There is probably a lot one could say about the piece The New York Times ran yesterday about Barack Obama’s 12-year tenure teaching law at the University of Chicago. That Obama “never completed a single work of legal scholarship” may seem surprising given that he was teaching at a major research university where, as the Times notes, “most colleagues published by the pound.” Unsurprising is that, even back then, Obama exuded an aura of “self-absorption” and was surrounded by “groupies.” Also unsurprising is that fact that much of his teaching concerned issues of race and that, as the Times puts it, he “was especially eager for his charges to understand the horrors of the past, students say.” Just this past Sunday, at a Chicago fundraiser, he lectured his audience about the “sad,” even “tragic” nature of America’s past. “I personally would want to see our tragic history, or the tragic elements of our history, acknowledged,” he said.
Glenn Reynolds asks two pertinent questions:
(1) Does Barack Obama think that American history is unusually “tragic” as compared to the history of other great nations? And (2), what does it tell us that journalists were cheering him when he said that?
Regarding the first, how does American history stack up against other countries you know about when it comes to sadness and tragedy. Take Germany–no, that’s too easy. Take France and start in the time of Julius Caesar or, if that is too long ago, in the time of the Cathars and move forward noting the sadnesses and tragedy. Remember Arnaud-Amaury, the papal legate who over saw the siege of Béziers in 1209? Asked by one of his soldiers how they should distinguish the innocents from the Cathars, Arnaud-Amaury memorably replied, “Tuez-les tous. Dieu reconnaîtra les siens,” “Kill ‘em all. God will know his own.” Or take a look a French life under Louis XIV, or under Robespierre and his fellow virtucrats, or under Napoleon. Ask Alfred Dreyfus about sadness and tragedy. The Dreyfus affair is also convenient for those who thrill, as do many readers of the Times, at the prospect of an orgy of national guilt. And speaking of national guilt, let’s not forget Vichy France: there are lots of opportunities there to indulge in a bit of moral masturbation.
Not that France has a monopoly or even a majority interest in such sadness and tragedy, as a look at the history of the Balkans, or Russia, or India, or China, or Japan, or the entire continent of Africa demonstrates. Indeed, when it comes to the sort of sadness and tragedy that Obama dilated on in Chicago, America has been conspicuously on the mild end of such things. I don’t deny the sordidness of slavery, the horrors of the Civil War, and all the other blemishes one might exhibit to show that America has not been perfect and has suffered its share of historical unpleasantness. But in the scheme of things, does it not seem to be an unusually blessed society, one that has been unusually spared the sorts of sadness and tragedy that form such a grim recitative in many, maybe most other countries?
Obama mentions slavery early and often, but what is more significant: the fact that slavery existed in America in the 18th and half of the 19th centuries (as it did in many other parts of the world) or that Americans took it upon themselves to end it and that today Barack Obama is a millionaire and the presumptive Democratic candidate for President?
And as for “acknowledging” the bad things from the past, what else have we been doing for the last three decades. How much expiation does Barack Obama, or Al Sharpton, or Jesse Jackson want? Just a few days ago, the U.S. Congress formally “apologized” for slavery: I employ scare quotes, because the apology is as meaningless as it is hypocritical. Really, I suspect, what is wanted is not “acknowledgment” but perpetual obeisance to an ever receding, impossible ideal of political rectitude.
Which brings me back to the Times‘s story on Obama’s career at the University of Chicago. In the course of that story, the reporter confronts the reader with “what may be the ultimate test of racial equality–whether Americans will elect a black president.”
I stopped short reading that because I think it gets the issue 100% wrong. The implication is that if Obama is not elected, then Americans fail the test. But that, I submit, is a racist idea. How many liberals do you know who plan to vote for Barack Obama because he is black, that is to say, for a racist reason? Sure, they also like the fact that he plans to institute a European-style confiscatory tax plan. They approve of his socialistic plans to increase the size and intrusiveness of the government. They share his skepticism about our presence in Iraq and contemplate his call for “civilian national security force that’s just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded” as the United States military with equanimity, even pleasure. Really, though, all that is icing on the cake. They have closed ranks around Obama on account of the very thing that Obama pretends he wishes to transcend: the color of his skin.