Friday, June 3, 2011

The Audacity of Hope

originally written 09/05/2010

I finished this last week, and I have to conclude even though I preferred the narrative structure of Dreams From My Father, I thought The Audacity of Hope was a better book. Obama’s writing style is superb, something which I vaguely knew from what I read and watched before we elected him but hadn’t realized in full until now.

It seemed an appropriate time to read this book because I’ve been embroiled in the UK General Election, which I couldn’t vote in. Audacity as well as Vote for Who? has made me think about my voting rights and (shock, horror) politics (which I try to think about as little as possible, for better or worse!). Obama admits in his book a liberal bias (naturally enough!)—I will have to admit to my own, which is one reason I enjoyed the book so much—there was a lot of head-nodding. It’s interesting, of course, to read the book with the knowledge the writer became the President of the United States and when he wrote he was “merely” a US senator. It’s interesting to see what policies Obama promised (or at least offered up as particular bugaboos) in the hindsight of a few years on.

You get the sense, whether it’s completely correct, that very little riles Obama; he says as much, that even when getting rebuffed or disagreeing, he keeps his cool. Case in point is the rather amusing way he deals with Peggy Noonan, who wrote prior to his election to the Senate,
“There is nothing wrong with Barack Obama’s resume, but it is a log cabin-free zone. So far it is also a greatness-free zone. If he keeps talking about himself like this it always will be.”
His response:

He also had a Movie Valjean moment during that general election campaign for US senate when he sorted out Justin, a guy hired by his opponent to stalk him throughout his campaign by filming everything on a camcorder. I also liked when he noted, without a note of vitriol, that Alan Keyes said “Christ would not vote for Obama.”

There were some, I thought, good insights into the 2004 election, incidentally the one I remember best as it was the first I could vote in. Instead of the “compassionate conservatism” that was part of Bush’s 2000 campaign, there was a policy of “absolutism,” “an idea of no taxes, no regulation, no safety net”—also the religious absolutism of the Christian right. I do remember very well the prominence of “moral values” in the 2004 election. Speaking of moral values, I agreed with Obama’s acknowledgment that despite our best intentions for faith, sometimes our religious differences fan flames and cause further ruptures. “For my mother, organized religion too often dressed up closedmindedness in the garb of piety, cruelty and oppression in the cloak of righteousness.”

Hope is certainly at the heart of this book. Obama scorns those who insist we in the US live in “the worst of political times”; he goes on to list historical and geographical precedents that make us grateful for what we’ve got. Among the values Obama singles out as “typically” American are “a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will.” I remember even David Tennant saying that Americans seemed inherently more optimistic about everything; that I’m not sure about. But I do agree with some of the other values Obama highlights: the belief in individual freedom—something we as Americans may take for granted as it is so deeply ingrained in us. “We understand our liberty in a negative sense”—we are suspicious of those trying to regulate what we do in our private lives. Particularly relevant, in my opinion and in my life, are the values of “self-reliance, self-improvement, and risk taking . . . the values of drive, discipline, temperance, and hard work. The values of thrift and personal responsibility.” I’m curious, readers—do you agree? What values do you associate with Americans? What values, British readers, do you see as typically British?

J and I were having an interesting conversation about self-awareness, our own most prominent flaws and mistakes, and being better people. “Lack of empathy” came up, and I posited that lack of empathy had caused many of the largest problems in the world today and ever. Obama’s mother agreed: “How would that make you feel?” was her guidepost for raising him, and his guidepost (he says) for politics.

Among the policies Obama seems to want to have a hand at changing (and that I agreed with enough to write down!): “Over the last five years, [University] tuition has risen by 40 percent” (absurd! Also, he mentions social safety nets: Social Security has traditionally rested on 3 pillars: being able to have a job that pays the bills and allows for savings, a package of health and retirement benefits, and a government safety net. When put that way, I was wrong to think for the past four years that Britain’s safety net was so novel—even before the national health care reform that has been rolling, Sisyphus-like, up the hill, we learned from the Great Depression not to leave Americans without some kind of respite. I also found interesting the way he faulted many conservatives for not trying to compromise on issues that violate their “moral values”: “They want a return to a bygone era” [without pre-marital sex or homosexuality].

The section on foreign policy was also interesting; Obama quoted John Quincy Adams that America should “not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy”; Theodore Roosevelt’s addendum to the Monroe Doctrine had become the Bush Doctrine, manifest destiny “a series of ad hoc decisions.” I think Obama did prove he could have more of a global perspective given the amount of traveling and living abroad he did even as a child (though not entirely voluntarily!).

If, like me, you spent much of the enjoyable Dear Fatty waiting for Dawn to get together with Lenny, you would be pleased by the end of Audacity, which picks up where Dreams From My Father left off: he meets Michelle, romances her, and marries her, yielding the memorable line: “I asked if I could kiss her. It tasted of chocolate.” I did really like what he had to say from the perspective, as it were, of the working woman. “But for the average American woman, the decision to work . . . is a matter of making ends meet.” I must be getting old: that’s something I’m thinking about more and more. With our gender roles having been incontrovertibly changed in the past hundred, fifty years, from what they were for hundreds of years, good things have certainly come about—but in some ways it’s put huge pressure on both men and women. I’m glad—and I admit I was surprised—Obama mentioned it specifically in the book.

I’ll admit I raced through the book as I had to give it back to the person who had lent it to me, but that was easily done as it was a good read and one I’d recommend to anyone.

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