October 7, 2010
The Real Roots of Obama's RageBy Jack Cashill
On Monday morning of this week, after reviewing my book proofs and shipping them off to Simon & Schuster, I picked up a copy of Dinesh D'Souza's new book, The Rage of Obama's Roots, and read it until I finished. Happily, it is a short book.
In my own forthcoming book, Deconstructing Obama, I ask two basic questions: one is whether Barack Obama wrote the books and speeches penned under his name, and two is whether the stories he tells therein are true. Like D'Souza, I focus on the most important work in Obama's canon: his celebrated 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father.
To make his thesis work -- namely that Obama "embraced his father's ideals and decided to live out the script of his father's unfulfilled life" -- D'Souza must presume that the answer to both these questions is "yes." It is not. As I prove beyond any reasonable doubt, the answer to both questions is an unequivocal "no."
What undermines D'Souza's otherwise worthy book is that he had to ignore all the easily accessible research I and others have done on this subject to arrive at his thesis. In so doing, alas, he validates one of the sub-themes that runs through my own book: the self-destructive myopia of the "respectable" conservative media.
D'Souza centers his book on the phenomenon of anti-colonialism -- a potentially toxic mix of socialism, anti-imperialism, and anti-Americanism. This is a subject he knows well both from his studies and from his life. Born the same year as Obama, D'Souza grew up in the suburbs of Mumbai and can relate to Obama's cosmopolitanism on a visceral level.
D'Souza argues credibly that Barack Obama, Sr. was "first and foremost" an anti-colonialist and that his son is, too. Both assertions are true enough. Where the argument breaks down is in D'Souza's insistence that "through an incredible osmosis, [Barack Sr.] was able to transmit his ideology to his son living in America."
Like Procrustes, the mythological innkeeper who stretched his victims or severed their limbs to make them fit his iron bed, D'Souza whacks away at the facts to make his "incredible osmosis" theory work.
The severing begins with the story of Obama's origins. In his "essence," D'Souza explains, Obama was "his father's son." In his retelling, Obama's mother, Ann Dunham, served largely as the vehicle through which the absent Obama exercised his will on the young Obama, she being "Obama Sr.'s first convert" to anti-colonialism.
To make this storyline credible, D'Souza has to embrace the narrative that Obama rolled out in Dreams and amplified during his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
As Obama told the conventioneers, his father grew up in Kenya "herding goats." His mother he traced to Kansas, as he always did. "My parents shared not only an improbable love," said Obama. "They shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation."
Like Obama, D'Souza sustains this narrative at the expense of the facts, and he does so in several salient ways. First, he tells the reader only of Ann's "white-bread upbringing in the Midwest." He neglects to tell us that Ann and her parents moved to the Seattle area when she was twelve and remained there until she had completed her senior year of high school.
Next, to make the conversion story convincing, D'Souza suppresses Ann's radical roots. The reader does not learn that Ann felt most at home in "anarchy alley," a wing of Mercer Island High where the school's progressive teachers held forth, or that she attended a Unitarian church affectionately known as "the little Red church on the hill," or that she hung out in Seattle's coffee shops talking jazz, foreign films, and liberal politics.
Finally, and most critically, D'Souza has to accept the Obama-generated myth that the happy little family lived together until Obama was two, whereupon his father reluctantly departed for Harvard.
As is easily proven, Ann enrolled for night classes at the University of Washington that began on August 19, 1961, just fifteen days after the presumed date of Obama's birth. In June 1962, while Ann and her ten-month old baby were still in Seattle, Barack Sr. left for a grand tour of mainland universities on his triumphant way to Harvard. The Honolulu Advertiser did a story on the same.
In short, the little Obama family never lived together. It is likely that Ann and Barack Sr. never really dated, let alone married in any meaningful way. It is less likely, though possible, that Barack Sr. was not the real biological father. D'Souza buries the verifiable and fails to explore the possible. All of it challenges his thesis.
Forgive me if I take a wee bit personally the second large procrustean swipe on D'Souza's part. For the last two years, I have been writing articles on the true authorship of Obama's works, most notably Dreams from My Father.
In September 2009, in his otherwise Obama-friendly book, Barack and Michelle: Portrait of an American Marriage, celebrity biographer Christopher Andersen confirmed my thesis that former terrorist Bill Ayers played a major role in the writing of Dreams. Andersen based his account on two obviously well-informed sources from Obama's Hyde Park neighborhood. Not a word on this subject makes it into D'Souza's book.
In his two-page synopsis of the Ayers-Obama relationship, D'Souza describes the pair as "fellow anti-colonial warriors" and freely admits that in Ayers's 2001 memoir, Fugitive Days, "[t]he anti-colonial themes jump out at you."
And yet, while conceding Obama's lack of "comprehensive knowledge" on the subject, D'Souza refuses to explore whether Ayers might have been the source of what knowledge he did have. The reason seems obvious enough. If Ayers provided the anti-colonial overlay to Dreams, as I have argued, then D'Souza's thesis is shot.
Ayers, in fact, has been schooling himself in anti-colonialism's many permutations for nearly fifty years. What is more, he has been a respected peer of Obama's acknowledged mentors. The preeminent anti-colonialist Edward Said wrote a blurb for Fugitive Days. Said's fellow traveler, Rashid Khalidi, gave Ayers top credit for helping him edit his book, Resurrecting Empire.
D'Souza also slights Ayers on the subject of rage. He attributes Obama's presumed anger to the imperialist world's treatment of his father. The actual villains being dead, writes D'Souza, "the rage takes a different form and settles on a different target."
Other than in the pages of Dreams, however, Obama has never seemed particularly enraged. Many of his friends have commented on the disparity between the angry Obama of the memoir and the amiable Obama of real life.
Obama surely imported the brooding Telemachus imagery of Dreams from Ayers's inexplicably angry life. In Fugitive Days, "rage" rules. Ayers speaks of "rage" the way that Eskimos do of snow -- in so many varieties, so often, that he feels the need to qualify it. He tells of how his "rage got started," how it evolved into an "uncontrollable rage -- fierce frenzy of fire and lava," and how it climaxed in the famed "Days of Rage."
It gets worse. So fixed is D'Souza on the image of an angry Obama avenging his father's failures that he misinterprets the book's climactic scene. As told in Dreams, Obama finds himself at the burial site of his father and grandfather. "For a long time I sat between the two graves and wept," reads the text. D'Souza takes Obama at his word and editorializes, "It is here that Obama takes on the father's struggle."
This is all wrong. In his book, The Bridge, Obama-fan David Remnick concedes that Dreams is not to be taken at face value. He calls it a "mixture of verifiable fact, recollection, recreation, invention, and artful shaping." The grave scene registers high on the invention scale.
As I have argued in these pages, Ayers has imposed an Homeric structure on Obama's life. Obama's trip to Kenya and the burial site serves the same purpose that Odysseus' trip to the underworld serves: a chance to reconcile with the spirits of the past.
What Obama pulls from this experience, in a sequence that feels heavily indebted to his muse and largely contrived after the fact, has nothing to do with anti-colonial rage. Just the opposite. He learns that home is where the heart is. Cultural "authenticity" is an illusion, and there is "no shame in confusion." There was shame only in the silence that leads the individual to try to form an identity without help from a community of others.
From Africa, Dreams passes at warp speed through Obama's Harvard experience and culminates with his wedding to Michelle. Just as the Odyssey ends with Odysseus reuniting with his wife, Penelope, Obama rounds his circle by marrying into the African-American culture that has beguiled him all his life.
Michelle is "a daughter of the South Side," the real McCoy. "I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves," Obama would remind America during his briefly celebrated Philadelphia race speech.
More than anything, Obama has always wanted to be accepted as an African-American. Thus, the community organizing, the Christianity, the basketball, the wife. Yes, he developed an anti-colonial edge along the way, but this he got from many sources, none more important than his hippie mother and Bill Ayers.
What has motivated Obama throughout his life is not rage, but ambition. He planned to be mayor of Chicago. He stumbled on to a bigger stage, and most of what he knew about the larger world he learned half-assedly by listening to his mother and by reading Dreams from My Father.
What D'Souza does describe well is the price we are paying for Obama's miseducation.