Gee, I wish one of my books had been given a YouTube promo! Okay, okay. There was no YouTube and hardly an Internet when I published my last book. Anyway: This promo is definitely high on the cool scale.
I read a brief biography of Zora Hurston in a book on American food and became intrigued. Probably a dozen years ago, I purchased the Library of America two-volume collection of her novels, folklore, autobiography, and articles, but I never got around to reading them. So several days ago, I launched into her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942). I am gripped. An original American voice. She dives into African American idiom and dialect of the South to recover nets of language that evoke her life and circumstances with poignant clarity. She piles analogies and metaphors one upon the other until the conversation of her characters and herself spills out onto the page. Typical:
"There is something about poverty that smells like death. Dead dreams dropping off the heart like leaves in a dry season and rotting around the feet; impulses smothered too long in the fetid air of underground caves. The souls lives in a sickly air. People can be slave-ships in shoes."
"In the first place, I was a Southerner, and had the map of Dixie on my tongue. They [a theatrical group with which she was travelling] were all northerners except the orchestra leader, who came from Pensacola. It was not that my grammar was bad, it was the idioms. They did not know of the way an average southern child, white and black, is raised on simile and invective. They know how to call names. It is an every day affair to hear somebody called a mullet-headed, mule-eared, wall-eyed, hog-nosed, gater-faced, shad-mouthed, screw-necked, goat-bellied, puzzle-gutted, camel-backed, butt-sprung, battle-hammed, knock-kneed, razor-legged, box-ankled, shovel-footed, unmated so and so! Eyes looking like skint-ginny nuts, and mouth looking like a dish-pan full of broke-up crockery! They can tell you in simile exactly how you walk and smell. They can furnish a picture gallery of your ancestors, and a notion of what your children will be like. What ought to happen to you is full of images and flavor. Since that stratum of the southern population is not given to book-reading, they take their comparisons right out of the barn yard and the woods. When they get through with you, you and your whole family look like an acre of totem-poles."
I loved your fiction, all of it, the Glass stories particularly. As a college and graduate student, I would check the university library each week for the new issue of New Yorker magazine, hoping for another story by Salinger. A literary historian (sorry, I can't recall the source) characterized Salinger as writing second generation Jewish American literature, moving away from the European and Yiddish stories and stories of Jewish immigrants strugging to live in the New World, to assimilate Jewish characters into American culture. The assimilation was obviously not easy for them or for Salinger; they were--still-- misfits.
Unlike his autobiography, Dreams From My Father, Barack Obama's Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (2005) is a chore to read. Dreams shone luminously with revelation of his self-invention. Audacity coagulates in its own thought. The sluggish plodding is not the result of literary style or the subject--policy issues. The obstacle to the book's intellectual progress is the suspicion, created in the reader, that Obama's treatment of some of the issues is subtly false.
Obama presents a political vision of America--that the diverse factions, parties, and identities of America can transcend their divisive conflicts by resurrecting our fundamental value, which is that more unites us than divides us.
"The audacity of hope. That was the best of the American spirit, I thought--having the audacity to believe despite all the evidence to the contrary that we could restore a sense of community to a nation torn by conflict; the gall to believe that despite personal setbacks, the loss of a job or an illness in the family or a childhood mired in poverty, we had some control--and therefore responsibility--over our own fate." (P. 356.)
This vision is, of course, not original with Obama; he is recapturing of the American consensus of the 1950s, before the volcano of the 1960s erupted, spewing ideological warfare and social conflict all over the American landscape. The consensus was built on the Democratic Party's decision to reject Marxist socialism and to oppose communism from the center of the American electorate. (Think of Arthur Schlesinger Jr's The Vital Center, 1949.) It was the new Left of the 1960s that angrily rejected the Party's opposition to communism and so ignited the ferocious ideological struggle of the next generation in the streets and in scholarship. Audacity of Hope in effect pronounces that entire generation from 1968 to 2005 to be a massive betrayal of American values and the American spirit. Obama represents himself, not as a post-partisan or post-racial or post-ideological political leader. He presents himself as the reincarnation of the best bipartisan, unifying leadership of America of a generation ago.
Through chapter by chapter discussions of America's two great political parties, values, the federal constitution, politics, opportunity, faith, race, and international relations, Obama frames his discussions in terms of the major opposing ideological positions that shape political debate. The dialog between the two political parties is divided between faith in markets and belief there is a role for government. For values, the debate is between individualism and community. The constitutional debate is over originalist interpretation (the meaning of the document is the founder's intent) and the living constitution (we must re-interpret the constitution for today's different world). In politics, the struggle is between partisan winning-is-all and bipartisan commitment to meet the needs of the people. Regarding the American dream of success (opportunity), the debate is between free markets where everyone is on their own and winners take all, and a social compact between the people, business, and the government to assist people, especially those disadvantaged, make it and provide a cushion if they fall in failure. In international relations, the conflicting positions are realistic pursuit of America's self interests, which are commercial and self-defense, and a commitment to help the less fortunate nations by constructing a world order of justice.
Having framed the political debates, Obama discusses each conflicting tradition, interspersed with personal anecdotes of his own political experiences. He points out the faults of each and advances the merits of each position. He works at this doctrine of nonpartisan fairness, finding positive value in each of the major positions on every issue. He concludes by stating his own position. Most of his positions turn out to be liberal and aligned with the democratic party. He believes the government should have a positive role in supporting and regulating society. He believes in community, saying that we are our brother's and sister's keeper. The living constitution makes the founding document more useful today. Bipartisanship is more important than winner-take-all political victories. America has an obligation to build a just world order and international economy.
For anyone who has taken a college introductory course in American political traditions, Obama's treatment of the issues is familiar. So also would be familiar the examples he uses to illustrate them. Obama does not frame issues in terms of conflicting beliefs or ideologies or traditions as an investigatory procedure. He does not entertain each tradition as a hypothesis, then test it historically, so to speak, by measuring it against the facts. He illustrates the traditions with anecdotes and characterizations of leaders and events. Finally, in the course of discussion, he states his opinion and takes a position. He represents his position as a rational inference, based on (his) fair comparison of the competing traditions and weighing of evidence. (We can also see the lawyer Obama here in the role of judge, listening to the competing theories of prosecution and defense.)
Here, alas, is where Obama is, I suspect, being false. It is not obvious to this reader that he started out his political adventure with no opinions, neutral on issues, then investigated the competing traditions and answers for each issue, inferring which alternate position best met his ideals. Rather, he probably (I am thinking of his autobiography) started out with his positions, based on the pragmatic intuition of personal experience, and organized his discussion to make them seem the fairer or most just or most helpful position to take. His discussions are not logical or scientific. The discussions are rhetoric to persuade the reader (or listener, for we easily imagine these discussions being used in his law classes) to agree with his position as the most reasonable. His discussions are not discovery, they are partisan case building.
Two of his topics are, however, free of the subtly dissembling presentation: faith and race. Here, Obama largely abandons the framework of two competing traditions, relegating it to minor political issues. He approaches both faith and race directly from his own experiences and his own heart. Doing so, he finds himself, though verbally aligned with Democratic Party positions, located emotionally closer to conservatives. For instance, he agrees that Christianity is, and has been, an important element of American culture and religiosity should be acknowledged as a positive value and force. He is not with the secular Left of his Party here.
On the issue of race, while agreeing government has a role to play in integrating American society and in assisting disadvantaged African Americans and Latinos to assimilate and move up the social ladder, he sees personal and community responsibility for advancement and uplift to be more important. They are more important, for advancement cannot occur without them. The government can, as the American people have done in civil rights, demolish legal and social barriers to racial advancement, but the actual advancement can only come when black people and Latinos assume personal responsibility for their own destiny and avail themselves of the opportunities offered by free markets and the government. Similarly, on the fundamental issue of family disorder in the African American and Latino communities, he stands adamant that blacks and Latinos and their communities have the ultimate responsibility to heal themselves.
Audacity of Hope is a political text, of course, but of what kind? It is not political philosophy. It is not a political road map for the nation to follow. It does not, really, propose a new political agenda, though it lays out Obama's positions on some contentious issues. Obama does not seem to be, judging from his autobiography and the work at hand, a profound or politically original thinker. Rather, Audacity appears to be positioning statement, to be seen as a navigational light buoy. He locates himself in an unusual political situation. He does not see himself as continuing the tradition of democratic liberalism, post-Clinton. He wants, rather, to rip his own party and those in the Republican Party who would follow him up from their rootedness in the struggles of the last thirty or so years. Those struggles failed because they led to legislative and moral gridlock, halting political progress. He wants to transform America, in the same sense that he says FDR and Reagan transformed America. He wishes, in this transformation, to resurrect a political climate of unified nationalism and political consensus that underlay the liberating achievements in social and economic progress of the 1950s and 1960s, which he (and many others) see as the achievement of the "Greatest Generation". He calls this, reclaiming the American Dream.
Revised. March 4, 2008. I changed the subtitle from "The Dream of Political Transformation" to the more informative "The Restoration of the Old Order".
Barack Obama's autobiography, Dreams From My Father (1995), is generally classified, judging from Border's shelf placement, as racial literature. (See my synopsis of the work.) Such classification confines the work to a narrow, if feted, category; but it denies the work its full current interest. Obama has been described as a "post-racial" politician; his autobiography might also be described as post-racial. Most classical, American black authored racial literature has been about black men and women dealing with and entering a white world--Frederick Douglass, Narrative and Life and Times, Richard Wright, Native Son, Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man. Obama's story is about a man of amorphous race dealing with and entering the black world.
Obama believed himself to be unique in his situation--light skinned, indoctrinated by his mother when of school age to identify himself as black, seeking over his life to establish his authenticity as a black man. But surely he is not, was not, unique in his racial heritages or his situation. Since the 1970s, the US has seen large immigrations of brown-skin peoples from Asia and Latin America. Assimilation of these groups--Asian Indian, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Mexican and other Latin American groups--has produced many tens of thousands of interracial marriages and children of, perhaps we should call it, fusion race.
In the section of the country where I live and where Obama attended college for two years, Southern California, the traditional white population has shrunk to a minority. Having taught at a university for this entire generation, I saw the fruits of this racial and cultural transformation. Interracial dating (usually with white men dating non-white women, as is often the case with first generation assimilation) was common. It was also visible in the campus faculty, as self-conscious diversity recruiting developed. One new woman faculty member in the 1990s was white in skin-color, but identified herself, and was presented by the University, as black. Her effort to establish authenticity as a black woman was parallel to Obama's story. As new communities sprang up in the interior valley communities, such as the Moreno Valley and Rancho Cucamonga, interracial marriages were also common. My wife and I often went to movie theaters in the Moreno Valley, where, beginning in the 1980s, we always met new black-white married couples also attending the movies. No doubt, in the angst of adolescence, some of their children also felt racially between-races; Barack Obama would have had plenty of company as a fusion-race.
Lack of historical perspective is not perhaps unusual for an autobiography; but lack of perspective makes the themes of the autobiography more self-important and dramatic than his situation or story warranted. Let us look at the background of some of the themes.
Social Division--All societies are divided vertically (stratified) and horizontally (segregated). Divisions are created by all the familiar qualities of humanity--class, race, gender, age, intelligence and merit, luck, and many others. The qualities that create these divisions are, as social scientists have told us for several generations, social-cultural constructions. In the US, for several hundred years, mulattos were considered black; today, mulattos might be considered black or not. In Brazil, one of the last countries of the Americas to abolish slavery, mulattos were common and not categorized as blacks. Class identification is notoriously amenable to social distortion. Even age is a fluid category, as better health has made "fifty the new forty" and "sixty the new fifty". Obama thought he was confronted with a fact of racial color and racial treatment; but there were no such "facts". Rather, young Barack Obama sought to construct situations that would lead others to identify him as black and to invite racial treatment--he sought acceptance in black communities, he worked in a confrontational occupation.
Historical--In the autobiography, Obama strives to magnify the racial segregation and discrimination and suppression of the African American people at the time of his parents' marriage and his birth. His first chapters sketch a social world in which African Americans were still kept down and out. In one passage, he says, "How could America send men into space and still keep its black citizens in bondage?" Bondage? Black Americans were not in bondage after passage of the thirteenth amendment in 1868 (and not all black Americans had been in bondage before the Civil War, as a matter of historical fact). Elsewhere, he writes, "In many parts of the South, my father could have been strung up from a tree for merely looking at my mother the wrong way." Strung up, i.e., lynched? Lynching was uncommon after 1945 and declined dramatically in the 1950s after President Eisenhower sent US troops into the South to enforce Brown v. Board of Education. That is not to deny that awful racial violence occasionally occurred (and still does), but the nation had clearly turned a corner in its history, which Obama does not acknowledge. What Obama is doing in these passages is trying to appropriate black cultural memory as one path to assimilation in the black community. Obama's parents' marriage and their production of Barack Obama Jr. was representative of one of the greatest social transformations of American history, the breakdown of legal segregation, the weakening of social discrimination, the opening of opportunity for social, economic, and geographical mobility for African Americans (and other nonwhite peoples).
Obama was the beneficiary of this great social transformation, though "affirmative action" merits only one mention in his autobiography, that I found. He does not deny, however, that at all points of his educational and business career, his opportunities were multiplied due to social desire by whites in power who wished to accelerate black advancement, beyond what his quite obvious high intelligence and great abilities deserved and would yield.
His quest for membership in the black community was also part of, and benefited from, the black nationalism and black power movements. Great efforts were made by black leaders to call African Americans into a single black community, where their social and political power would be magnified. At the end of his autobiography, he tells of joining the black nationalist church of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, signaling his final absorption in a defiantly black community.
Existential--There are different genres of autobiography. For successful men, the most common is "triumph of the will" (I started at the bottom, I had a dream, I faced obstacles, I was alone, I triumphed). For women, a common theme is "coming out" (I was buried in the home, a timid person, I had a dream of living in the world on my own, I came out, I faced obstacles, I had help from friends, I succeeded). Obama's biography is somewhat different. He sees his story as one of self-identification and transcendence. He was trying to figure out who he is. He succeeded through a complicated contradictory maneuver. As he went into the black community and was absorbed by it, thereby completing his self-identification as a black man, he simultaneously transcended that community. He transcended the conflicting black and white communities through expression of hope for unification of both while maintenance of the identity of both.
In other words, he took the path of diversity as ideologically laid out in diversity theory from the 1970s and later social theorists. Diversity should be celebrated, with each (racial, ethnic, language, heritage, gender, age, etc.) group feeling positive about its characteristics and qualities; at the same time, conflict is minimized between them, because each should recognize the positive qualities of all others. American schools became the primary practitioners of diversity education, with each group getting its recognition. Diversity politics was supposed to be the opposite of idea behind black nationalism. Black nationalism sought promotion of black power and pride, but built community and identification on hatred and resentment ("negative reference social group formation", as the sociologists say). Diversity politics trumped black nationalism by building community on respect, not hatred, for the "other".
In conclusion, Barack Obama was not, is not, unique. He is a product of America's great social transformation of the last generation. His autobiography exaggerates the specialness of his circumstances, the distance he traveled on his journey, the depths of racism and black repression from which he rose. These exaggerations are, I suspect, the man's political ambitions seeping into his recollections. They are, perhaps, just kind of misunderstandings of himself and his times that we should expect from his self-realization as a messianic leader, who hopes to bring America along a path that he believes it has not taken and that he thinks he pioneered.
Barack Obama's autobiography, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995), is Barack's account of his discovery of himself in the midst of his discovery of his American and African heritages. "Discovery" is, however, a misleading term, autobiographically, factually, and interpretively. His racial identity and his racial heritages were not objective facts waiting for discovery, like continents hidden over the horizon waiting for explorers to bump into them or unknown planets and stars waiting for the astronomer's telescope to focus upon their coordinates in the sky. As Dreams From My Father implicitly shows, black identity and black African heritage were choices made by the young man; he could have chosen to be other.
How much did Barack Obama understand that he was inventing himself through decisions and actions? It is some of the charm and literary suspense in the autobiography not to know how self-conscious Barack was as he constructed his self-consciousness. Looking back at the events of which he writes, he brings considerable self-consciousness to understanding his journey, but this self-consciousness is subtly inflected with political self-awareness. The outcome of Barack's story, written before he entered politics, is his realization that he is a messianic savior, nearly in the religious sense, with a message and a mission.
Barack Obama was born in 1961 in Hawaii to a white American mother, Ann Dunham, and a black Kenyan student whom she met at the University of Hawaii, Barack Obama, Sr. Both parents had more important personal quests than maintaining a family and raising a child. Barack Sr. was given the opportunity to attend the School for Social Research in New York City on a full fellowship, which would have supported his family in that city, or Harvard University Graduate School, which offered only tuition, which would not pay to bring his family to Massachusetts. Barack Sr. chose Harvard, leaving his family behind. Ann divorced Barack Sr.
After obtaining his Ph.D. at Harvard, Barack Sr. returned to Kenya and pursued a career in government. After marrying several wives (in polygamy) and siring additional children, his public career collapsed. He turned to drink. In 1982, he died in an automobile accident, perhaps due to drunk driving. After he left his first marital family, Barack Sr. saw his son, Barack, Jr., only once, during a one-month visit when his son was ten years old.
Barack's mother, Ann married another foreign student in Hawaii, Lolo Soetoro, from Indonesia. Change in government in Indonesia required Lolo to return home. A year or so later, in 1967, Ann followed with Barack, Jr. in tow. They made their home outside Jakarta until he was ten. Lolo and Ann were unable to afford a private school in Indonesia. Barack attended public school (two years a Muslim school and two years a Catholic school), with supplemental home schooling from his mother. Concerned that he was not developing his potential, she sent him back to Hawaii after enrolling him in a private school in Honolulu. A year later, Ann left Lolo and also returned to Hawaii. He lived with her and his sister (by Lolo), until his mother returned to Indonesia to do field research for a Ph.D. in anthropology; then he lived with her parents until he graduated from the preparatory secondary school and went to Occidental College in 1979.
During his years of secondary school, Barack entered adolescence. His coming of age produced an identity crisis. Who and what was he? His mother had made the identification for him. He was black. While in Indonesia, she began a campaign of entreaty and education. The black people were noble. "To be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear." (P. 51.) Prior to his mother's education, he had not observed that his father was black and his mother was white. "That my father looked nothing like the people around me--that he was black as pitch, my mother white as milk--barely registered in my mind." (P.10.)
There were several problems with his maternally imposed racial identity. First, when he returned to Hawaii, in Hawaii's multiracial and casual society, no one paid much attention to Barack. He was not identified as of any particular race. Second, he had no black parent for a model and guide. His father was not present. Though Barack had some exchange of correspondence with his father, it did not provide the clues he needed to grow up black.
In a word, as a result of his racial amorphousness, Barack felt inauthentic as a black man. The main theme of the autobiography is his effort to find authenticity as a black man. Barack discovers unresolvable conflict in every situation and relationship into which he moves from adolescence to adulthood, from school to career. In the end, he never finds authenticity as a black man. How he deals with this failure and resolves the conflicts in his life creates the Messianic political leader we see running for president this year.
At Occidental College and Columbia University, he gravitated toward other black students. He learned about black nationalism. He was particularly attracted to Malcolm X, though he did not become a member of the Nation of Islam. He became a reluctant radical--reluctant, because he was not sufficiently confident of his own identity to take a strong leadership role. He was continually torn between two worlds, the disadvantaged black community, to which he believed intellectually he should belong, and the white world of business, money, and power. He thought that, if he would be accepted in a black community, his black identity would be established; yet, he was pulled to the white world, because he was bright and academically successful. Schools and businesses called him out, as the nation embraced affirmative action. After college, he worked briefly in a large business corporation in New York City; then he became a community organizer in south Chicago.
The search for authenticity in the midst of conflicting choices led Obama to see the world, almost in a Platonic sense, as dual. There is the false world of shadows and the real world behind them. The shadow world includes black nationalism and black power. In college, radical black politics is simply so much play-acting that affects nothing real--is even amusing to those persons with real power. Out in the working world, trying to organize black communities to better themselves, he came to include mainstream politics, which he experiences in the Chicago mayoralty of Harold Washington, as play-acting. When black politicians get into power, they do not change anything fundamental about the distribution of power, capital, and opportunity. The lives of poor blacks, in the communities he tries to organize, are just as impoverished and desperate under a black mayor as under white mayors. Needless to say, Barack Obama was discouraged.
Unable to find his black identity in America, Barack traveled to Kenya, seeking to learn more about his deceased father and his black African heritage. Though he has met several of his half-siblings, it is only in Kenya that he encounters the full, sprawling, genealogical and family disorder that his father created through polygamy. He met his father's widows, several of whom are white. He meets many relatives. He meets his father's sister and one of his grandparents. From these relatives, he was able to construct a family narrative from his African grandfather's life in the British colony, through the second world war, to Barack Sr.'s colorful and dramatic life.
Though he enjoyed being in a black society, where his blackness was normal, his discovery of his family led only to further conflict. He discovered that in Kenya, black racial identity was less important than tribal identity. And he discovered that his family, so called, was an indefinite network of relatives.
"What is a family? Is it just a genetic chain, parents and offspring, people like me? Or is it a social construct, an economic unit, optimal for child rearing and divisions of labor? Or is it something else entirely: a store of shared memories, say? An ambit of love? A reach across the void?
I could list the various possibilities. But I'd never arrived at a definite answer, aware early on that, given my circumstances, such an effort was bound to fail. Instead, I drew a series of circles around myself, with borders that shifted as time passed and faces changed but that nevertheless offered the illusion of control. An inner circle, where love as constant and claims unquestioned. Then a second circle, a realm of negotiated love, commitments freely chosen. And then a circle for colleagues, acquaintances ... Until the circle finally widened to embrace a nation or race, or a particular moral course, and the commitments were no longer tied to a face or a name but were actually commitments I'd made to myself.
In Africa, this astronomy of mine almost immediately collapsed. For family seemed to be everywhere..." (Pp. 327-328.)
"If everyone was family, then no one is family.... I'd come to Kenya thinking that I could somehow force my many worlds into a single, harmonious whole. Instead, the divisions seemed only to have become more multiplied, popping up in the midst of even the simplest chores." (P. 347.)
Faced with failure to establish an authentic identity, unable to resolve successfully the contrary pulls of apparently conflicting worlds, several paths opened for Barack Obama to follow. One path he explored early in his youth--alcohol and drugs. He was able to pull himself off this path, apparently during college. Another path disclosed itself furtively and slowly. He could transcend the conflicting worlds as a political leader. On several occasions, he glimpsed himself as an inspired messianic leader. At Occidental, he helped organize a divestiture rally. He was a lead speaker. He took the stage in a "trancelike state". (P. 106.) He had prepared notes for his brief talk; but in talking, he connected with the audience. He felt his words take hold of them and draw him on. When, years later, he decides to take up community organizing, he thought of organizing as "redemption." (P. 135.) As an organizer, he found his voice to inspire, encourage, persuade, and empower the black community to take control of its destiny and work on its own betterment.
At the close of the autobiography, Obama reveals his discovery of the formula that would enable a people, a city, a nation, to overcome the divisions that split it. Many of the divisions were based in hate. The black community harbored a heritage of hatred toward whites. Blacks also wounded themselves with self-hatred. And the black community was divided between the middle-class black families who left the poor communities for better homes in better suburbs, and the poor blacks, who could not leave and lived, discouraged, under municipal regimes of both black and white. This hatred had to be transcended. Obama found the solution when he joined Reverend Jeremiah Wright's Trinity Church on Ninety-fifth Street, Chicago. Reverend Wright preached a sermon on "The Audacity of Hope," that reached Barack. Everyone had to give themselves to someone larger than themselves, who would "put a floor on despair" and enable them to hope. Listening to Reverend Wright's sermon and then the choir sing of how Jesus had carried them so far, Obama finally established his black identity and found his emotional home. He was not raised a Christian--his mother was a secular humanist. Christianity was the final and necessary ingredient of his identity. Faith in hope would transcend despair and hate. Hope would enable everyone to rise above the polarities, contradictions, divisions, and conflicts of American society. Barack Obama had found his voice and his message. His mission awaited him.
Revised, February 25, 26, 2008.
Update. March 9, 2008. Based on over 40 interviews with persons who knew Barack Obama during the period covered in his autobiography, two journalists reveal that Obama's memories are not completely accurate from the perspective of those who knew him. There was less racial sturm und drang and more alienation due to parental abandonment. He was less of an outsider and fit in more with his peers. Characterizations of youthful friends and acquaintances are skewed, according to them. Certain events couldn't have happened. And so on.(Kirsten Scharnberg and Kim Barker, "The not-so-simple story of Barack Obama's youth", The Chicago Tribune, March 25, 2007. Thanks for the reference to Little Green Footballs.)
I have read Irshad Manji's The Trouble with Islam Today (2003, postscript in paper pack edition 2005). Manji is a Canadian journalist. She is a Muslim, whose parents fled Uganda and landed in British Columbia. By her autobiographical testimony, she was a feisty, challenging, and intellectually curious child and teenager, who matured into a feisty, challenging, and intellectually curious professional journalist. She calls her hair "spikey", as the back cover photo indeed shows. Her mind is spikey, too.
Basically, Manji argues that Islam is fundamentally flawed as a religion and as a religiously-based way of life. Its flaws lead to intra-Muslim conflict, degradation of one Muslim sect by another, subjugation by an elite (desert sheikdom) class of the vast majority of Muslims, enslavement of Muslim women by men, abuse of children by men, conquest by Arabs of non-Arab Muslims, and conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims. Despite some historical periods when Islam tolerated the presence of Jews and Christians (as long as they paid their taxes, accepted second class status, and were deferential), Islam is a religion of elites preying upon others, including men preying upon women. It is a religious society operating on a paradigm of colonization and expropriation.
It is her analysis of the religion's basic flaw that interests me. I have argued (an argument not original with me) that Islam is not fundamentally a religion at all, but the ideology of a war state. She phrases the foundational moment of Islam somewhat differently. Muhammad was a conquerer and Arabs were a conquering--indeed, "colonizing"--people. "Islam" as a "revealed religion" was constructed by Muhammad and succeeding Caliphs to serve the aims of colonization of other Arabs and of non-Arabic societies. Manji writes, "It stands to reason that the Koran has imperfections. The rapidity of Arab empire-building would have crystallized priorities, making religion a servant of colonization and not the other way around" (p. 142).
Though Manji considers herself an apostate, she thinks there are good parts, so to speak, to Islam; it's founder borrowed much from ancient Judaism. The good bits are, alas, buried by Islamic foundationalism, that is, by the efforts to revive the purest form Muhammad's vision. The Jihadists stand in a long tradition of Islamic colonizers who deliberately suppress the good parts of Islam. It is worth while for Muslims, and for Westerners to help them, to liberate the good parts of Islam, because this reform would lead to the liberation of hundreds of millions of men and women whose lives are stunted and brutalized by the flaws of Islam. What Islam needs are its versions of the Protestant Reformation and the European eighteenth century Enlightenment. Manji's book is a powerful, compelling, and spikey demonstration of what an Islamic reformation and enlightenment would be like. She traverses the history of Islam and provides a critical analysis of contemporary Islam's self-delusions and politics of self-destruction that few Muslims outside the West ever hear.
The book is also a demonstration of the courage that would be required to emancipate Islam from its self-imposed Dark Ages. Manji is a courageous woman, but she has had to live with bodyguards since the publication of this work.
I have finished reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel (Free Press, 2007). This book is a remarkable story that should be required reading for all congressional representatives, for the parliamentary delegates of Europe, for the ministers, pastors, canons, bishops, and archbishops of Western churches, for narcissistic American feminists not committed to liberation of women everywhere, and for all fools whose minds are shackled by multiculturalism, moral equivalency, and historical ignorance. It is an education in political science, disguised in a memoir of personal emancipation, on the perils of tribal/clan societies, the folly of post-colonial communism, the willful flaws of African societies, the subversive Islamic extremism of Saudi Arabia, the great injustices of Islam, the subjugation, degradation, and abuse of women and children, and the blindness of Europe to its Western principles of individualism, democracy, peace, and civility. It is testimony to the possibilities of personal transcendence in the setting of Western values over the barbarism of the Koran which stunt and brutalizes human potential. A remarkable book, a gripping, enthralling story. God bless Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
In December 2005, I argued that a great intellectual revolution was about to break in the West. What was coming, I suggested, was a paradigm shift in formal humanistic and social science thought. Hard cultural relativism, which has dominated formal thinking since after 1945, would be replaced by the notion of a universal rational faculty. I did not know from whom or how the first major contribution to this paradigm shift would come; but now we do. The contribution is made by a Harvard professor of psychology, Marc D. Hauser in Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong (HarperCollins Books, 2006). I have recently read Hauser's book. I am now digesting it and will write an extended review and discussion of it for my blog, Bag of Worms Yet Words.
Drawing upon extensive research in comparative psychology and primate research, Hauser argues that all humans share, even as toddlers, the same intuitive ability to make elementary moral analyses. All can distinguish, for instance, moral actions by others in which consequences are directly intended from moral actions by others the consequences of which are unintended, even if foreseen. The moral faculty is akin to the universal language generative center that Noam Chomsky claims exists for construction of basic linguistic propositions and is shared by all humans, regardless of the native language they speak.
Here is Hauser's summary:
Our expressed languages differ, but we generate each one on the basis of a universal set of principles. Our artistic expressions vary wildly, but the biology that underpins our aesthetics generates universal preferences for symmetry in the visual arts and consonance in music. The idea I have developed in this book [Moral Minds] is that we should think of morality in the same way. Underlying the extensive cross-cultural variation we observe in our expressed social norms is a universal moral grammar that enables each child to grow a narrow range of possible moral systems. When we judge an action as morally right or wrong, we do so instinctively, tapping a system of unconsciously operative and inaccessible moral knowledge. Variation between cultures in their expressed moral norms is like variation between cultures in their spoken languages: Both systems enable members of one group to exchange ideas and values with each other, but not with members of another group. Whether the process of creating intergroup differences in intelligibility is adaptive or the by-product of isolation and historical contingencies is presently unclear, for both language and morality. (Pp. 419-420.)
Hauser has thrown down the gauntlet to the cultural anthropologists. He has laid out a new strategy to formulate a concept of a universal human nature. Moral Minds should provoke re-examination and new ideas about how we humans think, in all fields, not just psychology and anthropology, but also religious studies, gender studies, and philosophy. His work is a prodigious achievement that launches the long overdue intellectual revolution of Western thought.