Tag Archives: Barack Obama

Review: ‘Honeybee Democracy’

Bees give lessons for leadership and group intelligence. 

. . . [N]atural selection has organized honeybee swarms and primate brains in intriguingly similar ways to build a first-rate decision-making group from a collection of rather poorly informed and cognitively limited individuals.

Honeybee Democracy

Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D. Seeley. Princeton University Press, 264 pp.

Seeley-Honeybee Democracy

How can humans make better group decisions? We might look to the bees, says Thomas D. Seeley, a Cornell biologist who has spent his life studying the insects.

Each year, the legions of (female) worker bees in a colony must make a life-or-death decision: where to build a new home? Scouts report on prospects with their famous waggle dances, arguing for one site or another, which the other scouts check out based on directional clues encoded in the dances. A bad choice—a cavity too small to hold enough honey for the winter, an entrance too large to exclude predators—and the entire colony dies.

This stark imperative has driven bees, Seeley explains, toward dissent-free decisions:

This is what normally arises from the democratic decision-making process used by house-hunting honeybees and, quite frankly, I find it amazing. We have seen . . .  how the debate among a swarm’s scout bees starts with individuals proposing many potential nesting sites, vigorously advertising the competing proposals, and actively recruiting neutral individuals to the different camps. All this makes the surface of a swarm look at first like a riotous dance party. Yet out of this chaos, order gradually emerges. Ultimately the debate ends with all the dancing bees indicating support for just one nesting site, usually the best one.

Honeybee Democracy brought me back to childhood, when I devoured books about the natural world and was a steady observer of nature myself. It reminded me too of how little I know or have retained. Such as: the colony’s queen, who does all the reproducing, decides the sex of her offspring, and she lays eggs that produce mostly females. A nest’s 10,000 worker bees, who collect pollen for honey, and a few hundred who become scouts for new homes, all are her virgin daughters. The comparatively few large male drones are not drones at all, in practice, but lazy, well-fed inseminators of young queens, bred once on their maiden flights and fixed, reproductively speaking, for life.

One of Seeley’s salient findings is that bees try to sense a quorum (sufficient number in agreement) rather than a consensus (unanimity) when they swarm. In taking off without complete agreement they risk that the swarm may split in flight—thus endangering their queen, whose loss would be fatal for the colony’s future. But a quorum strikes a balance between speed and accuracy in decision-making for the exposed and vulnerable swarm, and in practice usually every bee gets on board and makes a beeline for the most popular site. The risk of consensus, as we know from some human groups (Seeley gives an example from a Quaker meeting, but juries came to mind for me), one holdout can overrule the wisdom of the group and prevent a decision or prompt a bad one.

As chair of his academic department, Seeley has instituted the “Five Habits of Highly Effective Groups” that he learned from bees:

Lesson One

Compose the Decision-Making Group of Individuals with Shared Interests and Mutual Respect.

 

Lesson Two

Minimize the Leader’s Influence on the Group’s Thinking.

 

Lesson Three

Seek Diverse Solutions to the Problem.

 

Lesson Four

Aggregate the Group’s Knowledge Through Debate.

 

Lesson Five

Use Quorum Responses for Cohesion, Accuracy, and Speed.

Of course, unlike humans, bees appear to lack individual egos, humans’ blessing and curse as a species. In fact, bees operate without leaders, let alone with the domineering ones who  subvert group decision-making. As a recent national failure from poor leadership, Seeley cites how the “headstrong” style of George W. Bush steamrolled his policy team into agreeing to invade Iraq in 2003. “They did little to question his thinking, engage in extended debate about the possible policy options, or delve deeply into the consequences of going to war,” Seeley writes. “In short, they squandered their opportunity to use group intelligence. We now know that the hasty and flawed decision to invade Iraq was based largely on the gut feelings of just one man, George W. Bush.”

Contrast this with Barack Obama’s “team of rivals” ideal, as enacted by his hero Abraham Lincoln, which emphasizes a dialectic arising from a buzz of dissenting opinions. Lincoln was criticized for not being headstrong enough, for hanging back, for bordering on passivity, but look at his results, the preservation of the union and the abolition of slavery. He led by acting in accordance with his sense of his advisors’ growing recognition of the right. Now our politics seem so ugly that many apparently believe our system itself is broken, even with its brilliant checks and balances against egoistic extremism, but surely that’s what many in Lincoln’s day thought too, when the invective was at least as bitter.

Listening to Obama’s second inauguration last week on my car radio as I drove into snow flurries in Ohio, my eyes stung with tears at the beauty of the progressive ideals being expressed. Some would respond to this rhetoric with hate, I suspected, and indeed they have—unlike bees, some humans will always be on the wrong side of history. Our earliest simian layer might be blamed for this: chimps are brutally hierarchical, fierce toward rivals and rival clans, and masters of the elemental two-against-one calculus of politics.

But in the animal kingdom, ants and bees, the most highly social of insects—not apes—are considered most like humans, at least in exemplifying the kind of cooperation humans strive for and sometimes achieve. And after reading Honeybee Democracy, I’m heartened by how much we’re like the bees when we’re at our best.

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Filed under emotion, evolutionary psychology, politics, REVIEW

This, and THAT

Assault weapons, body counts & learning to be human.

 Flagx

Semi-automatic, high-magazine-capacity firearms—assault weapons—need to be controlled much more stringently in America. Duh, I imagine women readers responding. There’s more ambivalence among men. This position is new for me, someone who grew up in a hunting family, steeped in military service and heroic special forces exploits and with a brother in law enforcement. Many if not most cops opposed or were ambivalent about the last assault weapons ban. They’re gun folk.

I’ve used firearms as tools—as a hunter years ago, and for many years as a farmer—and I understand guns as tools. I also understand the love of guns as beautiful objects with a craft that approaches art: few artifacts are as well made or invested with such fine workmanship, materials, and durability. And 99.9 percent of gun owners, or higher, pose no risk to anyone. Quite the contrary, perhaps. There’s merit in being able to defend yourself and others.

But the ease and rapidity with which assault weapons, rifles and pistols, can be fired and reloaded make them unfit to be circulating widely in a civilized society. They are why our law enforcement officers are now armed with military grade weapons that make their old standby, the .38 special revolver, look like a quaint toy. Glued to the TV over the weekend as news of the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, unfolded, I couldn’t help but think how much slower a killer Adam Lanza would have been had he been working a bolt-action hunting rifle. Or even firing the classic eight-shot Colt .45 semi-automatic handgun. Or for that matter using a semi-automatic .308 deer rifle with maybe a six-shot clip. He had multiple thirty-round magazines. Just as even gun fanatics had to accept the U.S. ban on fully automatic weapons, they can adjust to reduced clip capacities and to parameters that limit the sale of weapons of little or no use for hunting or competitive shooting.

A crackdown has been the gun lobby’s fear about President Barack Obama from the start. In their paranoid narrative, gun control has always been his hidden agenda. Before his first inauguration, gun stores could hardly keep assault rifles in stock and sold out of ammunition nationwide. I can only imagine the brisk business they are doing now. Obama did not mention gun control in his powerful speech at the memorial service for victims, but he did call for action. He is responding as a leader should and asking a question. What is the will of the people? Maybe it is to make our schools more like fortresses, but I don’t think that’s the whole answer. A silver lining in this tragedy seems to be some bipartisan movement toward restoring the assault weapons ban that expired on George W. Bush’s criminally negligent watch.

Mental health services seem a vital part of this equation. America’s system has holes in it, our ability to institutionalize the mentally ill radically limited. I have no answers there, though I’ve also heard no evidence yet that Lanza’s mother considered him ill or a threat or sought help for him. The fact is, however, that we are group animals, and even healthy loners need a certain level of human interaction. You can’t legislate that, but we might recognize formally what everyone knows intuitively and some know professionally: radically isolated people, especially if they are young men surging with testosterone, are at risk to themselves and society.

Amidst the flurry of early erroneous news reports about the shootings, we learned that Lanza’s weapons were owned and registered to his mother. That much appears true. But some of us, trying to make sense of a woman who owned weapons like that, trying to make a story—because we understand life through narrative—put two and two together: “She bought them for her son. She must have been crazy.” The story became more complex when we learned that she was a gun enthusiast who took her son to the target range. They were her guns.

Guns don’t kill, people do, goes the gun lobby trope. But I can’t help but wonder if anything like this would have happened had Mrs. Lanza had been a dog nerd instead of a gun nut. Say she had six dogs and had involved young Adam with her in Labrador retriever rescue work. Fact is, people need people, but dogs are about as good. And she and Adam and the other Lab fanatics would have had their own little society, helpful, harmless, and happy. He’d have had canine buddies and human contact beyond his mother. This is the loving alternative I picture.

Because a dog says one thing to a troubled kid; a Bushmaster .223 assault rifle says another.

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Filed under emotion, evolutionary psychology, MY LIFE

Four more years

Means, ends & inner narratives in the 2012 presidential campaign.

Barack Obama was mocked by Republicans when, late in the campaign just ended, he blamed his struggle to dominate Mitt Romney on his failure to provide Americans with a compelling narrative. I couldn’t help but agree. And yet I wonder if even a writer as talented as Obama can do anything more than animate his partisans’ own existing narratives. Romney’s narrative was widely exposed, commented upon, and derided as a farrago of outright lies, lesser evasions, and gross distortions. But he almost defeated Obama. I really wonder: What’s the moral of this story? Revisiting my post, below, written just before Obama’s 2008 victory, I find it deals with this same question of means, ends, and inner narratives.

• • •

Literature is fragrant with the compost of human misery. With the never-ending story of our impossible burden. With our failure to reach our promise and with our effort to redeem. Journalism, catching history on the fly, is at its best when it holds our stated ideals (the Constitution, say) beside our practice. When it tugs at the sleeve. Truth be told, though, the press’s daily practical purpose is to supply information (anecdotes and images, actually) that help us gauge a leader’s worthiness. I think we’re most interested, as a species, in worthiness. At least where lovers and leaders are concerned. In politicians we weigh our sense of authenticity against how much pragmatism (necessary hypocrisy) we’ll swallow to see our guy elected.

Watching this historic moment, when a young man with the air of greatness about him may ascend to our presidency, the electorate’s hypocrisy detectors are finely tuned. To mix the metaphor with an old expression: We’re reading tea leaves. We compare emerging stories with our own explanations, our inner narratives.

To have seen John McCain—a patriot, a thoughtful and deeply read man, an admirable servant, his flawed temperament notwithstanding—sell his soul in an attempt to be elected has simply hurt. Here was a man, tortured himself in Vietnam, who took on the administration for torture—and then trashed his brave narrative in order to win his party’s nomination. He turned himself into an object lesson (you can lose your way at any age) and into a metaphor for today’s Republican Party: old, angry, corrupt, bereft of ideas. (With friends and beloved kin who consider my narrative as crazy as I find theirs inconceivable, it makes me think our inner stories—as seemingly central as they are—are indeed a mere constructed overlay and not the central core of our being.)

I hope the GOP suffers exile and thus purges the extremist radicals who’ve taken over. We need two parties—argument and counter argument. We need fresh faces to put in office when whichever entrenched party grows corrupt, as it will. I’ve always loved the tragic grandeur of the story of how the Democratic Party was destroyed politically as a result of LBJ’s civil rights legislation in 1964 that cost it the white vote in the south. And in my inner narrative this is how, wandering in the wilderness, it became the moderate party. A similar fate is my prayer for the Republicans.

A fondness for redemption and rebirth through suffering may say more about my narrative than about politics or history. I attended the Southern Baptist Church as a boy, after all. But, as I say, we each have master narratives. I’ve realized my unconscious model for TV newsmen is Walter Cronkite, whom I watched with my conservative father, who seemed to approve of him. Thus I imprinted on Cronkite’s integrity-exuding manner: in my inner script newscasters should be fair to both sides and rise above either’s expediency. Mean and divisive FOX News and CNN’s Lou Dobbs, a demagogic panderer, have driven me to PBS’s Jim Lehrer and Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart for TV news. I might have thought the return of ideologically driven news on a mass scale would be a good thing—take your pick and feed your chosen narrative—but the blurring of news and opinion has stuck in my craw. Jowly old Cronkite is still guarding certain gates.

It was a sad irony when a blogger for the liberal Huffington Post revealed last April that Barack Obama told a group in San Francisco that common folk are hard to reach because in their despair over lost jobs they “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.” This hasn’t seemed to gain traction as a proof of unworthiness, except with people who’d never vote for him anyway, but was an indigestible bit I’ve gummed ever since. It didn’t fit my narrative about him.

Thus Matt Bai performed a great service in the New York Times Magazine of this past Sunday when he made that anecdote a centerpiece of his inquiry into the candidate’s amazing appeal. (Bai confirms the apparent reality of Obama’s freakishly rare inner peace—the evidence of ultimate worthiness, perhaps, in our species: like Popeye or Yahweh, he is what he is). Bai quotes Obama:

How it was interpreted in the press was Obama talking to a bunch of wine-sipping San Francisco liberals with an anthropological view toward white working-class voters. And I was actually making the reverse point, clumsily, which is that these voters have a right to be frustrated because they’ve been ignored. And because Democrats haven’t met them halfway on cultural issues, we’ve not been able to communicate to them effectively an economic agenda that would help broaden our coalition.

I believe him.

But then I see Obama like Lincoln, a man produced by the nation to save it from itself. Lincoln, a tough pol, outwardly untroubled, got in office and tapped his depths and preserved our republic. Some rise to greatness and some fall. Some write a new story, and some don’t. Literature and life tell us so.

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Filed under evolutionary psychology, journalism, narrative

Undercurrents in narrative essays

There is a wonderful freedom in the essay, a rare permission to follow one’s curiosity wherever it may lead. But with this freedom comes the challenge of how to insure coherent movement and interest for the reader.”—Dinty W. Moore, Crafting the Personal Essay

I admit, I told a class last semester, that we read stories for various reasons, including intrinsic interest. “If you score an interview with Barack Obama,” I said, “you can lean pretty heavily on that. But otherwise, stories that grip us involve some tension—a conflict or question.” How to get this across to students—and to myself—keeps me occupied. And it devils me when I receive a student’s personal narrative that lacks any urgency or even movement. Or when I churn out one myself.

Such flat writing flunks the “So What?” test. Bruce Ballenger writes in Crafting Truth: Short Studies in Creative Nonfiction, “The simple question, What is going to happen next? is triggered by the tension between what readers know and what they want to know. This is the most familiar dramatic tension in storytelling.”

Of course, Ballenger adds, withholding information can seem manipulative, since readers know that the writer knows the outcome. Narrative alone isn’t enough: “Ultimately the work has to answer a simple question: So what? Or as Philip Gerard suggested, What is at stake here? Why might this story matter to the reader? What is at stake for the writer or the characters? Is there a larger truth that will somehow matter?”

Questions or mysteries drive effective writing more than a mere narrative of events. E.M. Forster puts it this way in Aspects of the Novel: “ ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” And a plot with a mystery in it is “a form capable of high development,” Forster adds: “The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.”

Tension arises as a work tries to answer such mysteries, though in nonfiction at least I think the reader must be persuaded that the writer herself is on a voyage of discovery, trying to solve a riddle that perhaps can’t be solved, or at least not neatly. Ballenger says, “Fundamentally, every essay, memoir, or piece of literary journalism must seem purposeful.  . . . Usually, purpose is signaled early in the work—the first few paragraphs of a short essay, the first page or two in a longer one, or perhaps an early chapter in a memoir. This destination must seem appealing, and tension is key.”

Ballenger says tension is an “exercise in defying readers’ expectations” and can be achieved four ways:

• drama: will the story unfold in the way expected;

• emotion: the gap between what readers expect the writer will feel and what she does feel;

• thematically: an unusual idea or viewpoint;

• and through language: a surprising or pleasing way of expression.

Tension can be enhanced through structure, and Ballenger lists these ways:

• Withholding information (again, risky if readers feel manipulated);

• Playing with time: the past and present used together raise questions: why did that happen? what’s the full story? what are the links between then and now?

• Juxtaposition: placement can raise questions about relationships

• Questions: readers want answers raised by the material itself or the writer.

In “How Structure Creates a Sense of Movement in Non-Narrative Essays”—one of many great concise essays on craft at the Hunger Mountain Review web site—Allison Vrbova discusses how traditional meditative and contemporary lyric essays work. But to do so she must first explain how storytelling essays work. They have, she says, “a horizontal, time-driven trajectory” but also include a “second direction of movement” that writer Eileen Pollack calls the “central question.” Vrbova quotes Pollack:

As the writer holds up his question to the narrative while moving along in time, the friction between the question and the scene (or even a single detail) throws up meditative sparks.

Vrbova picks this up: “Throughout most of a narrative essay, this central question is a hidden undercurrent pulsing just below the surface. Only periodically does the narrative diverge from its horizontal path to plunge vertically toward this undercurrent. With each successive plunge, the central question is tested and revised. The narrative line works in sync with the undercurrent, propelling the central question further along.”

Vrbova says a non-narrative essay, meditative or lyric, “dives over and over again into an image or idea.” A great meditative example of this, she says, and I agree, is Annie Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels,” much anthologized and available full-text on the web with a little searching. Another good example, of a more lyric effort, is Lia Purpura’s Pushcart-winner “Glaciology,” at Agni online. And Vrbova recommends as well Eula Biss’s celebrated Seneca Review essay “The Pain Scale,” a somewhat condensed Harper’s Magazine version of which is available as a PDF on about the third page of a Google search.

Meditative or lyric essays, Vrbova says, rely “on the accumulation and juxtaposition of often-disparate images” to impart a sense of movement.” I’d argue that that isn’t much different from what is propelling intrigued readers through all narratives: a desire to find out what happens and to share, with the writer, a significant experience in which something is unresolved and at stake.

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Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, essay-classical, essay-lyric, essay-narrative, fiction, memoir, teaching, education

With a song in our hearts

A misty December morning at the Summer Palace in Beijing

Touring mainland China with a college choir stirs the spirit.

The consciousness of divinity is divinity itself. The more we wake to holiness, the more of it we give birth to, the more we introduce, expand, and multiply it on earth, the more “God is on the field.”—Annie Dillard, For the Time Being (page 40; reviewed previously)

I’ve just returned from ten days in mainland China, touring with Otterbein University’s choir, which gave concerts in Beijing, Tianjin, and Xi’an. We got to see more of China, and a different side, than I imagine most western visitors experience. We toured a kung fu boarding school with 2,000 students, many of them orphans, some of whom performed for us, and we for them. Our fifty students sang two Chinese folk songs in their sets, and in each venue the crowd’s reaction was amazed delight. It was a joy to witness. As was hearing Chinese choirs reciprocate: a “medley of American folk songs” that included John Denver’s apparently immortal hit “Take Me Home, Country Roads”; the ever-lovely “Shenandoah”; and, inevitably, “Don’t Stop Believing.”

We all were charmed by one of our Chinese guides, adorable twenty-nine year old “Kathie”—just a Xi’an girl livin’ in a Beijing world—and she seemed smitten with our polite, talented, flirty choirboys and girls. She even spent a night singing with them in a karaoke bar, and on one of the buses taking us to the airport Friday she broke down, weeping, when she tried to say goodbye. “Don’t tell the other bus I cried,” she pleaded, “because I have many male concubines on that bus!” We were so touched by her, and I’ll never forget how we connected as humans, regardless of our nations’ political differences and difficulties.

All the same, it was a terrible time for me to be away from my desk. I’d just begun writing the last quarter of my memoir, fourth version, and facing issues (primarily of resolving narrative threads) I’d never imagined. The going was hard, but productive. Now I’ve returned jet-lagged, ill, and puzzled how to resume. Part of me wishes I hadn’t gone—I’ll pay dearly in time and suffering—and it’ll be a long time before I travel again. And yet the trip grew my spirit as it shrank the world.

China is astounding. It’s a vast, jarring country, and its sprawling cities, as rumored, do teem with people. Young adult Chinese speak good English, having begun learning the language at age twelve; now, kids are started at age three. New buildings erupt everywhere—built with America’s debt. What’s happening seems to be the rise of the world’s eventual sole economic and military superpower. It’s humbling to behold this boom. America must have seemed like this, a rawboned giant thrashing its legs, a hundred years ago. Empires wax and wane. How old is America, again? China was unified about 2,200 years ago by the warlord Qin Shi Huan, who started his peasants building the Great Wall, which I climbed with the choir members, who, gaining the rampart, broke into our school song, “The Otterbein Love Song.”

After the ruthless Qin (pronounced “Chin,” from which derives “China”) took power over one kingdom, he amassed 3,000 concubines and began building his tomb, really a palace for his afterlife, which is still unexcavated because of mercury contamination and concerns that air reaching it will destroy it. We gazed upon this flat-topped hummock, and saw nearby the “Eighth Wonder of the World” he also created, circa 210 BC: terra cotta soldiers, part of an estimated 8,000 somewhat larger-than-lifesized figures, plus gorgeous prancing clay horses and bronze chariots, all arrayed in battle formation in parallel trenches. An advisor had persuaded Qin to use models instead of entombing human soldiers, as was the custom. Some farmers digging a well in 1974 found his underground army. Annie Dillard, an early visitor to the dig, writes so well in For the Time Being about this archaeological treasure that, rereading it upon my return, I felt I was asleep by comparison. Her language, as always, is beautiful in its poetic precision:

That morning by the emperor’s tomb in Xi’an, that morning beyond the trenches where clay soldiers and horses seemed to swim from the dirt to the light, I stood elevated over the loess plain, alone. I saw to the south a man walking. He was breaking ground in perfect silence. He wore a harness and pulled a plow. His feet trod his figure’s blue shadow, and the plow cut a long blue shadow in the field. He turned back as if to check the furrow, or as if he heard a call.

We don’t know what call Qin heard, other than his own raging ego, or what he worshipped, other than the notion that he, as supreme ruler, would thereby rule in the afterlife. But after going through the trouble of conquering China, he died at forty-five, having presided only fifteen years. Despised by his subjects for his brutality and taxation, he may have been poisoned by a eunuch who wanted another man, Qin’s second son, to assume the throne. Instead, upon Qin’s death a peasant uprising carried away the entire dynasty.

With these matters in the foreground, what I brooded about in China—between helping send back video clips and other material for the university’s web page on the choir’s trip—was this: religions’ and believers’ general inability to include the Other under the umbrella of their God. It’s an old irony: soldiers from warring armies crouched in opposing trenches praying to God. That is, to be spared by their God and to be helped by Him to kill their godless foes. But if there is “a God,” how can this be? It can’t, unless there’s been, in fact or in effect, no transcendent God—just group-specific deities. Defining this God you believe in, or don’t, seems a lonely adult task, and it matters whether you place this entity outside of people or inside them. To me, God appears to be within, and growing, or evolving, as the human spirit itself enlarges.

Our Xi’an guide Kathie, in her Minnie dress

Just as I believe that China’s repressive government will fall, eventually, or gradually moderate, I believe that one day we and the Chinese will share one God. Both sides will realize we’re in it together on this green and blue mote of dust swirling through the black cosmos. This may sound sappy, or like New Age nonsense—perhance an overwrought symptom of jet lag—but look how long it took for white Americans to grant black Americans the same God. For starters, 200 years of wild-eyed abolitionists crying in the wilderness for a kinder world (Otterbein was founded by the United Brethren in 1847, with women on the faculty and women admitted as full students, though it would take more than a decade to hazard a black student); then came a bloody Civil War over slavery; after a hundred more years of tears, came the civil rights movement and legislation. We now have a black president, who has pledged to God—presumably still limited to America and its allies—to preserve this union.

Last Wednesday, Troy Burton, a black Otterbein senior from Louisville, Kentucky, led the choir in its final performance in China, on the stage of the Xi’an People’s Art Theater; our school’s gifted conductor, Gayle Walker, had been felled by illness. Troy wore an easy smile with his tux, but the singers knew he was nervous—an undergraduate conducting in China before a full house of 1,200. The choir rose, their eyes upon him, their voices soaring with uncommon strength and grace. When they left the stage, the audience applauded, wildly for China, and as that wave subsided, a Chinese woman called out to Troy from the darkness, “Obama!” We laughed, of course, but her shout was more than a joke. The Chinese people have seen something, and grown somehow closer to us, from afar.

The crowd that night, as always, loved the Chinese folk songs, the rollicking “Buffalo Gals,” and the Christmas carols, especially “Silent Night,” which caused them to whisper in recognition. But it was the Otterbein Concert Choir’s powerful performance of “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” that raised the hairs on the back of my neck. This verse says it all:

He delivered Daniel
From the lion’s den,
And Jonah from the belly of the whale,
And the Hebrew children
From the fiery furnace,
Then why not every man?

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Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, evolutionary psychology, MY LIFE, narrative, politics, religion & spirituality

Obama’s ‘Dreams from My Father’

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama. Three Rivers Press, 457 pages

I’ve written about Barack Obama a couple times on this blog. In “Narrative Nation” I explored the meta-meaning of his presidential campaign; in “Behind the Barn” I told how my wife’s family’s barn in northwestern Ohio became one of only about three “Obama Barns” in the entire state.

Now I’ve finally read Obama’s first book, his memoir, Dreams from My Father, and am impressed with him as a writer, not just as in “he’s a good writer,” but as in he’s a writer. Or was, before his political day jobs took him away. I feel like I know him much better, a man with gifts and burdens, someone who had to forge his own identity far more consciously than most people do. His exploration of this identity, half white and half black genetically—but only black in the white world’s eyes, especially when he moved to the American mainland for college—is central. And though I’d assumed he hadn’t faced prejudice while growing up in diverse Indonesia and Hawaii, I was wrong.

My favorite part is the first third in which he recreates his childhood and college years. The conflict here, his doubts, confusion, anger, is personal. His depiction of his white grandfather—ribald, whiskey drinking, garrulous—is just great, an earthy portrait, far from that of the sober Kansan I’d expected.

Confident as a boy—his mother, grandparents, and even his absent, charismatic father all believed in his destiny—Obama suffered a dissolute, cynical period in college. (He did every drug but heroin, where he drew the line, despite a buddy’s urgings.) He allowed the white world that had rejected him to co-opt the values he’d been raised with. He lost hope, rejected those values, and tried to become a bad ass. It took him time to regain his footing:

I rose from my couch and opened my front door, the pent-up smoke trailing me out of the room like a spirit. Up above, the moon had slipped out of sight, only its glow still visible along the rim of high clouds. The sky had begun to lighten; the air tasted of dew.

Look at yourself before you pass judgment. Don’t make someone else clean up your mess. It’s not about you. They were such simple points, homilies I had heard a thousand times before, in all their variations, from TV sitcoms and philosophy books, from my grandparents and from my mother. I had stopped listening at a certain point, I now realized, so wrapped up had I been in my own perceived injuries, so eager was I to escape the imagined traps that white authority had set for me. To that white world, I had been willing to cede the values of my childhood, as if those values were somehow irreversibly soiled by the endless falsehoods that white spoke about black.

Except now I was hearing the same thing from black people I respected, people with more excuses for bitterness than I might ever claim for myself. Who told you that being honest was a white thing? they asked me. Who sold you this bill of goods, that your situation exempted you from being thoughtful or diligent of kind, or that morality had a color? You’ve lost your way, brother. Your ideas about yourself—about who you are and who you might become—have grown stunted and narrow and small.

I sat down on the doorstep and rubbed the knot on the back of my neck. How had that happened? I started to ask myself, but before the question had even formed in my mind, I already knew the answer. Fear. The same fear that had caused me to push Coretta way back in grammar school. The same fear that had caused me to ridicule Tim in front of Marcus and Reggie. The constant, crippling fear that I didn’t belong somehow, that unless I dodged and hid and pretended to be something I wasn’t I would forever remain an outsider, with the rest of the world, black and white, always standing in judgment.

Obama tries to keep himself in the story in the next section, which depicts his years of political organizing in Chicago’s black neighborhoods. But the narrative turns less personal, slightly less vivid—the conflict is more societal—and more compelling in biographical and historical terms. His daily life, other than at work, isn’t clear. But his finally joining a church, the one whose erudite but angry pastor later would be used against him, was a significant and interesting thread and it climaxes this section. Finally he bends the narrative into a satisfying arc by bringing his story to Kenya, where he meets his father’s family, some of whom adore him and some of whom are touchy, easily slighted, offended by this handsome American’s long absence from Africa.

Obama’s election in law school as head of the Harvard Law Review, the first African American to hold that post, got him the memoir contract. Publishers saw the historic significance of his selection and gambled on him. This paid, obviously. Dreams from My Father appeared about the time he was elected to the senate.

Of course it’s impossible to read the book now except as a portrait of the politician as a young man. His story was worth telling, and he possessed the talent to tell it beautifully, but it was published (and probably in large part written) because Obama was marked for greatness in public life. He knew it—anyone with eyes to see knew it. This might seem to diminish the book slightly, qua memoir, but it’s also the truth that it was the story he owned, was his to tell.

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Filed under memoir, politics, REVIEW

Narrative nation

Literature is fragrant with the compost of human misery. With the never-ending story of our impossible burden. With our failure to reach our promise and with our effort to redeem. Journalism, catching history on the fly, is at its best when it holds our stated ideals (the Constitution, say) beside our practice. When it tugs at the sleeve. Truth be told, though, the press’s daily practical purpose is to supply information (anecdotes and images, actually) that help us gauge a leader’s worthiness. I think we’re most interested, as a species, in worthiness. At least where lovers and leaders are concerned. In politicians we weigh our sense of authenticity against how much pragmatism (necessary hypocrisy) we’ll swallow to see our guy elected.

Watching this historic moment, when a young man with the air of greatness about him may ascend to our presidency, the electorate’s hypocrisy detectors are finely tuned. To mix the metaphor with an old expression: We’re reading tea leaves. We compare emerging stories with our own explanations, our inner narratives.

To have seen John McCain—a patriot, a thoughtful and deeply read man, an admirable servant, his flawed temperament notwithstanding—sell his soul in an attempt to be elected has simply hurt. Here was a man, tortured himself in Vietnam, who took on the administration for torture—and then trashed his brave narrative in order to win his party’s nomination. He turned himself into an object lesson (you can lose your way at any age) and into a metaphor for today’s Republican Party: old, angry, corrupt, bereft of ideas. (With friends and beloved kin who consider my narrative as crazy as I find theirs inconceivable, it makes me think our inner stories—as seemingly central as they are—are indeed a mere constructed overlay and not the central core of our being.)

I do hope the GOP suffers exile and thus purges the extremist radicals who’ve taken over. We need two parties—argument and counter argument. We need fresh faces to put in office when whichever entrenched party grows corrupt, as it will. I’ve always loved the tragic grandeur of the story of how the Democratic Party was destroyed politically as a result of LBJ’s civil rights legislation in 1964 that cost it the white vote in the south. And in my inner narrative this is how, wandering in the wilderness, it became the moderate party. A similar fate is my prayer for the Republicans.

A fondness for redemption and rebirth through suffering may say more about my narrative than about politics or history. I attended the Southern Baptist Church as a boy, after all. But, as I say, we each have master narratives. I’ve realized my unconscious model for TV newsmen is Walter Cronkite, whom I watched with my conservative father, who seemed to approve of him. Thus I imprinted on Cronkite’s integrity-exuding manner: in my inner script newscasters should be fair to both sides and rise above either’s expediency. Mean and divisive FOX News and CNN’s Lou Dobbs, a demagogic panderer, have driven me to PBS’s Jim Lehrer and Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart for TV news. I might have thought the return of ideologically driven news on a mass scale would be a good thing—take your pick and feed your chosen narrative—but the blurring of news and opinion has stuck in my craw. Jowly old Cronkite is guarding certain gates.

It was a sad irony when a blogger for the liberal Huffington Post revealed last April that Barack Obama told a group in San Francisco—oh God!—that common folk are hard to reach because in their despair over lost jobs they “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.” This hasn’t seemed to gain traction as a proof of unworthiness, except with people who’d never vote for him anyway, but was an indigestible bit I’ve gummed ever since. It didn’t fit my narrative about him.

Thus Matt Bai performed a great service in the New York Times Magazine of this past Sunday when he made that anecdote a centerpiece of his inquiry into the candidate’s amazing appeal. (Bai confirms the apparent reality of Obama’s freakishly rare inner peace—the evidence of ultimate worthiness, perhaps, in our species: like Popeye or Yahweh, he is what he is). Bai quotes Obama:

“How it was interpreted in the press was Obama talking to a bunch of wine-sipping San Francisco liberals with an anthropological view toward white working-class voters. And I was actually making the reverse point, clumsily, which is that these voters have a right to be frustrated because they’ve been ignored. And because Democrats haven’t met them halfway on cultural issues, we’ve not been able to communicate to them effectively an economic agenda that would help broaden our coalition.”

I believe him.

But then I see Obama like Lincoln, a man produced by the nation to save it from itself. Lincoln, a tough pol, outwardly untroubled, got in office and tapped great depths and preserved our republic. Some rise to greatness and some fall. Some write a new story, and some don’t. Literature and life tell us so.

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Filed under journalism, narrative, politics