David Wiegel at Slate reacted to news that Barack Obama’s girlfriend in the book Dreams From My Father was a composite figure by saying it has always been known that the autobiography was fictionalized by ‘compression’. The problem arose as a result of a new book by David Maraniss, which draws upon conversations with the President. “Obama has now told biographer David Maraniss that the ‘New York girlfriend’ was actually a composite character, based off of multiple girlfriends he had both in New York City and in Chicago.” Wiegel says that right wing hacks have fallen on the tidbit with glee.
Obama lied! Except — wait, hang on, anyone who reads Dreams From My Father starts with this disclaimer.
For the sake of compression, some of the characters that appear are composites of people I’ve known, and some events appear out of precise chronology. With the exception of my family and a handful of public figures, the names of most characters have been changed for the sake of their privacy.
This has been known for years. Obama’s memoir has stymied reporters because characters who might have some insights appear in composite form. The most famous of them, up to now, was a guy named “Ray,” who gets all of Dreams’s “angry black dude” lines. Is it kosher for a future president to write like this and then be cagey about who was who? Interesting discussion! But in 2012, you can’t “admit” something you told book-buyers in 1995.
Speaking of compression, there are two kinds: lossless compression and lossy compression. In lossless compression the facts are unchanged. They are only expressed more succinctly. In lossy compression, however, something is left out permanently.
Here is lossy compression in action. That is not too bad as long as the essential features of the compressed object are roughly in the same place, as shown below.
In this case, it is not clear we are talking about compression at all, but compositing. Multiple women were composited into one. Chicago and New York were compressed into New York. Multiple time periods were squeezed into a single one. Compositing is not the same as compression.
In his own Slate article, by concluding that this is all a “frantic search for something else to be conspiracy-minded about” adds yet another kind of loss. Generation loss, the kind of information decay that results from, for example, photocopying the photocopy of the photocopy. Thus, the story of many women in multiple cities who one woman in a single city is turned by Wiegel into a story about witch hunt.
That is his take. Now it is part of the palimpsest — a document overlayed by erasures and writings of many kinds.
Here’s an idea: the Dreams source is now useless as factual basis for anything and there is no more point arguing about it, any more than trying to conduct a murder trial on the basis of Huckleberry Finn. The same thought must have crossed the mind of Marianiss, who decided to interview the “real” girlfriends and included excerpts from some of the love letters. That may alleviate the “lossy compression” problem somewhat, because the source is still partially President Obama, who is after all the source of the compositing to start with. But it only aggravates the generation loss effect. Excerpts from the letters are now being quoted to support conclusions ranging from the future President being a total fake to totally cool. Marianiss himself is aware of the problem:
“Memoir and biography are two very different things,” Maraniss concludes in an interview with Vanity Fair. “In the introduction to ‘Barack Obama: The Story,’ I say that his memoir is a remarkably insightful exploration of his internal struggle but should not be read as rigorous factual history.”
That can hardly be disputed, and the point loops back upon Wiegel’s critique. He rightly argues that everyone should have known that Dreams was at least partially, perhaps even mostly fiction even as far back as 1995. He himself claims that he was. Yet he was content with that fiction. Wiegel never had a fact to stand on, and neither in all probability did any of the voters who were in no better case. Until Maraniss came along, Wiegel was ignorant as anyone else.
Still he writes “it’s a typical, disappointing way for the Maraniss book (which is fantastic) to hit the MSM. The endlessly repeated conspiracist’s criticism of Obama is that 1) nobody knows anything about his early life and 2) the media never tried to find out.” Unless there is a mistake somewhere, he is describing himself.
But now we have the truth because Maraniss has revealed it, hasn’t he. And there’s no point looking any further. Why should anyone? For time is a construct, as is nature. An orange tree can spring forth in seconds. All you have to do is believe.
“I assure you, they are quite real.”