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The “What Is Barack Obama” Debate

April 13th, 2010 - 3:00 pm

On the one side, David Goldman (aka Spengler) of First Things. On the other, John Podhoretz, of Commentary.  Both longstanding friends, both talented writers, both critical of President Obama.  But John is very upset about the last paragraph of an essay by David.  Here’s the graph by David:

I’ve been screaming about this for more than two years: Obama is the loyal son of a left-wing anthropologist mother who sought to expiate her white guilt by going to bed with Muslim Third World men. He is a Third World anthropologist studying us, learning our culture and our customs the better to neutralize what he considers to be a malignant American influence in world affairs.

And here’s John’s critique:

This is…disgusting. In the first place, Obama is not responsible for his mother or her political views, any more than Ronald Reagan should have been held accountable for the fact that his father was a drunk. In the second place, Goldman’s speculation about her sexual history is appalling …the idea that the lower-middle-class daughter of a furniture salesman from Mercer Island, Washington, would be awash in “white guilt” — far more a species of upper-middle-class Northeastern opinion — speaks more of Goldman’s inability to achieve imaginative sympathy with someone from circumstances different from his than it does anything about the president or his family.

Finally, there is Goldman’s casting of Obama, who lived for less than a year in Indonesia, as a “Third World anthropologist studying us.” Casting Obama as a malign foreign influence is a particular and unforgivable intellectual madness on the Right over the past two years. There is nothing foreign about Obama’s ideas or ideology, alas, which can be understood, in my view, almost entirely from the curricula and extracurricular ideas endemic in the American university in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he was in college.

David has been saying these things for quite a while, and has offered plenty of evidence to explain why he believes them.  John hasn’t felt obliged to pick a fight before,  and I think he would have done better if had taken a bit of time to study the facts of Obama’s life.  Contrary to John’s dismissal of any Indonesian influence (he was only there for “less than a year”), for example, young Barack spent four important years (from age 6 to 10) there, and attended a Muslim school (which wasn’t “very Muslim” actually, but I digress).  And his characterization of Mrs Obama’s family as “lower middle class from Mercer Island, Washington” is not quite right either:  the parents were from Kansas, and lived briefly on Mercer Island (which is a pretty pricey neighborhood, at least in recent years);  the mother was a bank vice president, and I can’t find an account suggesting that Obama’s mother had an economically challenged childhood.  That came later, as a result of moving to Indonesia.

I totally agree with John–indeed I have written it myself–when he says that Obama’s view of the world is of a piece with the political correctness now rampant in American colleges and universities.  His mother was a trailblazer in this regard, and it shouldn’t be controversial to say it.

I’m baffled when John accuses David of somehow trying to make the president “responsible” for his mother.  It’s surely important to pay attention to biography, as John no doubt agrees in calmer moments.  I don’t understand his complaint about “speculation about…sexual history.”  It’s not speculative to say that she married a Kenyan and then an Indonesian, and produced children from both.

Finally, there’s the ugly part, when John, not content with expressing his rage at David’s paragraph, makes it all personal.  David was a Larouchean, and broke with the movement.  John would have us believe that David’s youthful blunder tars him irremediably:  “thinking of the sort revealed in this blog item is in the direct line of descent from LaRouche’s vision of the world.”  Certainly it’s important to know about David’s past.  But I don’t think that John would take kindly to anyone who wrote, let’s say, “thinking of the sort revealed in Norman Podhoretz’s book is in the direct line of descent from radical leftists with whom Mr. P once worked.”

The character of our president is an important matter.  I think both John and David have tried to illuminate it, but I wish John had taken more time with his latest tirade, gotten the facts right, and focused his considerable talent on the serious matters that rightly concern us.

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