review of Barack Obama's two books up at the Weekly Standard. Ferguson adores Dreams from My Father, calling it a "beautiful, exquisitely wrought" memoir "about the crosswise love between fathers and sons, the limits of ambition and memory, the struggle between the intellect and the heart." And he wonders how it failed to sell before Obama became a nationally known politician:
I know, I know: Lots of beautiful, exquisitely wrought books fail to find an audience. I wonder, though, whether it might not have been a failure of salesmanship, or of a publisher's blinkered misreading. Even now some reviewers and critics insist that Dreams is essentially a racial memoir. And it is, I guess, in the sense that Anna Karenina is a meditation on the power of locomotives in czarist Russia.
So, it's with sadness that Ferguson finds that The Audacity of Hope reduces Obama's horizons to the narrow realm of the political:
Read together, back to back, Obama's two books illuminate each other. They trace a narrative arc of their own, as the writer of the first book--the dreamy, painfully sensitive, funny, and not quite wised-up memoirist--slowly fades from view behind the gummy presence of the author of the second, the careful, ingratiating main chancer. Audacity is an infinitely weaker, duller book than its predecessor, and its single interesting revelation is unintentional: In this most perilous age, when our great country strives for direction in a world of crisscrossing riptides and dangerous undertow, we have lost a writer and gained another politician. It's not a fair trade.
Interestingly, Ferguson praises Dreams for its thoughtfulness, its concessions to ambiguity, its willingness to to see gray areas and contradictions:
The greatest pleasure of the memoir is the way Obama is always willing to let reality confound him and his reader. His writerly conscience never gives him a break: Just when you worry he's going to lapse into cliché--and, not incidentally, flatter his readers by allowing them to slip into a clichéd response--he pulls the rug out.
Yet this same quality, when translated into political discourse, can be maddening. And as Ferguson astutely notes (though he illustrates it by quoting the wrong people), this frustration is precisely what has generated so much of criticism of Obama from the left:
Already his habit of seeing every side of every question--the writerly habit that rescued his memoir from stereotype and cliché--has begun to frustrate many of his would-be allies. The liberal [sic] journalist Joe Klein, writing in Time, says he "counted no fewer than 50 instances of excruciatingly judicious on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-handedness in The Audacity of Hope." Articles in the New York Review of Books and Harper's quote the book and fret over his tendency to "equivocation."
I've never bought the conventional wisdom that Obama is some "blank slate" upon which observers have projected whatever they wanted him to be. On the contrary, he burst upon the national political scene with a very carefully crafted work of oratory, one that was designed to appeal to a divided America's deep longing for a sense of national unity - yet which positioned that unity, at a basic level, as conditioned on progressive values. Both the left and the right seem to be frustrated with Obama. There's a fascination with the Illinois senator among conservative writers that I haven't seen them display with regard to any other liberal figures (here I don't count their obsessive, masochistic Clinton hatred, which operates in a different fashion).

Maybe all that frustration is a product or microcosm of the American political class's inability to formulate a concept of national unity in an era of vicious politics, routine accusations of treason, and a sharp ideological divide over the very meaning and purpose of government. Maybe we take this out on Obama because he tantalizes us with a glimpse of the unity we desire, but we still can't seem to make the pieces fit the way we want them to.

For Ferguson, the essential problem with The Audacity of Hope is that he simply doesn't like its political conclusions. The writer who appealed to him on so many levels ultimately represents a platform that he cannot endorse.

For many liberals, on the other hand, the problem is that Obama does not defend that platform clearly and boldly enough. We've had enough of caution, of appeasing the conservatives; we're ready to set the agenda again. The last thing we want right now is a gray area. And yet, as revitalized as we feel right now, we're still learning to articulate how our values are America's mainstream values. Considering how tongue-tied we've been for the last couple of decades, it's not always easy.

And neither left nor right is anywhere near achieving the national consensus it desires.

We're just less than a year away from the first primary. We'll see whether Senator Obama begins to set aside the ambiguity and make his case for progressive policies more forcefully. But in the meantime, if we are frustrated with him, we might stop to wonder how much of that is actually frustration with ourselves.

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A general comment: thanks for the excellent read. I followed the link from Kos after reading your Summit entries & look forward to reading you regularly.

Great work.
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Critical analysis of the American conservative movement from a progressive perspective. Also some stuff about the Mets.

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