The World as it Was; The World as it Can Be

Over the past few months, I have plowed through two biographies of prominent Black men. I read them back-to-back not out of any specific design; they were both men who loomed as distant but intriguing figures in a certain era of my life, and they both happened to put out biographies at the same time. Reading both proved more taxing than my usual, perhaps because I am still trying to understand what led me to make the decisions I made toward the end of my time in the city that defined both of them, still imagining lives not lived, and forever intrigued by the shadows cast by giants.

I started with Barack Obama’s autobiography, A Promised Land. The former president’s tome is a doorstop that takes a feat of endurance to complete. At times the detail is excessive, but to err on this side is, I suppose, preferable to omission, and long-windedness lends itself to an added level of candor. For the political biography genre, it is uncommonly introspective. Obama explains how torn he was at certain moments, shows some of the strain of political celebrity on a man who wanted the freedom to roam the streets and to be an attentive husband and father. In the end, he finds ways to rationalize his courses of action, an apologia for a presidency that was far from perfect but managed to maintain its guiding lights.

Obama’s first term coincided with my full political awakening, his journey to Washington tracking on to my own in the fall of 2008, and I relived those years viscerally as I read his book. The formative events of his first term were the formative moments of my political education, my venture into my own Promised Land at Georgetown. Being in DC gave me a window to the party outside the White House on election night, and to that cold inaugural morning on the Mall. Sitting in the University of Minnesota Duluth library while home for the summer, ostensibly doing research for one of my Georgetown professors, I read up on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and started churning out a jumbled essay on meritocracy, which was my first step into this halfhearted world of punditry that I still inhabit. In the spring semester of 2011, fresh off a semester abroad and hungry for some proof that the arc of history still tilted toward freedom and liberal democracy, I glued myself to the nascent revolutions sparking across the Middle East. A feed of Al-Jazeera English, live from Tahrir Square, ran constantly in the background in my cozy hole of an off-campus bedroom, through hope-filled days and tumultuous nights and the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the Arab Spring briefly living up to its name. A few months later, a loud exclamation from the living room of that same house led me downstairs to find my roommates gawking at the announcement that Navy Seals had killed Osama bin Laden. I was in the seat of history, bound up with the trials and tribulations of the world my president wanted to make.

Despite the achievements of his first term, the world did not become the one Obama envisioned in his lofty words. This complication still gnaws at me, perhaps because some of Obama’s more prominent character traits map on to a few of my own. Always ready to listen, loyal to a fault, a man capable of grand words but whose default course through life tends to settle more on the side of what George Packer calls “ironic realism,” a dogged focus on the levers that are actually within one’s grasp. This instinct to campaign in poetry and govern in prose is a major part of why the 2008 election, which so many observers expected to be a landmark shift, turned out to be a very momentary high-water mark for the Democratic Party. Obama was not the transformative figure some of his supporters mistook him for, but simply being who he was proved enough to ignite a vicious opposition.

One of the most poignant moments come in Obama’s observations of Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India through much of his term. Singh is, in some ways, the hero of the triumphant quarter century of liberal democracy that ran from 1990 to 2015 or so. As India’s finance minister in the 1990s, he perhaps did more to lift people out of poverty than any human alive, and once he took control of the Lok Sabha, his administration was one of firm commitment to democracy and technocratic competence. He was, in a way, an elder statesman version of Obama: a member of a minority group with a fraught history vis-à-vis the national majority noted for his thoughtfulness and decency. But Singh’s faults were the faults of the era: he was the anointed caretaker of a political dynasty that was running out of gas, tinkering at the margins and creating a space for people to live their lives, but aspiring to no great change, “just the observance of rules that allowed us to sort out or at least tolerate our differences, and government policies that raised living standards and improved education enough to temper humanity’s baser impulses.” In this more aged version of himself overseeing a ricketier system, Obama begins to see, and is chilled by, just how easily it could go wrong. “Now I found myself asking whether those impulses—of violence, greed, nationalism, racism, and religious intolerance, the all-too-human desire to beat back our own uncertainty and mortality and sense of insignificance by subordinating others—were too strong for any democracy to permanently contain.”

Some critics portray Obama’s cool realism as a failure, and certainly there are some aspects of that mentality that can lead to blindness over some of the forces that were at work at in American society at the same time. But an acceptance of limits is still one of the most mature traits a politician can have, and is why so many of the ones with a talent for soaring rhetoric and righteous Tweets prove rather ineffective at actually achieving any of the things they set out to achieve. The question, of course, becomes one of where that line is between ironic realism and a resignation that cuts off the possibility of any sort of achievement, and just how content one can be with incremental progress or a gradual turning of the ship.

The limitations of the Obama way of being has led me to explore alternatives, and a second book took me back to the same time period, but for very different reasons. John Thompson, Jr., the iconic Georgetown basketball coach who I eulogized on this blog after his passing last year, has published a posthumous autobiography, I Came as a Shadow. While co-written with Jesse Washington, it is most certainly in Big John’s voice: blunt, certain, unapologetic. The book traces his journey from Southeast DC projects to the Celtics to his long tenure at Georgetown, where I, as a sports-loving freshman, ate up the story of his reign over the Big East. But the book is less a basketball book than a treatise on race in America and one man’s journey to smash any and all obstacles that dynamic imposed upon him. “Who wants to be equal to the next guy?” he asks. “I want to kick his ass.”

Thompson proceeded to kick many asses during his tenure with the Hoyas, both as he whipped his own players into line and as the on-court results cemented his reputation as one of college basketball’s great head coaches. He did it amid a torrent of abuses, obvious and hidden. He wore glasses to look learned and forced his players into suits, the results of a lifelong process of studying the white man and learning to win on his terms; he reveals that his all-Black teams were not for a lack of effort to recruit white players. At times he seems like just a good partisan coach, as when he questions refs’ motivations. But while reading the book, I re-watched the 1984 national championship game, and was struck by how composed he was. He doesn’t come across as a screamer or a radical, and yet here he is, getting labeled “the Idi Amin of college basketball” because he was big and Black and had his big, Black players run a full-court press. (Thompson’s response to this charge is classic: “Amin was a Ugandan dictator who killed thousands of innocent people. I’m still trying to figure out who I’m supposed to have killed. Maybe Oregon State, because we beat them 69-45 to reach the Final Four.”) Above all else, he unsettled some observers because of the totality of his control.

Georgetown and Thompson were a fascinating odd couple: a Catholic school from a place famed for its establishment cocktail parties that went and hired a Black man who ran the nation’s most transgressive basketball program. Race, Thompson argues, is exactly the reason he was hired: he’d achieved some success as a coach in the DC area just as Georgetown was starting to think it had to do more for Black people in Washington in the aftermath of the riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination, and Thompson allowed the school to check a lot of those boxes. Basketball played no small part in giving Georgetown its national reputation, and Georgetown gave Thompson a platform to prove himself right about everything he believed in. Thompson largely praises the Georgetown administrators who let him be himself, even as he casts his stare on the institutional constraints that both created Georgetown and keep it as it is. The book concludes with the revelation from several years ago that Georgetown sold a bunch of slaves in 1838 to preserve its existence, and with Thompson’s speculation that his own ancestors were almost certainly among those very slaves.

Thompson makes passing mention of his respect for the Obamas, and like the basketball-loving former president, the coach can see the complexities in American race relations and is much more nuanced than the 80s press sometimes made him out to be in popular imagination. But when it comes to ways of being in the world, it’s hard to imagine a much bigger gulf. Obama carefully calibrated everything he did, weighing options and testing waters, ever seeking that ideal of democratic consensus, wrestling with processes and seeking input and collaboration. Thompson, on the other hand, simply did things his way. Part of that divide probably just stems from the nature of their realms; at the end of the day, for all his justified insistence that he was more than a basketball coach, Thompson’s record still falls heavily on wins and losses, while judgments of Obama run through the much murkier and subjective world of politics. But Obama and Thompson come off as diametric opposites in temperament and approach.

Or were they? Both men are scholars at their core, with Obama’s Harvard Law instincts and Thompson’s undying insistence that his players come for the education. Both were trailblazers, but knew they had to do what they were doing on society’s terms: Thompson always speaks of studying the white man and learning his ways, while Obama’s broad appeal has its roots in an expansive view of the American Dream that has its most obvious roots in the very white realm of midcentury American liberalism. Both men were integrators, not assimilationists or among those who sought revolution. They wanted a world in which what they stood for was not radical at all.

That, however, was not the world in which Thompson or Obama lived. Their circumstances did not allow for such anonymous walks down the street. We could debate their methods and the extent of their successes ad nauseam; in fact, we should, and they would both probably appreciate recognition on those terms. But the reason I’m reading their biographies now is because of what they did in the face of a world that would not allow them that anonymity. It is because they had the insight to know their worlds were not quite right yet, and because they had the tenacity to use the tools before them to change those worlds. They were men in the arena.

Good Journalism, 6/10/18

Here is a seeming resumption of the weekly series of interesting articles that was rudely interrupted by my vacation a month ago and never recovered. There are only two this week, but they deserve to be read.

When it comes to writing grand summations of the failures of recent history, no one does it better than George Packer. The New Yorker writer pumped out the definitive books on the Iraq War (Assassins’ Gate) and the Great Recession (The Unwinding), and his not-frequent-enough articles in the magazine never disappoint, either. He’s back this week with a review of  a memoir by Ben Rhodes, Barack Obama’s longtime speechwriter and confidante.

When it comes to cataloging the failures of liberal dreams, no one does it as poignantly as Packer does. Rhodes provides the perfect set of eyes for the Obama Era: young, raw, optimistic, and a true believer. He believes his words are guiding the arc of history, even more so than Obama, who usually had a fairly good grasp of his limits, even when surrounded by worshipful choirs. (There is also a call-out to Anthony Bourdain as an inspiration for the Obama Era worldview, which comes across as eerie given Bourdain’s suicide within a week of the publication of this piece.) This makes it all the more jarring when an idealistic foreign policy settles into a “don’t do stupid shit” realpolitik, and when transcendent messaging about a united nation succumbs to the reality of calculating opponents both in Congress and abroad. Hence the title of the book: The World as it Is. It’s the Trump Era liberal’s lament of innocence lost.

If our hypothetical jaded young liberal decided to get all existential as he tried to figure out where the world is going, he might wander off into Nietzsche, who, according to Ian Marcus Corbin, is “fundamentally concerned with how we will thrive in a post-theistic universe, one that emphatically does not care for us, was not made for us, offers icy silence in response to our pleas for solace and succor.” (He’s in a pretty dark place, you see.) Nietzsche is no liberal, and in an essay in the Weekly Standard, Corbin rightfully skewers a recent book that acknowledges this threat to the liberal order, but does little to explore why people would find it attractive, thereby committing much the same error that Rhodes and Obama did. Corbin and I come from very different background, but I suspect we wind up in more or less the same place. Nietzsche offers a valuable critique, though he, too, is incomplete, and paths forward may be both obvious and maddeningly hard, even for committed believers. But we just have to keep chipping away.

Goodbye to All That?

Eight years ago, I spent inauguration day freezing to death in Washington D.C. I was a Georgetown freshman, and there was no other place to be, particularly in the aftermath of an election that, whatever one’s politics, was certainly historic. Living in what was then (but is no longer now) a majority black city also gave me an added window into what Barack Obama’s ascendance meant for some people, particularly on election night, when I saw tears and joy that, I understood, were for something I would never be able to feel.

Not that a Midwestern white boy couldn’t try. I made sure to drink it all in: a national day of service event at RFK Stadium, a star-studded inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial. My cousin and his friend drove in from Indiana for the spectacle–I didn’t sleep the night before, as I awaited his arrival–and my dorm became a boarding house, with bodies sprawled across the common room. A group of us started down to the Mall around 4:30 and stood, huddled and chilled, for hours amid a throng of millions. Barack Obama was just a speck in the distance from our spot on the lawn, somewhere near the Hirshhorn Museum. We had a better view of the snipers on the roof of the National Gallery than we did of the new President, and the hike back to the Hilltop involved dazed weaving through mazes of port-o-potties. Still, it was all worth it, and I’m reminded of it almost every day: a few of those American flags they gave us to wave about still decorate my apartment.

inaug

I knew I was living history. I knew that, somehow, I needed to capture what this moment felt like so that I’d remember it. And so I wrote a few paragraphs. I was nineteen, and had only started writing in any serious sense a couple of months before. I had potential, though I also had a rookie’s penchant for florid prose:

The ceremony is to be a re-affirmation of the American faith in democracy. Its venue, the world’s most austere cathedral; the vast morning sky reaching from horizon to horizon in its embrace. There is no ceiling, least of all one of glass; simply the sky reaching towards the heavens…”

Yikes. The glass ceiling line is kinda cute, but come on, Karl. Are you really shamelessly comparing your country to a church? And seriously, that verb construction in the first line?

Fortunately, despite being an idealistic kid consumed by Washington’s atmosphere at the time, I was not among those who expected some sort of grandiose change out of Obama. Not that it mattered. That sweeping rhetoric, both the root of his appeal and the eventual source of disappointment for a number of his allies and disgust for many of his opponents, created a mythology that distracted from the actual art of governance. Later in the essay, I nail it:

There are no messiahs in politics. There are only humans, resplendent in their glories and glaring in their flaws. Time is short; there is work to be done. Soon the aura shall fade into memory, and unforgiving reality shall continue its steadfast march. To see the mountaintop is not enough; to stay upon the mountaintop remains an impossibility.

But for one day, such realities can be cast aside, and the awe-inspiring might of symbolism can run rampant in the mind. Often the import of great events lies not in actuality but in the power they wield in the human perception. And in this sense, this day can trump them all.

I can only laugh wryly at my verb choice in that last line.

In retrospect, that last paragraph was truer than I imagined, and Donald Trump’s election is as good a sign of that as any. So much of politics is emotion and symbolic power—what is ‘Make America Great Again’ if not symbolic?—especially on a distant national level when we’ve never met the people involved. I can be, and often am, more pleased by some election results than by others. But I will never be able to say I understand the joy black people felt upon Obama’s election, just as I’ll never be able to understand how Donald Trump could cause great joy in others, either. This isn’t to claim these emotions are in some way equivalent, but merely to marvel at how much a person we’ve never met can elicit life-defining sensations.

Part of me has grown downright scornful of this impulse to put faith in someone’s election, no matter the reason. This is the most insidious of vicarious lives, to cast one’s hopes on to some inevitably flawed human; Caesarism at its worst, a hopeless projection of hopes and dreams on to some distant figure of power when the most important work one can do to secure those aspirations is right here at home. But another part of me suspects I’d be fighting a losing war against human nature if I were to rail against this impulse full throttle.

It’s something of a paradox. I have little trouble being coldly rational in how I weigh most things, including the effectiveness of politicians I agree with or my own reactions to momentous events. And yet there are few things that have as much of a pull on me as passionate youth, and (joking a few paragraphs ago aside), I pass no harsh judgment on my earlier words. We tend to experience the world more vividly in our formative years, to live more fully in emotional surges. And while it requires the proper mindset, I do actually enjoy revisiting some of my old writing, understanding it as an essential part of growth and not just some fixed moment of an incomplete self. Those glimmers we get in those formative years are among the most important moments we encounter. Joan Didion: “one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.”

Inauguration Day 2009 was the peak of an arc that eventually swung through a park in Mexico City two years later, an outburst of troubled words in the days after I left Washington, and has landed me right back where I came from, delighted to be where I am. Joan Didion eventually said Goodbye to All That, and she was right to do so. It’s all happened before, will probably all happen again. There’s nothing so unique about this moment that past experience can’t speak to.

But that doesn’t mean the insight from this moment isn’t real, doesn’t mean the emotion that comes out of it can’t continue to course through what we do, in some way or another. So if I shrug impassively at this next inauguration, it’s not because I’ve abandoned what I felt eight years earlier. It’s merely its natural culmination. A deeper fire still burns. I have work to do.

A Dream Sours

Whither the Democratic Party, after Tuesday’s stunning defeat? There will be time enough to contemplate how our new Republican majority goes forward, but for now, it’s time for an autopsy on the demise of a Democratic era, and the collapse of an Electoral College Maginot Line.

This begins by looking back on the past two elections. It’s time we recognize that Barack Obama was not at the head of a tide, or at least not one for the immediate future. He was exceptional. He ran on an agenda that did not have broad popular support, but swept to power twice on the force of sheer charisma, integrity, and ability to inspire optimism in spite of it all. The repeated decimation of Democrats down ballot across the country shows how quickly this wore thin. The wins at the presidential level masked some serious shortcomings in state and local races, and are an embarrassment for a party that had reason to think it was on the rise.

Obama’s presidency will thus go down as a paradox: a popular man whose legacy will likely not outlive him, unless President Trump truly surprises us. The economy performed steadily under conventional measures during the Obama years, but nothing reversed the widening gaps that preceded him. His signature piece of legislation, the Affordable Care Act, helped cover more people but has been fraught with issues throughout, and probably won’t resemble the original after a few months. His foreign policy was better than that of his predecessor and of the alternatives to him in 2008, but never quite amounted to a coherent doctrine. Everywhere else, he faced resistance and gridlock; he responded with executive orders, effective in the short term but setting a dangerous precedent for successors to roll them back and more. There were some momentous shifts on social issues, though future Supreme Courts may have some word on how permanent those are. The real question, I suppose, will be whether the Democrats can harness the electoral machinery he put into place and reuse it in the future, or if it will languish. Otherwise, Obama is just the bookend to an era of rising and falling global liberalism, a Washington Consensus that arose out of post-Cold War confidence and now heads into the great unknown.

It was bound to end, as all movements must; the question was how, or when. Even if Hillary Clinton had won, she probably was the end of the line; the Democrats just didn’t have a new generation ready to carry it forward, and its limitations were becoming obvious. It could have evolved, if there were an effective leader to bridge the gap, but there wasn’t. Instead, the Democrats had a candidate of the status quo, and when she crashed, so did the whole enterprise.

Our old friend Mitt Romney has been on my mind lately. In fact, I think there are a lot of parallels between the Clinton and Romney campaigns: blandness, occasional tone-deaf statements, inability to broadcast much of an agenda other than opposition to the other guy, reliance on sheer institutional inertia, certainty of ultimate victory. The unexpected polling error in both Obama and Trump’s favors are not coincidental; it’s just that one more clearly swung the election. Candidates who fail to be fresh will always underachieve, even if they don’t make any unforced errors.

I won’t wade into the discussion over the magnitude of Clinton’s email- and foundation-related sins, but the existence of these issues is a fundamental problem when the theme of one’s campaign is competence and reliability. When a candidate gives mixed messages on the thing she’s supposed to be good at, it’s a bad sign. I’d also add that, whether there were fires or not, there has always been an awful lot of smoke around the Clintons. Yes, Republicans have drummed a lot of this up, but eight years of the same efforts exposed practically nothing on Barack Obama. Clinton was a flawed candidate, and flawed in the worst possible way for the pitch she was trying to make. Her time would have been 2004 or 2008. By 2016, it was too late.

In retrospect, I do think Bernie Sanders probably had better odds than a lot of people gave him credit for, though not as good as his supporters would have liked to believe. He certainly would have played better among the rural white people around the city I live in. But gains in one place could lead to losses elsewhere. Clinton wrecked Sanders among people of color, and Clinton herself failed to generate the needed turnout from people of color. Maybe Sanders wins back some of those Midwestern states, but Nevada, Colorado, and Virginia might all flip the other way. Do the math, and it’s still a toss-up. That particular “what if” is a murky one, and the moment is past. The Democrat most capable of building a big tent was Joe Biden, and that ship has also sailed.

A lot will be said on the left about racism or bigotry, and its apparent triumph. But any discussion of racism has to get past that loaded word and look at the details. Two hundred counties that broke for a black man four years ago went to Trump. This wasn’t a rush of people suddenly discovering hate in their hearts. Instead, you have a lot of people for whom the battle with racism was not their primary reason for going to the polls. Many of these people probably have no real desire to discriminate, but live in places where racial issues aren’t really present in day-to-day life, and are far more motivated by other factors. And when a candidate gives voice to their dearer causes, it’s not hard to dismiss some warts; once that dismissal of warts is normalized, further revelations aren’t going to upend the process. Sure, Trump would take a hit in the tracking polls when he went after someone based on their ethnicity or gender, but before long, the dynamics of the two-horse race would have him trending back upward, as the latest spurt of outrage faded from memory and the persistence of day-to-day life on the ground rose up again.

It’s also worth asking some questions about the wide range of things that fall under that blanket label of “racism.” The working definition on the left considers both a card-carrying member of the KKK and a person who questions protest tactics when Black Lives Matter occupies the freeway and fouls up a commute as exhibiting racist tendencies. Deplorable as one may find all of these attitudes and the many shades in between, it’s counterproductive to treat these phenomena the same way, and slap the same label on the full range of people who hold them. Much as “47 percent” doomed Mitt Romney, the “basket of deplorables” comment left a lot of wavering people fundamentally alienated. Once again, Clinton was supposed to be the uniter, the candidate of “stronger together.” This made her failures to live up to that ideal considerably more impactful than those of Donald Trump, who made no such claim (or, at least, not one anyone took seriously). The candidate of unity failed to display it, and the other guy spoke to voters on a levels they actually cared about. If the Democrats continue to paint with the broad brush of racism instead of interrogating different cases carefully, they will continue to appear condescending, and will continue to lose.

These racial lines have an added drawback for Democrats: most people of color are tightly packed into cities, and as we’ve seen, this limits their odds of winning majorities in the House and of winning the Electoral College despite taking the popular vote. The Democrats, the supposed party of tolerance, are extremely likely to live just among themselves, and it hurts them. Sure, it would be nice to eliminate some of those structural issues that give rural voters added influence, but this is the system we have, and it’s not going to change without getting a hand on the wheel in the first place.

The hubris of so many Democratic operatives, the belief that a more diverse nation would create a firewall and a longer-term majority, might yet come to pass. But as I explained in my initial reaction, the rise in white identity on the right is the natural outflow of identity politics on the left, however justified it may or may not be. This is why identity politics is ugly and dangerous, and it is a major reason why so many struggling states around the globe lapse into ethnic groups squabbling over government. There can be no functioning state without a nation, and that nation needs to approximate some sort of broad identity, even while allowing for nuance within it. Sure, the Democrats may be on track to pick up Arizona and Georgia and maybe even Texas over the next decade. But if they don’t change course somewhat, and rely on demography alone while failing to reach out to large demographics, things will continue to flip. Minnesota—yes, Minnesota—will be the next state to go red, along with the rural northeast, and more will follow.

I heard from a reliable source that Obama wanted to go spend time in Appalachia, but that his advisers told him it wasn’t worth the time. If true, it may prove a fatal error.

I’ve come back to Obama a lot in this post, in part because he is very much my president. The first bubble I ever filled on a ballot was for him, and even as I’ve drifted away from doctrinaire liberalism into something a lot more complicated, I don’t regret either of my votes for him. I was in Washington, D.C. the night he won, and that night might be the most momentous bit of history I ever live. Temperamentally, I relate to the man: cautious and intellectual, prone to elevated rhetoric and a desire for communal action, while perhaps suffering from a certain aloofness and detachment at times. He had genuine empathy for the America that was left behind, but forces beyond his control—forces beyond anyone’s control—largely rendered him powerless to change things. George Packer put it presciently, back in 2010, as the Tea Party arose to face Obama and the failures of Middle East nation-building and the end-of-history Pax Americana became evident:

The noble mission to make the world safe for democracy ended inconclusively, and its aftermath has curdled into an atmosphere more like that of the Palmer raids and the second coming of the Klan. This is why Obama seems less and less able to speak to and for our times. He’s the voice of reason incarnate, and maybe he’s too sane to be heard in either Jalalabad or Georgia. An epigraph for our times appears in Jonathan Franzen’s new novel “Freedom”: “The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.”

The dream has soured, and it has done so on both sides of the aisle. Fortunately, we have ways to pick up the pieces.