Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 15, 2008

Obama as Icon

Abe Greenwald has touched on an aspect of the current Democratic race war that disturbs me, and you don’t have to be a psychologist to think it matters. Shelby Steele has argued that Obama is an icon, and implicit in so much of Obama’s popularity is that voting for him-and especially electing him-would be a national absolution for racial sins, would allow the US to have the open conversation about race that it has supposedly failed to have since its founding.

The response to Hillary Clinton’s unexceptional statement about Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act suggests that, instead of opening the conversation up, an Obama victory is much more likely to shut it down completely. Accusations of racial insensitivity are powerful weapons, and if elected, Obama would need the restraint of a saint not to avail himself of them. The line between being the hero and playing the victim is a narrow one, and it is not in the American tradition to regard politicians as self-denying saints.

But even if he does restrain himself, as he claims to have done this time, the effect will be much the same. Whether he wills it or not, an Obama presidency looks like it will make it harder to commemorate the full diversity of the civil rights movement, and, especially, harder for reformers of all races to argue that there may be aspects of African-American culture that are destructive and self-defeating. The ‘national conversation’ will be further submerged by the clichés of multiculturalism.

An icon, after all, is something you worship-and the more important Obama’s iconic status as the African-American par excellence becomes, the more eagerly his supporters will seek out and demonize anything that might detract from it. The United States is not entirely free from racism-but that kind of relentless, eager, politically-motivated quest for evidence of it will only increase the resentful, touchy sourness that is such a disturbing feature of American race relations today.

That is a foreboding, not a reason to avoid voting for Obama. Personally, I have never thought he had a chance, mostly because he is the favorite candidate here at Yale, which is all the proof I need that he will lose. If the power of iconic status could defeat bland ambition, Gary Hart, not Walter Mondale, would have been the Democratic nominee in 1984. Obama’s candidacy only has a chance of victory if he rejects what has so far defined it.

How he might do this-and whether he would survive politically-is difficult to know, but it cannot be done through words alone: Obama is a powerful speaker, but believing that words always trump actions was what brought Clinton down. Still, he might begin by admitting candidly that Hillary was right: Presidents can do things that civil society cannot. Surely that is not such a damaging thing to say if you want to be President.


Abe Greenwald has touched on an aspect of the current Democratic race war that disturbs me, and you don’t have to be a psychologist to think it matters. Shelby Steele has argued that Obama is an icon, and implicit in so much of Obama’s popularity is that voting for him-and especially electing him-would be a national absolution for racial sins, would allow the US to have the open conversation about race that it has supposedly failed to have since its founding.

The response to Hillary Clinton’s unexceptional statement about Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act suggests that, instead of opening the conversation up, an Obama victory is much more likely to shut it down completely. Accusations of racial insensitivity are powerful weapons, and if elected, Obama would need the restraint of a saint not to avail himself of them. The line between being the hero and playing the victim is a narrow one, and it is not in the American tradition to regard politicians as self-denying saints.

But even if he does restrain himself, as he claims to have done this time, the effect will be much the same. Whether he wills it or not, an Obama presidency looks like it will make it harder to commemorate the full diversity of the civil rights movement, and, especially, harder for reformers of all races to argue that there may be aspects of African-American culture that are destructive and self-defeating. The ‘national conversation’ will be further submerged by the clichés of multiculturalism.

An icon, after all, is something you worship-and the more important Obama’s iconic status as the African-American par excellence becomes, the more eagerly his supporters will seek out and demonize anything that might detract from it. The United States is not entirely free from racism-but that kind of relentless, eager, politically-motivated quest for evidence of it will only increase the resentful, touchy sourness that is such a disturbing feature of American race relations today.

That is a foreboding, not a reason to avoid voting for Obama. Personally, I have never thought he had a chance, mostly because he is the favorite candidate here at Yale, which is all the proof I need that he will lose. If the power of iconic status could defeat bland ambition, Gary Hart, not Walter Mondale, would have been the Democratic nominee in 1984. Obama’s candidacy only has a chance of victory if he rejects what has so far defined it.

How he might do this-and whether he would survive politically-is difficult to know, but it cannot be done through words alone: Obama is a powerful speaker, but believing that words always trump actions was what brought Clinton down. Still, he might begin by admitting candidly that Hillary was right: Presidents can do things that civil society cannot. Surely that is not such a damaging thing to say if you want to be President.


Read Less

Bearding the Prophet

I’d like to confess a few literary sins. In high school, I read, along with usual suspects like The Dharma Bums, Naked Lunch, and A Coney Island of the Mind, certifiable nonsense like Carlos Castaneda’s Journey to Ixtlan and Ram Dass’s The Only Dance There Is. (I don’t mean that this is all I read, though to have read any of it is sufficiently embarrassing.) All the really zonked-out Mr. Natural stuff belonged to my parents (sorry, guys), the cringe-making detritus of college in the 1970s. I’m sure now they’d say they were only holding it for a friend.

Yes, I have read these terrible things—but I’ve never read Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. I’ve browsed in copies of it, copies usually found sandwiched between Steppenwolf and the Kama Sutra on dorm-issue bookshelves; it strikes me as a kind of ecumenical “Footprints,” only longer and thus not so easily translated into needlepoint. According to Joan Acocella’s piece in The New Yorker, occasioned by the rerelease of Gibran’s works, such as they are, by the Everyman’s Library, he is the third best-selling poet of all time, after Shakespeare and Lao-tzu. Gibran was also a draftsman of sorts:

[The drawings] were products of their time, or a slightly earlier time, that of the European Symbolist painters: Puvis de Chavannes, Eugène Carrière, Gustave Moreau. Often, in the foreground, one saw a sort of pileup of faceless humanity, while in the background there hovered a Greater Power—an angel, perhaps, or just a sort of milky miasma, suggestive of mystery and the soul.

“Milky miasma” describes more than just his art, alas. If the reader thinks I’m being unkind, he should direct his attention to Theodore Dalrymple’s hilarious essay on Gibran from the December 2007 New Criterion. It focuses on The Prophet in particular, so those who want a peek at the biographical details of a fabricator, bloviator, and kept man par excellence should stick with Acocella, hilarious in her own right. She even writes, inviting the ire of millions of public-transit users: “Gibran’s closest counterpart today is the Brazilian sage Paulo Coelho, and his books have sold nearly a hundred million copies.”

What about Elizabeth Gilbert’s ubiquitous Eat, Pray, Love? Amazon.com tells me that its Statistically Improbable Phrases are “four spirit brothers, kundalini shakti, magic drawing, meditation cave, old medicine man.” Am I back with my former spirit guide, Carlos Castaneda? I’ll have to check it out, for old time’s sake. At any rate, Acocella writes:

[Gibran] had intuited the theory of relativity before Einstein; he just hadn’t written it down. Thousands of times, he said, he had been sucked up into the air as dew, and “risen into clouds, then fallen as rain. . . . I’ve been a rock too, but I’m more of an air person.”

Air of an extremely high temperature, no doubt.

I’d like to confess a few literary sins. In high school, I read, along with usual suspects like The Dharma Bums, Naked Lunch, and A Coney Island of the Mind, certifiable nonsense like Carlos Castaneda’s Journey to Ixtlan and Ram Dass’s The Only Dance There Is. (I don’t mean that this is all I read, though to have read any of it is sufficiently embarrassing.) All the really zonked-out Mr. Natural stuff belonged to my parents (sorry, guys), the cringe-making detritus of college in the 1970s. I’m sure now they’d say they were only holding it for a friend.

Yes, I have read these terrible things—but I’ve never read Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. I’ve browsed in copies of it, copies usually found sandwiched between Steppenwolf and the Kama Sutra on dorm-issue bookshelves; it strikes me as a kind of ecumenical “Footprints,” only longer and thus not so easily translated into needlepoint. According to Joan Acocella’s piece in The New Yorker, occasioned by the rerelease of Gibran’s works, such as they are, by the Everyman’s Library, he is the third best-selling poet of all time, after Shakespeare and Lao-tzu. Gibran was also a draftsman of sorts:

[The drawings] were products of their time, or a slightly earlier time, that of the European Symbolist painters: Puvis de Chavannes, Eugène Carrière, Gustave Moreau. Often, in the foreground, one saw a sort of pileup of faceless humanity, while in the background there hovered a Greater Power—an angel, perhaps, or just a sort of milky miasma, suggestive of mystery and the soul.

“Milky miasma” describes more than just his art, alas. If the reader thinks I’m being unkind, he should direct his attention to Theodore Dalrymple’s hilarious essay on Gibran from the December 2007 New Criterion. It focuses on The Prophet in particular, so those who want a peek at the biographical details of a fabricator, bloviator, and kept man par excellence should stick with Acocella, hilarious in her own right. She even writes, inviting the ire of millions of public-transit users: “Gibran’s closest counterpart today is the Brazilian sage Paulo Coelho, and his books have sold nearly a hundred million copies.”

What about Elizabeth Gilbert’s ubiquitous Eat, Pray, Love? Amazon.com tells me that its Statistically Improbable Phrases are “four spirit brothers, kundalini shakti, magic drawing, meditation cave, old medicine man.” Am I back with my former spirit guide, Carlos Castaneda? I’ll have to check it out, for old time’s sake. At any rate, Acocella writes:

[Gibran] had intuited the theory of relativity before Einstein; he just hadn’t written it down. Thousands of times, he said, he had been sucked up into the air as dew, and “risen into clouds, then fallen as rain. . . . I’ve been a rock too, but I’m more of an air person.”

Air of an extremely high temperature, no doubt.

Read Less

Heroism

USA Today recounts a skirmish in Mosul. This is what American soldiers are up against in this stage of the Iraq war. Notice the care taken by our forces to avoid civilian casualties.

When he rolled back a concrete block that was sitting on rails, gunfire erupted. Pete estimated the entrance at 2-by-2 feet, barely large enough for a Ranger with 45 pounds of gear to pass through.

Lashaun and Pete fired into the hole and backed out of the room.
Pete tossed in a grenade.

After the grenade exploded, the Rangers moved back into the shower room, Lashaun said. Suddenly, he said, grenades started flying back at them.

Lashaun said he saw one grenade bounce, so he and another Ranger dove through a door before it exploded. Pete and the Ranger retreated to a different room.

Blake, the company commander, said the soldiers had split into two groups of nine each. Gunfire from the insurgents poured out of the bathroom, while Lashaun’s Rangers fired back.

Pete figured bullets passed within 1 foot of him. “I was really stuck basically in a crossfire,” he said.

Meanwhile, Lashaun hustled the women and children toward safety over a courtyard wall.

“He’s risking his life, taking enemy fire, while he’s literally extending himself and pushing women and children over the wall,” Blake said.

Lashaun then linked up with two Rangers, re-entered the house and fired into the bathroom. One insurgent came around the corner, Lashaun said, and the Rangers killed him “right there on the spot.”

The full story, one of the most dramatic accounts of combat to come out of Iraq, is a testament to the skill and bravery of our soldiers, and also to Tom Vanden Brook of USA Today, who tells their story.

USA Today recounts a skirmish in Mosul. This is what American soldiers are up against in this stage of the Iraq war. Notice the care taken by our forces to avoid civilian casualties.

When he rolled back a concrete block that was sitting on rails, gunfire erupted. Pete estimated the entrance at 2-by-2 feet, barely large enough for a Ranger with 45 pounds of gear to pass through.

Lashaun and Pete fired into the hole and backed out of the room.
Pete tossed in a grenade.

After the grenade exploded, the Rangers moved back into the shower room, Lashaun said. Suddenly, he said, grenades started flying back at them.

Lashaun said he saw one grenade bounce, so he and another Ranger dove through a door before it exploded. Pete and the Ranger retreated to a different room.

Blake, the company commander, said the soldiers had split into two groups of nine each. Gunfire from the insurgents poured out of the bathroom, while Lashaun’s Rangers fired back.

Pete figured bullets passed within 1 foot of him. “I was really stuck basically in a crossfire,” he said.

Meanwhile, Lashaun hustled the women and children toward safety over a courtyard wall.

“He’s risking his life, taking enemy fire, while he’s literally extending himself and pushing women and children over the wall,” Blake said.

Lashaun then linked up with two Rangers, re-entered the house and fired into the bathroom. One insurgent came around the corner, Lashaun said, and the Rangers killed him “right there on the spot.”

The full story, one of the most dramatic accounts of combat to come out of Iraq, is a testament to the skill and bravery of our soldiers, and also to Tom Vanden Brook of USA Today, who tells their story.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.