Belmont Club

The Opacity Of Hope

Angelo de Codevilla’s review of six accounts of Barack Obama’s life at the Claremont Review of Books ends in the conclusion that Obama was always something other than what he portrayed himself to be. What that is, in Codevilla’s summary, is this:

In sum, Barack Obama grew intertwined with the narrow, self-referential left side of the American Left. They helped one another believe they had come up the hard way, as underprivileged but brilliant, square-jawed tribunes of the common man. Their common problem, however, is that their agendas are antagonistic to people unlike themselves, and that they cannot keep from showing their contempt for the common folk in whose name they would ride to power.

Since the days of Karl Marx’s First International a century and a half ago, this very human opposition between socialist theory (egalitarianism) and socialist reality (oligarchic oppression) has bedeviled the Left. Marx laid the problem bare in his “Critique of the Gotha Program” (1875). Lenin dealt with it honestly and brutally in What Is to Be Done? (1902)—the foundational document of Communism. By acknowledging that the Communist Party is not the common people’s representative, but rather its “vanguard,” Leninists were comfortable with a party responsible only to itself and to history, a party that openly demanded deference from the humans whose habits it forcibly reshaped. Communism’s undeniable horrors forced the New Left to disassociate itself from What Is to Be Done? and once again to pretend that its socialism was neither oligarchic nor coercive, that somehow it was on the side of ordinary folks. This is a much tougher sell in the 21st century than it was in the 19th. Contemporary socialists try to explain away the common man’s suspicion of them as harbingers of oligarchy, corruption, and coercion by resorting to jargon (e.g., “false consciousness” and “socio-economic anxiety”). But that is ever less convincing. This is why the movement argues so strenuously with itself about whether and how much it should dissimulate its agenda.

Which is one reason why it plays the “race card” and seizes on recruits like Barack Obama: because many black Americans’ ancestors were slaves, must not any black American be, ipso facto, unquestionably, a member and true representative of the downtrodden? And if a skeptic should argue that this or that black man is really a representative of old, white, nasty socialism, of the Corporate State, of upscale parasites who prey on working people, it is easy enough to re-focus the argument on the skeptic’s “racism.” If blacks inclined to play this role did not exist, the Socialist movement would have every incentive to invent them. And in a sense it tries to invent them, through the “black studies” programs that now divert so many young Americans from useful lives into partisan service.

Obama is as close as one could imagine to a made-to-order front man for contemporary, upscale, shy-about-itself, nouveau socialism. From his earliest age, he shaped his dreams about himself to act out a character wholly fictitious, namely a black American from a humble background who rose up out of brilliance and merit, and who yearns to draw all of America’s low-born (plus the rest of mankind) up through the same paths. But he is none of that. Equally imaginary is his vaunted understanding of and sympathy for foreign cultures. A typical multiculturalist, Obama speaks no language other than a peculiar version of English. His native language, loves, and hates are common to some of the most leftist elements of the current American ruling class.

That class knows about America only that it must be changed, and looks at the vast majority of Americans the way carpenters look at warped pieces of lumber. Barack Obama is neither more nor less than its product and agent.

There is much else in the reviewed books that Codevilla weighs, puts aside skeptically, or takes with a grain of salt. For example, there are the accounts that neither his father, mother, nor his maternal family nor even his Indonesian stepfather were just plain folks. It seems likely they were distinctly political animals with powerful beliefs and vaulting ambitions. There is the suggestion that they moved on the fringes of a CIA faction that “considered themselves family members of the domestic and international Left. They believed that America’s competition with Soviet Communism was to be waged by, for, and among the Left.”

Codevilla makes his arguments and one may believe them or not. But what is not in dispute is that Barack Obama is the least known quantity in the modern American presidency. He said of himself in his own book, or what is said to be his own book, “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.” Certainly his biographies show him as something very different from the image he portrayed on the hustings. Codevilla argues that far from being a hardscrabble black man made good, Obama is the product of an elite system of formation.

What the nature of that formation was is open to debate. Its elusiveness is indirect proof of the shortcomings of the gatekeeping system. Whether one cares for President Obama’s character or politics is a matter of political choice. But the choices should be as clear as the lettering in packages that we buy. That the nature of his politics and character should, in his third year of office, still be shrouded in ambiguity and remain in an unreadable script suggests a failure in the political and journalistic system to tell the public what was inside the box.

For surely the public had a right to know. Yet the same line of reasoning can also be marshalled to argue that the absence of narrative means there is no malignant narrative. “No Label” can simply mean too good to characterize. The opacity of Barack Obama might mean there is no conspiratorial pattern present; and what people take to be guile is but complexity. In that view Obama is merely the blank screen on which his opponents project their own bigotry.

But that is too facile an answer. It is also an example of what is sometimes called an “argument from ignorance”; the assertion that something must be good because it cannot readily be proven to be bad. It is logically sounder to assert that the more we know about the president the better off we are, because an argument from knowledge is always better than an argument from ignorance.  Yet there are some who would disagree that knowledge is our due. There is the view that a lot of knowledge, not just a little, is supremely dangerous. Only by turning our eyes aside from knowledge can we act. It is the frightful sight of the abyss that we must hide from sight  to nerve ourselves to scale the mountains.

W.H. Murray, a Scottish mountaineer, is famous for a remark he made about inner decisions; a remark that many Leftists would intuitively recognize. Describing his Himalayan expedition of 1951, Murray wrote that the expedition’s key act was to step into the unknown:

but when I said that nothing had been done I erred in one important matter. We had definitely committed ourselves and were halfway out of our ruts. We had put down our passage money— booked a sailing to Bombay. This may sound too simple, but is great in consequence. Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!

And in that light some may think it best not to know who or what Barack Obama is; at least not in comparison to what they imagine him to be, lest to know too much extinguish hope, not simply in the man, but in the Dream.

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