Saturday, May 12, 2007

On Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope

At the National Convention of the Democratic Party in July 2004, a "skinny kid with a funny name" made one of the most stirring speeches in American political history. Barack Obama, then a little-known senator from Illinois, took to the stage and, beginning with his life story and moving outwards to the state of the nation, delivered - with the presidential elections only four months away - an address remarkably free of partisanship, cheap point-scoring, and hokey rhetoric.

Invoking the motto E pluribus unum ("Out of the many, one"), and declaring that there was not a conservative America and a liberal America but only "the United States of America", Obama immediately stood out before a nation weary of cynical and divisive politics. Almost overnight the mixed-race child of a Kenyan father and American mother was anointed the country's most promising young politician, and began to be talked of as a future candidate for president. The process set in motion that day in 2004 reached its logical conclusion in February this year, when Obama announced he would compete with Hillary Clinton and John Edwards to be the Democratic nominee for next year's presidential elections. If elected, Obama will become America's first black President.

The Audacity of Hope, Obama's new book, draws upon one of the many memorable phrases from Obama's speech in 2004 to articulate his vision of American society, politics, and foreign policy. It is a book that Obama, still a relative unknown, had to write for many reasons. It serves as an autobiography to those unfamiliar with him, and as a campaign manifesto for those wanting to test out his ideas. Also, as Obama has himself said, a book allows for more complex and judicious arguments than a quote or a sound-bite. In the difficult arena of electoral politics, where opponents are waiting to seize upon your lapses or twist your words out of context, it is an advantage to have a written record of your stances.

What does The Audacity of Hope reveal about Obama's personality? The most distinctive feature of his book is the extent to which he speaks the language of inclusion, of conversation rather than confrontation. Success in politics often requires the carving out of a distinctive space for one's own ideas, or the canny repositioning of the ideas of one's adversaries. But Obama is seen on several occasions searching for "the common ground" between himself and his opponents, and insisting their similarities are more significant than their differences. He is clearly by nature a moderate and a centrist, which helps explain his attraction for American voters after the fractious and polarizing years of the Bush regime. American presidential candidates have often defined themselves in opposition to their predecessor, but Obama's air of quiet resolve contrasts naturally with Bush's bellicosity.

If anything, Obama is too courteous. Early in his book there is a revelatory moment in which he visits the White House, and spends a few minutes in the company of Bush. Although Obama has been an outspoken critic of Bush's policies - in particular of the war on Iraq and Bush's tax cuts for the rich - he insists "that I don't consider George Bush a bad man, and that I assume he and members of his Administration are trying to do what they think is best for the country". This is a characteristic Obama gambit - he argues convincingly on several other instances for the need to abandon our tendency to impute bad faith to those with whom we disagree. But at some point incompetence and partisanship do become issues of character and personality.

Partly Obama's tone - and indeed the quality of his writing - is a reflection of his background as a civil-rights lawyer and community organiser. Partly it has to do with his family background, which is more diverse (and therefore representative of America, a nation of immigrants) than that of any presidential candidate in recent memory. But his insistence of playing by the rules, according respect to opponents, and avoiding divisive rhetoric and low blows is also his most important asset in a field populated by vastly more experienced candidates, including Clinton and John McCain.

An example of how Obama brings together points of view from opposing sides of the spectrum can be found in this passage on the place of religion in politics, a contentious issue in multi-faith America. Although Obama thinks the separation of Church and State one of the best things about the American consitution, he argues that this does not mean that politics should be a totally secular space bleached of all religious frames of reference. He argues,

Surely, secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square; Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. - indeed the majority of great reformers in American history - not only were motivated by faith but repeatedly used religious language to argue their causes. To say that men and women should not inject their "personal morality" into public-policy debates is a practical absurdity; our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals must be subject to argument and amenable to reason. If I am opposed to banning abortion for religious reasons and seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or invoke God's will and expect that argument to carry the day. If I want others to listen to me, then I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

And in another passage he writes about the ideal of freedom enshrined in American life by the Declaration of Independence of 1776, with the famous line:
"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."

These simple words are our starting point as Americans; they describe not only the foundation of our government but the substance of our common creed. Not every American may be able to recite them; few, if asked, could trace the genesis of the Declaration of Independence to its roots in eighteenth-century liberal and republican thought. But the essential idea behind the Declaration - that we are born into this world free, all of us; that each of us arrives with a bundle of rights that can't be taken away by any person or any state without just cause; that through our own agency we can, and must, make of our lives what we will - is one that every American understands....

Indeed, the value of freedom is so deeply ingrained in us that we tend to take it for granted. It is easy to forget that at the time of our nation's founding this idea was entirely radical in its implications, as radical as Martin Luther's posting on the church door. It is an idea that some portion of the world still rejects - and for which an even larger portion of humanity finds scant evidence in their daily lives.

In fact, much of my appreciation of our Bill of Rights comes from having spent part of my childhood in Indonesia and from still having family in Kenya, countries where individual rights are almost entirely subject to the self-restraint of army generals or the whims of corrupt bureaucrats.
Obama is good at making us think about things that we often take for granted. If successful candidates are expected to have some kind of big idea that sets them apart from the rest, then in some ways Obama's big idea is that he has no big idea. Although he offers nuanced and complex arguments on issues like globalisation and the economy, school and university education, health insurance and race relations (and a thrilling meditation on the Constitution), his attitude is more distinctive than his policy.

"As a country, we seem to be suffering from an empathy deficit," he argues. "[Empathy]…calls us all to task…We are all shaken out of our complacency. We are all forced beyond our limited vision." Not to practise empathy for others, he cajoles gently, is "to relinquish our best selves". It remains to be seen how far this audacious message will take Obama, but he can certainly be read for profit and inspiration in our country, with its own deficit of good men in politics.

Both the text and a video of Obama's splendid keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention can be found here.

A chapter from The Audacity of Hope, called "My Spiritual Journey", can be found here, and an exellent recent profile of Obama by Larissa MacFarquhar in the New Yorker is here. The Guardian even published a piece recently called "The Lyrical Democrat", publishing some poems Obama wrote when he was in his teens (link thanks to Space Bar). Slate magazine has an excellent archive of Obama cartoons published in the American press here, of which my favourites are these ones by Steve Sack, Signe Wilkinson, and the one by Tom Toles reproduced below from The Washington Post.

Update, August 25 - Robert McCrum writes about Obama's previous book Dreams of My Father and thinks it to be "a literary tradition of political prose that goes back to another master of the American language: Abraham Lincoln".

Update, February 24, 2008 - Morgan Meis on the Audacity of Hope and how "Obama thinks of himself as Lincoln".

Update, July 2, 2008 - Obama's thrilling speech on race delivered in Philadelphia in March is here, and Garry Wills's equally brilliant meditation on two speeches on race by Lincoln and Obama is here. And lastly, "A literary critic reads Obama" by Andrew Delbanco ("This is the writing of someone trying to map a route through a world where choices are less often between good and bad than between competing goods. Though [The Audacity of Hope] lacks the sensual immediacy of the earlier book, the language is open and unresolved, the sentences organized around pairs of sentiments or arguments that exert equal force against each other--a reflection of ongoing thinking rather than a statement of settled thoughts").

Update, July 18, 2008: Dayo Olopade surveys the field of Obama cartoons in "Sketchy Imagery" ("During Obama's meteoric rise from state senate to the threshold of the oval office, political cartoonists have had to grapple not just with a fresh face to draw, but a new race to signify.")


Anonymous said...

This seems like an excellent book. And if I may draw a flattering parallel between you and Obama, the tone of your writing too is one of conversation, not confrontation.

You seem to search for what one can get from a book instead of all that is missing and are gentle with most writers - even when you point out faults, it is with respect, with mild suggestions as to how the writer can improve.

Chandrahas said...

Anirudh - Thanks for your very kind words. As books themselves are written with the intent of starting up a conversation, in writing about them one should seek to continue the thread. But I do have a confrontational tone kept in reserve for especially bad writing.

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