Four years ago I was guilty of it. Most people I knew were guilty of it. Perhaps you were guilty of it.
Four years ago, or close enough to it, I watched the election of President Obama on a TV screen in Perth. Months later, captivated, I travelled to Washington DC for his inauguration.
I was guilty of this: swooning to his eloquence, giddily championing his intellect and revelling, vicariously, in the historic significance of a black man becoming president.
I roared approval at his promises of a transcendent politics. And so did a few of you.
Now, stay with me. This isn’t a reactive, pendulum-swinging-back piece. This isn’t an Obama-let-us-down piece. This isn’t about drones, or bin Laden or progressives’ naivety, though that abounds. This is about us. This is about our priorities, and how dim and pretentious they are.
I read Obama’s books, listened to his speeches and absorbed his academic CV. I marvelled at his poise, and celebrated the story of an essentially fatherless young man’s audacious ascension.
I fetishised his gifts, and so did a few of you. I vainly considered his literariness, law grades and historic significance unequivocally qualified him for the White House. Never mind the ugly presumptuousness of a foreigner determining who was best fit to lead another country, a determination made through the lens of a English degree, no less.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Australia’s politics bows ungracefully beneath a casual contempt for language. It bends away from facts and towards slogans, pushing reality and our faith further and further outside its orbit.
Intelligence, inspiration and straight talk are important, at least to me. And Obama’s poise, eloquence and a brain brilliantly given to synthesis aren’t unimportant. They’re qualities I still celebrate in public leaders.
What’s important here is the primacy these skills were given. They were magnified disproportionately. Eloquence came to stand for profundity. His mixed-race stood for an unimpeachable eligibility. The Clinton campaign came to feel the same, and looked bewilderingly on as the juggernaut passed them. Perhaps Michelle Obama said it best, when, after her husband became a senator, said: “Perhaps one day he will do something to warrant all this attention”.
The left’s intense preoccupation with Obama’s intellectualism precluded any judgment of his preparedness. The innumerable qualities of a successful president were reduced to the specific qualities you might demand of a literature professor.
The intellectual incuriosity of Obama’s predecessor helped. It legitmised the clamorous appreciation, the pretentious emphasis on Obama’s books. Hey, at least for me. And so many I knew. And, perhaps, you.
The contrast between the professorial and historically significant Obama and the swaggering assuredness of George Dubya gave us the space to practice an arrogant, collective suspension of disbelief: that the problem with the 43rd president of the United States was that he was stupid. While I still marvel at GWB’s incuriosity, it’s an ignorant reduction of his presidency. It’s sub-consciously designed to make progressives feel superior.
All of which takes me to the cover story of the latest Monthly by Peter Conrad, Australian-born professor of literature at Oxford University.
Conrad’s piece is dispiritingly stale, obsessing over the details of Obama’s life and intellectualism—rarely his presidency—as if the last four years hadn’t happened. It’s the piece intellectuals wrote four years ago, in lieu of an actual term in the White House. It focuses on all of the things supporters found so refreshing—his writing, his introspection, his eloquence, his feel for a “narrative”.
Obama’s life and intellectualism is still important, but not so much if they’re considered as some sculpture to be critiqued, and never tied to the messy business of being the leader of the free world.
Four or five years ago, before the 44th President placed his hand on Lincoln’s bible and was inaugurated, writers, always sensitive to symbolism, had a lot of space to fill with poetic evaluations of the American heart. I was one of them. But that was then. Try explaining the “importance” of Obama to the 12.5 million unemployed Americans right now. This isn’t laying blame at the President’s feet—Obama inherited a deeply blighted country—it’s to tell you that your preoccupations are hopelessly detached.
Amongst this strides Conrad, heroically prepared to deconstruct the President’s meaning for us. Amongst fears that Rome is in decline, amongst a structurally altered economy and stubbornly deep unemployment; amongst a vertiginous deficit and the weird, impractical possibilities of a Ryan/Tea Party budget, we get this:
“Obama’s vision of himself is there in his signature, whose initial capitals sketch an elegant psychological diagram. The first ‘B’ is bent into a bow, which in its tensile strength seems to be visualising a phrase that is a favourite of his—Martin Luther King’s assertion that ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice’. The ‘O’ contains the vertical ‘b’ that follows it in his surname, neatly demonstrating that he is global, all-encompassing, while at the same time being centred and balanced…”
This is the stuff that bruises satirists. So resplendent in speciousness and ejaculatory fluid—so adept is it at self-parodying academia—that the comic writer scratches his head and declares defeat.
3,000+ words on the Obama presidency yet no mention is made of the economy, but much is made of how little Obama has done to assure Conrad of his worth. In addition to the psychological deconstruction of signatures, we also get an invite to Conrad’s solipsism. Having read his article, it’s almost as if Obama’s greatest failure was not achieving the full measure of Conrad’s faith.
More, Conrad’s indifference to America’s national account seemed to me yet another confirmation of the smug disinterest in the stuff that matters.
Look: all of this is fine. Conrad, an elegant writer and scholar of stories, was evaluating Obama on the strength of his. Fair ground. The inexhaustibly theatrical space of American politics is based upon how well a candidate’s story resonates. The stories America tells about itself is fertile ground for commentators.
Nor is it an attempt to say the only meaningful stories to be told about America are economic, or squeezed through the prism of realpolitik. It’s a gross and inelegant demand, anathema to the refinement and diversity of our letters.
Conrad’s article would stand as an intelligent, even musical review of the books his piece so heavily relies upon—David Remnick’s The Bridge, David Maraniss’s Barack Obama: The Story and Obama’s own books. It reads well as a long, digressive—if pompous—survey of Obama literature. Is there a place for this? Of course. But the cover of The Monthly?
The Monthly is one of few Australian publications running long-form journalism and unabashedly learned criticism. Arguably, it is our foremost journal of current affairs. I myself have been reading it, on and off, since its inception and I applaud its ambition (I’ve also submitted work to them). But its record of breaking or deepening stories—along the lines of the New Yorker, which it mentioned as an influence in its maiden editorial—is woeful.
I can hazard a guess as to why this is: a habit of running cover stories which include zero primary sources, and instead rely upon the journalistic efforts of US publications. Very often stories that are really just extended op-eds or long book reviews masquerade as much more.
If the Monthly is quietly determining its future and raison d’etre, I say this: for your cover spot, commission stuff that’s indispensable. For the cover, don’t commission long-form op-eds or book reviews that uncover nothing new, include no graft, but instead cleverly reiterate what’s been said better and originally by an American journalist.
I’m not suggesting there’s no place for Peter Conrad’s review of Obama books—but the cover? When you only have 10 or 11 a year? There are still people like myself who imagine that an intelligent monthly magazine will give that space to something unique, pointed and irreplaceable. Something that, in addition to reflective pieces and reviews, will promote thoughtful journalism.
These are rough times for publications, and being indispensable is one way of keeping the wolves at bay. This cover story is far from it, and I can’t imagine, exactly, who the intended audience is. It reminds me of the same pretentious, detached priorities I had when I so ardently celebrated Obama four years ago.