Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Banality of Race and Why David Remnick is a Shallow Suck-Up

Michael Knox Beran writes a wonderful review of David Remnick's book on Obama The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama. The most tragic flaw of this book is that David Remnick did not discern that Doris Kearns Goodwin, who met Obama after her own extended immersion in Lincoln, may well be right when she says, “The tragic sense doesn’t seem to be there.”

According to Knox Beran, this is history by hagiography, even worse than Game Change, a wonderful read that is as filling for as long as a Chinese meal and as meager on the Republicans, who merit less than 80 pages, as it is generous with the Democrats, who get almost 200. We knew Halperin and Heilemann were media whores, or at least tinted left on the infrared-ultraviolet spectrum. But Remnick's excellent book on the downfall of the USSR had revealed to me, anyway, a fellow who could bring in the tragic pathos of a Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy onto current events. Winning a non-fiction Pulitzer at age 35 was certainly a confidence booster. However, Knox Beran's comparison of Remnick with a somewhat analogous predecessor, Lionel Trilling, is damning. Here's Edmund Wilson and Trilling in The Liberal Imagination:

Edmund Wilson once observed that “sincere reactionaries,” from Dr. Johnson to Dostoevsky, were beset by a “vision of human sin.” The progressive reformer, by contrast, was either “free from a sense of guilt” or had “evolved a psychological mechanism which enables him to turn moral judgments against himself into moral judgments against society.” Here is a clue to the banality, the moral vacancy, in modern liberalism that The Bridge too often reflects. If conservatives can be unintelligently narrow, liberals can be insufferably sanctimonious. In vain did Lionel Trilling warn the liberals of his day that their equation of progressive reform and moral virtue was a formula for self-delusion, a self-satisfaction that threatened to blind them to the evils of the very politics—so ostensibly liberal, enlightened, and humane—on which they prided themselves. “Some paradox of our nature leads us,” Trilling wrote in The Liberal Imagination, “when once we have made our fellow men the objects of our enlightened interest, to go on to make them objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion.”

Knox Beran goes on to give Trilling more nods in his penetrating study of the struggle for social equity and its pitfalls.

What the progressive politics of social equity was to the liberalism of Trilling’s day, the progressive politics of race is to the liberalism of our own. Both are forms of moral escapism; both represent a flight from self-knowledge and self-doubt to a dubious refuge of self-righteousness, one that Trilling associated with tragedy. If 50 or 60 years ago liberals needed courage to denounce racism, today their exaltation of the virtues of color is a painless way for them to feel good about themselves without doing any moral heavy lifting. In pretending that racism is one of the profounder evils in contemporary American life, the bien-pensant liberal not only excuses himself from the demands of what Trilling called the “moral imagination”; he also conveniently overlooks the unfruitfulness of his own progressive solutions to the problems of poverty, crime, and ghetto despair.

Is Obama a post-racial, true tragedian, or is Doris Kearns Goodwin's intuition better than the liberal sopheads Jon Meacham and David Brooks, two pseudo-moderates who are faux-poseurs to the bone who both believe that Obama's still waters run deep?

President Obama, it is true, is advertised as a different, more thoughtful kind of liberal, one exempt from what David Mamet has called liberal brain-death.....But put Obama aside. He is a practicing politician. One does not expect to find reserves of tragic doubt in those who are daily engaged in political battles and the strife of sound bites. The soldier on the front line, under whatever banner he has enlisted, has got to do his best to close his mind against a certain suppleness of thought, the luxurious latitude of imagination in which the mere civilian can safely indulge. George W. Bush displayed the unsubtle confidence of a leader in pushing the War on Terror hard—some would say too hard. Obama displayed the same unshrinking confidence in pushing nationalized health care hard—some would say too hard. It is true that Lincoln eventually achieved the tragic humility that allowed him to say, “With malice towards none; with charity for all . . .” But the transfiguration took place only at the end of his life, after he had gone through torments that he supposed were worse than those of hell.

Remnick gets the final full-barrelled
coup de grace
by being damned with faint praise.

The Bridge is disappointing precisely because it is the work of a man who might conceivably have emulated Trilling.....It is just because the political leader, called to assert his will in a life of action, cannot permit himself to be hobbled by an excess of doubt or moral subtlety that it falls to a political movement’s scribes, to its clerks and philosophers, to warn of the temptations of smugness. Trilling performed this office for liberals in middle of the last century; conservatives have got a whole library on the subject that goes back to Saint Augustine, if not to the Book of Genesis. But Trilling is a prophet no longer honored in the liberal movement to which he was devoted. ... [Remnick's] book, with all its flaws, contains much brilliant writing and a good deal of useful insight. Its author is, into the bargain, the head of a great liberal institution, and he is engaged in work that does not absolutely preclude sustained reflection. It is therefore to be regretted that he has composed a panegyric upon the president that is lazily content with the obvious but shallow story line and with what, in 2010, has become the cheap morality of racial melodrama.

If The Bridge has its strengths, it must finally be classed as another attempt to sustain the myth that racial oppression is one of the cardinal sins of today’s America. This comforting baby’s bottle of modern liberalism is a largely fabricated fantasy, yet it is not without real dangers. It has not only spawned an unhealthy obsession with the color of our skins that too often comes at the expense of a more just interest in the content of our characters; it has lulled liberals into the sort of moral complacency that they so frequently deplore in others.

This "moral complacency" is visible daily from sports page, where NFL draft dish holds Stanford running back Gerhardt discounted for being white, to the daily liberal nods in deference to three lying black congresscritters who claim with no audio or video proof that they were called racial epithets & spat upon by Tea Party demonstrators the day of the health care vote. My guess is that Remnick's book will be called what the French describe as a "succes d'estime" and tens of thousands will be sold, but often used as door jams. As one read Game Change and am not about to fork over a 672 pp. version of the same hagiography dwelling on the personification of racial equality---when in real-world fact he was raised by his white grandparents in Honolulu at an elite prep school, in a local culture where racial differences were hardly noticed in a polyglot entrepot like Hawaii.

Much of Obama's unmerited hyper-adoration comes in spite of the fact that he tried to lionize an absentee bigamist drunk of a father who deserted him at age one and placate an OC mother who drove him as hard as she drove herself before abandoning him to her white parents. (Obama's white grandparents appear to be non-existent, according to three book reviews I read besides Knox Beran's.)

Obama is a narcissistic descendent of slaveowners, from his Kansas forebears and perhaps on both sides as his father's tribal north Kenya is heavily populated by ex-slavers descended from Arabs working out of Dar Es Salaam. Obama digested all this baggage and like many young blacks who have athletic skills and academic know-how, came out rather smug and with overly-high self-regard.

In the end, Remnick keeps sucking on the race baby-bottle of liberal self-justification, and the fatuous freaks in the unwatched cable TV like Norah O'Donnell demonstrate room-temp IQ when they use it as the default position to all the conservatives' opposition to Big Government expansion and absurd power grabs by a lame-duck Democrat Congress. Obama should be given credit for achieving the American dream, but he should NOT destroy the basis on which that opportunity presented itself, a society of free individuals who pay taxes, but otherwise do not have the government interfere in their lives.

To destroy that society would be to symbolically kill his parents: one of those Freudian, Jungian drives he probably is unaware of.

1 comment :

GARRHHGH said...


Thank you for your thoughtful commentary.

It is noteworthy that leading intellectuals of past decades do not quite toe the required PC lines as the current media establishment.

It is little noted, but much appreciated that voices still exist that maintain some objective opinion of the current tone of politically acceptable conversation.

all the best