Barack Obama and the invention of self

by Evert Cilliers

ScreenHunter_18 Dec. 22 08.05

There are two political figures in America who are masters of self-invention.

One is Arnold Schwarzenegger. The other is Barack Obama.

Arnold invented himself as a body builder, movie star, and Governor. Barack Obama invented himself as a black man, Christian, and President.

(A quick aside about self-invention. It's not starting over, which is the reason people immigrate to America. It goes further. For example, the two richest men in the world, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, didn't self-invent themselves. Bill Gates was fascinated by computers from an early age, and Warren Buffett started trading in his teens. They merely followed their destinies. On the other hand, the Jewish garment guys who started Hollywood not only invented new selves, they also invented a part of all of us.)

As a self-inventor, Arnold had it easier than Barack, because in his teens he discovered a role model: Steve Reeves, the muscleman who became a film star in Italian sword-and-sandal epics such as “Hercules.” Arnold deliberately went into body building to become a movie star.

Barack Obama had a more winding road to his current self-invention as our President. He had no role models, except for his mother: a sixties social rebel, unafraid of the Other (she married a black man from Kenya and an Indonesian), who set high educational and moral standards for herself and her son. But she gave him neither an identity nor a community.

Those he had to invent for himself.

He started as an anomaly. He grew up white, but he looked black.

His path to being a white man was clear. The three people who raised him—his mother, grandmother and grandfather—were all white. The exclusive high school he attended in Hawaii was white. At college in New York, his girlfriend was white. He went to visit her parents and saw the way to whiteness loom beautifully in front of him, which he describes in one of the most wistfully lyrical passages in his memoir “Dreams from My Father”:

“One weekend she invited me to her family’s country house. The parents were there, and they were very nice, very gracious. It was autumn, beautiful, with woods all around us, and we paddled a canoe across this round, icy lake full of small gold leaves that collected along the shore. The family knew every inch of the land. They knew how the hills had formed, how the glacial drifts had created the lake, the names of the earliest white settlers—their ancestors—and before that, the names of the Indians who’d once hunted the land. The house was very old, her grandfather’s house. The library was filled with old books and pictures of the grandfather with famous people he had known—presidents, diplomats, industrialists. There was this tremendous gravity in the room. Standing in that room, I realized that our two worlds, my friend’s and mine, were as distant from each other as Kenya is from Germany. And I knew that if we stayed together I’d eventually live in hers. After all, I’d been doing it most of my life. Between the two of us, I was the one who knew how to live as an outsider.”

It’s as if he beheld a dream he was sad to lose.

After graduating from Columbia, Obama had a white-collar job at a white firm, Business International Corporation. “The company promoted me to the position of financial writer. I had my own office, my own secretary, money in the bank. Sometimes, coming out of an interview with Japanese financiers or German bond traders, I would catch my reflection in the elevator doors – see myself in a suit and tie, a briefcase in my hand – and for a split second I would imagine myself as a captain of industry, barking out orders, closing the deal …”

Barack was good at being white. Yet his childhood experiences weren’t all white. Between the ages of six and ten, he lived with his mother and her second husband in Indonesia, where he encountered a culture neither black nor white, but Asian. Here his mother invoked his absent black Kenyan father as a role model, a man who had grown up poor in a poor country, but hadn’t cut corners or played any angles. “He was diligent and honest, no matter what it cost him … I would follow his example, my mother decided. I had no choice. It was in my genes … Her message came to embrace black people generally. She would come home with books on the civil rights movement, the recordings of Mahalia Jackson, the speeches of Dr. King … If I told her about the goose-stepping demonstrations my Indonesian Boy Scout troop performed in front of the president, she might mention a different kind of march, a march of children no older than me, a march for freedom. Every black man was Thurgood Marshall or Sidney Poitier, every black woman Fannie Lou Farmer or Lena Horne. 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. Burdens we were to carry in style. More than once, my mother would point out: ‘Harry Belafonte is the best-looking man on the planet.’”

The white mother was tutoring her mulatto son in the responsibilities of the Other towards the bigger society.

A double major at Columbia University, in literature and political science, Obama read widely in black literature. The one book that really affected him was not by Baldwin, Ellison, Hughes, Wright or Dubois, but by the activist Malcolm X. “His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me; the blunt poetry of his words, his unadorned insistence on respect, promised a new and uncompromising order, martial in its discipline, forged through sheer force of will.”

There’s the story of Barack Obama in a nutshell. A man of books, he found his role model by reading. And alighted on the engine of self-invention: sheer willpower.

Obama’s self-invention hinged on three surprising choices:

  1. To become fully black, by organizing in a black community.

  2. To become a Christian.

  3. To run for political office.

On his way to becoming fully black, he rejected two paths for becoming a black man – that of the buppie born of compromise with whites, which would have been the easy route for him, or that of a militant black nationalist born of black rage against whites, which was problematic for a black boy raised by nice white people.

Of black rage, and the black nationalism engendered by it, most successfully in Minister Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, Obama writes: “Like sex and violence on TV, black rage always found a ready market.” Black nationalism was not a viable platform: it produced a distance between talk and action. “The continuing struggle to align word and action, our heartfelt desires with a workable plan – didn’t self-esteem finally depend on just this? It was that belief which had led me into organizing, and it was that belief that would lead me to conclude, perhaps for the final time, that notions of purity – of race or of culture – could no more serve as the basis for the typical black American’s self-esteem that it could be for mine. Our sense of wholeness would have to arise from something more fine than the bloodlines we’d inherited.”

When he decided to become a community organizer in 1983, he had no clear idea what it meant. “When classmates in college asked me just what it was that a community organizer did, I couldn’t answer them directly. Instead, I’d pronounce on the need for change. Change in the White House, where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds. Change in Congress, compliant and corrupt … Change won’t come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilized grassroots. That’s what I’ll do. I’ll organize black folks. At the grassroots. For change.”

It’s worth quoting in full Obama’s remembrance of how he came to make his biggest leap into self-invention. This blind impulse, he writes, came from “romantic images of a past I had never known. They were of the civil rights movement, mostly, the grainy black-and-white footage that appears every February during Black History Month, the same images that my mother had offered me as a child. A pair of college students, hair short, backs straight, placing their orders at a lunch counter teetering on the edge of riot. SNCC workers standing on a porch in some Mississippi backwater trying to convince a family of sharecroppers to register to vote. A country jail bursting with children, their hands clasped together, singing freedom songs.

“Such images became a form of prayer for me, bolstering my spirits, channeling my emotions in a way that words never could. They told me … that I wasn’t alone in my particular struggles, and that communities had never been a given in this country, at least not for blacks. Communities had to be created, fought for, tended like gardens. They expanded or contracted with the dreams of men – and in the civil rights movement, those dreams had been large. In the sit-ins, the marches, the jailhouse songs, I saw the African-American community becoming more than just a place where you’d been born or the house where you’d been raised. Through organizing, through shared sacrifice, membership had been earned. And because membership was earned – because this community I imagined was still in the making, built on the promise that the larger American community, black, white and brown, could somehow redefine itself – I believed that it might, over time, admit the uniqueness of my own life.

“That was my idea of organizing. It was a promise of redemption.”

A lofty ideal. But community organizing was a down-and-dirty business, invented by the very effective arch lefty agitator Saul Alinsky, who taught his followers to “rub raw the sores of discontent” (Hillary Clinton wrote her college thesis on Alinsky). The Alinsky-style agitator helps poor people realize how miserable they are, and makes them ascribe their misery to unresponsive governments or greedy corporations. Then the organizer recruits leaders from the ranks of the down-trodden and trains these leaders to raise such a massive stink that the authorities knuckle under, just to stop being harassed. The organizer does not himself become the champion of the damned; he trains the damned themselves to fight the causes he picks for them. It’s not about idealism; it’s all about issues, action, power, and self-interest. “I liked these concepts,” writes Obama, after encountering the real thing. “They bespoke a certain hardheadedness, a worldly lack of sentiment; politics, not religion.” Alinsky had no moral qualms about whatever means it took to transfer power from the Haves to the Have-nots. A confirmed atheist, he looked upon churches as useful platforms for agitation.

Obama’s Alinsky-trained mentor Mike Kruglik (whom he recreated in his memoir as a composite character called Marty Kaufman) said of Obama:

“He was a natural, the undisputed master of agitation, who could engage a room full of recruiting targets in a rapid-fire Socratic dialogue, nudging them to admit they were not living up to their own standards. As with the panhandler, he could be aggressive and confrontational. With probing, sometimes personal questions, he would pinpoint the source of pain in their lives, tearing down their egos just enough before dangling a carrot of hope that they could make things better.”

Obama invented himself not only as a black man committed to a black community. He went the whole hog: he invented himself as a Christian, too.

There was no precedent in his background for this. He was not raised in a religious household. “For my mother, organized religion too often dressed up closed-mindedness in the barb of piety, cruelty and oppression in the cloak of righteousness … my mother viewed religion through the eyes of the anthropologist that she would become; it was a phenomenon to be treated with suitable respect, but with a suitable detachment as well.”

So how come he could ever become Christian?

“My fierce ambitions might have been fueled by my father—by my knowledge of his achievements and failures, by my unspoken desire to somehow earn his love, and by my resent and anger toward him. But it was my mother’s fundamental faith—in the goodness of people and in the ultimate value of this brief life we’ve each been given—that channeled those ambitions. It was in search of a confirmation of her values that I studied political philosophy, looking for both a language and systems of action that could help build community and make justice real. And it was in search of some practical application of those values that I accepted work after college as a community organizer for a group of churches in Chicago that were trying to cope with joblessness, drugs, and hopelessness in their midst.”

Working with preachers, they wanted to know where his faith in his mission came from. “I came to realize that without a vessel for my beliefs, without an unequivocal commitment to a particular community of faith, I would be consigned at some level to always remain apart, free in the way that my mother was free, but also alone in the same ways she was ultimately alone.”

And a black church was much more than a religious institution. “It had to serve as the center of the community’s political, economic, and social as well as spiritual life.” Faith was “an active, palpable agent in the world.” Faith “doesn’t mean that you don’t have doubts … It was because of these newfound understandings – that religious commitment did not require me to suspend critical thinking, disengage from the battle for economic or social justice, or otherwise retreat from the world that I knew and loved—that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ one day and be baptized. It came about as a choice and not an epiphany; the questions I had did not magically disappear.”

He chose to be a Christian. Sheer self-invention. He did it because he wanted to be a better organizer, and because he wanted to belong to the community. There was no miracle on the road to Damascus.

After four years of community organizing, Obama decided to go to law school. “I had things to learn in law school, things that would help me bring about real change. I would learn about interest rates, corporate mergers, the legislative process; about the way businesses and banks were put together; how real estate ventures succeeded or failed. I would learn power’s currency in all its intricacy and detail, knowledge that would have compromised me before coming to Chicago but that I could now bring back to where it was needed … bring it back like Promethean fire.”

This was when he won his white classmates over to become the Harvard Law Review's first black president in 1990, and got the book deal that led to the memoir from which we are quoting. With this highest of honors under his belt, he surprised his class mates by rejecting the notion of becoming a US Supreme Court law clerk and then moving to the law firm of his choice, even though he was deep in debt.

Interviewed by the LA Times at the time, he said: “One of the luxuries of going to Harvard Law School is it means you can take risks in your life. You can try to do things to improve society and still land on your feet … I come from a lot of worlds and I have had the unique opportunity to move through different circles. I have worked and lived in poor black communities and I can translate some of their concerns into words that the larger society can embrace.” He told the LA Times about his childhood in Indonesia: “It left a very strong mark on me living there because you got a real sense of just how poor folks can get. You'd have some army general with 24 cars and if he drove one once then eight servants would come around and wash it right away. But on the next block, you'd have children with distended bellies who just couldn't eat.”

Returning to Chicago with a Magna Cum Laude degree, Obama invented himself for the third time as a politician. He lost his first race, but on his second attempt he elbowed his way to success with Chicago-style ruthlessness.

There was a much-revered Civil Rights matron and Illinois State Senator, Alice Palmer, who decided to run for Congress, so Obama figured he could run for her open State Senate seat. But she lost her Congressional race, and wanted to keep her safe seat. The community’s leaders asked Obama to step aside. The brash newcomer refused. He sent his aides to the courthouse to examine the signatures for her, to see if enough of them could be disallowed to knock her off the ballot. A few fake signatures for her were found, as well as for all his opponents, so they were all knocked off; he won his seat unopposed. The Chicago way – bringing a gun to a knife fight.

These three steps of self-invention have led Obama to the presidency; they make him a sui generis political animal in at least six respects:

  1. He’s a self-examining egghead. Adlai Stevenson, Daniel Moynihan. An academic professor, who taught the Constitution for many years at the University of Chicago. A reader, with philosophical favorites like Reinhold Niebuhr. A writer, whose memoir is something of a confessional classic. A writer who has the biggest hand in penning his speeches, the basis of his brilliant oratory, akin to Lincoln and Dr. King.

  1. He presents a new kind of manhood. He’s not some butch swaggering macho bully-boy posturer like a Bush or Cheney. He’s a modern, feminized man. A metrosexual of grace and nuance and subtlety and elegance. A faun not a bull. Compare the way George Bush and Barack Obama walk. Bush walks like a gorilla, Barack like a gazelle. He’s the coolest cat in American life since Duke Ellington, with that thing Hemingway gadded on about: grace under pressure.

  1. He is not ideologically pure; he’s a conciliator, a civil man who listens to those who disagree with him, and likes to incorporate opposing viewpoints into his thinking. Undermining Carl Schmitt’s lauded thesis, his politics does not require an enemy. He really means it when he says that our problems are too big for our small politics to continue as usual, or that there is not a red or blue-state America, but a United States of America. He has both moral and practical intelligence, two qualities that ideologically driven people like Bush/Cheney can’t possess, which is why they wreak such immense havoc.

  1. He really believes in change from the bottom up – in putting power in the hands of the people. He learned it from community organizing. He draws his famous hope from it: from a belief in the decency of regular folk. He enlisted his many campaign volunteers with it. He enters the White House with millions of email addresses and cellphone numbers in his back pocket—an army of believers he can use to browbeat Congress if it dares to cross him.

  1. He is No Drama Obama, devastatingly competent. In two years flat he built a campaign juggernaut that took down the mighty Clinton machine honed over three decades. He reinvented campaign funding with small donations from millions of supporters. And he’s only been in politics twelve years. Arguably his cabinet looks to be the most competent one ever. They'll need to be.

  1. He has the charisma of a Gandhi, a Mandela, a Mick Jagger, a John Lennon. He has involved the entire world in what is for him a personal journey of self-invention and redemption. He’s become a symbol of our own hunger, of all we hope for ourselves.

What can we expect from this master of self-invention?

Nothing less than a reinvention of the presidency itself. Every job he’s had became too small for him, and the biggest job in the world will be no exception. The ending of his campaign speech—“together we will change not only this country, we will change the world”—tells us he intends to lead the world. His trip to Europe and his speech in Berlin affirmed his international mandate. America is too small for Obama. If you can invent yourself, you can invent the world. And when he leaves the White House, he’ll be a sprightly 55, and reinvent the notion of ex-President.

Can Obama be a Gandhi or a Mandela for the entire world? Can he be a Saul Alinsky for the world’s downtrodden, ready to organize all oppressed communities and train the tens of thousands needed to do this? Given his mastery at self-invention, and his immense ambition, yes. A new Messiah—“The One” as Oprah fawned over him, and as the McCain campaign sneered at him.

In his final act of self-invention, Obama will aim to be the man who saved the world. The real change the world needs. A fantasy? Maybe. But hey, look how fast how far he’s come. We can only hope.