Michael Knox Beran
The Banality of Race
David Remnick’s life of Obama exemplifies the moral laziness of today’s liberalism.
23 April 2010
The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, by David Remnick (Knopf, 672 pp., $29.95)
In March 2007, Barack Obama, then the junior senator from Illinois and a presidential aspirant, spoke in the Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama. Just over 40 years before, civil rights marchers were horribly beaten at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma by state troopers under the command of Sheriff Jim Clark. In the pulpit of Brown Chapel, Obama laid claim to the legacy of the civil rights heroes who suffered on the bridge. “So don’t tell me I don’t have a claim on Selma, Alabama,” Obama said. “Don’t tell me I’m not coming home when I come to Selma, Alabama. I’m here because somebody marched.” Congressman John Lewis, whose skull was cracked at Selma, endorsed the claim: Obama, he said, “is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma.”
In The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, David Remnick portrays the 44th president as a fulfillment of the promise of the civil rights generation. There can be no doubt that Obama’s identification with those heroes is part of the story of his life and work; in reaching the White House, he has realized a dream that seemed quixotic not so long ago, when Jim Crow laws were still in force. But the president’s conception of himself as a fellow-laborer in the vineyards of the civil rights prophets is surely not the whole story. In studying Obama almost exclusively as a man of racial destiny, Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, not only fails to pluck out the heart of the president’s mystery; he evokes a vision of race that has become a too-familiar element in modern liberalism, an article of faith that has done a good deal to undermine liberalism’s moral sensibility.
It is not simply that the racial aperture in The Bridge is too narrow to do justice to the ascent Remnick traces. A book constructed on the figurative underpinning of the bridge at Selma is practically bound to be organized as a morality play. But the tone of moral indignation, so justified where the incidents in Selma in 1965 are concerned, is less obviously fitting where the subject is a man’s rise to the presidency. The passionate pursuit of political power is always a morally ambiguous spectacle; there is a shortage of both satisfactory saints and believable scoundrels. A moral romance, however, requires a villain, and in The Bridge Remnick is at pains to make racism into the dragon that his hero must dramatically slay.
The effort fails even as didactic poetry, for the dragon shows itself to be not very fierce. It is true that some racially charged statements were made during Obama’s run for the White House. Yet Remnick himself describes how Obama’s lieutenants discovered, as the campaign went on, that “race was helping far more than it was hurting” their man’s candidacy. This is, to say the least, artistically unsatisfying: the gallant knight reaches the lair of the beast only to find that his antagonist is already half dead.
At this point the book becomes amusing. For Remnick is by now irrevocably committed to the demands of the genre he has chosen. His hero must be virtuous; those who oppose him must be either knaves or fools. John McCain, in Remnick’s telling, is a knave; in jousting with the future president, the Arizona senator and naval hero “forfeited some part of what he valued most in himself—his sense of honor.” Hillary Clinton is Remnick’s fool: in the heat of the primary contest, she stupidly flirts with old-fashioned race-baiting even though (as the rival campaign well knows) racism has become so negligible a force in American life that Obama’s color is an asset rather than a liability. Remnick shows Clinton ineptly turning to yesterday’s playbook in an attempt to insinuate that whites without college degrees won’t vote for a black candidate. He quotes her citing polls that, in her words, show
How Senator Obama’s support among working, hardworking Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how the, you know, whites in both states [Kentucky and West Virginia] who had not completed college were supporting me.
The phrasing, Remnick says, “was so maladroit (to be charitable) and the racial sensitivities so heightened, that Clinton came in for another round of criticism.”
As for the more recent Tea Party opposition to President Obama’s policies, Remnick deplores it as founded partly on covert racism. The “angriest of the Tea Party demonstrators,” he writes, “usually avoided overtly racist language; instead they spoke of ‘taking our country back.’” But we all know what they meant, eh? The Tea Partiers might profess to uphold the principles of limited government; strip them of their patriot pretenses, however, and you find, according to Remnick, that they resent the “spectacle of a black President’s speaking out honestly, even emotionally, about race in general.” The “racial component of the opposition” to Obama is not, Remnick concedes, the “dominant strain” in the popular antipathy to the president’s program—here he parts company with Frank Rich of the New York Times—but it is, he says, a “presence.” How could it not be, when earlier Republican leaders, or so Remnick supposes, cultivated the noxious plant so assiduously? On slender evidence, he convicts both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush of race-baiting.
It is naturally discouraging to learn that so many Americans—the Bushes, the Clintons, Reagan, and McCain, among others—have such glaring faults and weaknesses. But in Remnick’s version, one leader and his disciples seem, mirabile dictu, to have been spared the innate human propensity to evil. Obama and his supporters glow, in The Bridge, with a kind of supernatural righteousness. The note of self-congratulation in the book eventually becomes wearisome; unlike the canonization rites of the Vatican, Remnick’s beatification of the president is unrelieved by even a cursory appearance of an advocatus diaboli.
Edmund Wilson once observed that “sincere reactionaries,” from Dr. Johnson to Dostoevsky, were beset by a “vision of human sin.” The progressive reformer, by contrast, was either “free from a sense of guilt” or had “evolved a psychological mechanism which enables him to turn moral judgments against himself into moral judgments against society.” Here is a clue to the banality, the moral vacancy, in modern liberalism that The Bridge too often reflects. If conservatives can be unintelligently narrow, liberals can be insufferably sanctimonious. In vain did Lionel Trilling warn the liberals of his day that their equation of progressive reform and moral virtue was a formula for self-delusion, a self-satisfaction that threatened to blind them to the evils of the very politics—so ostensibly liberal, enlightened, and humane—on which they prided themselves. “Some paradox of our nature leads us,” Trilling wrote in The Liberal Imagination, “when once we have made our fellow men the objects of our enlightened interest, to go on to make them objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion.”
What the progressive politics of social equity was to the liberalism of Trilling’s day, the progressive politics of race is to the liberalism of our own. Both are forms of moral escapism; both represent a flight from self-knowledge and self-doubt to a dubious refuge of self-righteousness, one that Trilling associated with tragedy. If 50 or 60 years ago liberals needed courage to denounce racism, today their exaltation of the virtues of color is a painless way for them to feel good about themselves without doing any moral heavy lifting. In pretending that racism is one of the profounder evils in contemporary American life, the bien-pensant liberal not only excuses himself from the demands of what Trilling called the “moral imagination”; he also conveniently overlooks the unfruitfulness of his own progressive solutions to the problems of poverty, crime, and ghetto despair.
President Obama, it is true, is advertised as a different, more thoughtful kind of liberal, one exempt from what David Mamet has called liberal brain-death. He has been praised for a lack of self-righteousness and hubris, the complacency that begets the moral tragedy that Trilling dreaded. Newsweek’s Jon Meacham attributes to him “an ironic and tragic sensibility” that is positively Trillingesque, and David Brooks supposes that he has been influenced by the tragic Lincoln. The president himself has said that Shakespeare is among his favorite reading, and he could doubtless preach a plausible sermon on the humility that tragedy teaches. Yet Doris Kearns Goodwin, who met him after her own extended immersion in Lincoln, may well be right when she says, “The tragic sense doesn’t seem to be there.”
But put Obama aside. He is a practicing politician. One does not expect to find reserves of tragic doubt in those who are daily engaged in political battles and the strife of sound bites. The soldier on the front line, under whatever banner he has enlisted, has got to do his best to close his mind against a certain suppleness of thought, the luxurious latitude of imagination in which the mere civilian can safely indulge. George W. Bush displayed the unsubtle confidence of a leader in pushing the War on Terror hard—some would say too hard. Obama displayed the same unshrinking confidence in pushing nationalized health care hard—some would say too hard. It is true that Lincoln eventually achieved the tragic humility that allowed him to say, “With malice towards none; with charity for all . . .” But the transfiguration took place only at the end of his life, after he had gone through torments that he supposed were worse than those of hell.
It is just because the political leader, called to assert his will in a life of action, cannot permit himself to be hobbled by an excess of doubt or moral subtlety that it falls to a political movement’s scribes, to its clerks and philosophers, to warn of the temptations of smugness. Trilling performed this office for liberals in middle of the last century; conservatives have got a whole library on the subject that goes back to Saint Augustine, if not to the Book of Genesis. But Trilling is a prophet no longer honored in the liberal movement to which he was devoted. (I leave for another occasion the question of whether the wisdom of Augustine is sufficiently venerated by conservatives.)
The Bridge is disappointing precisely because it is the work of a man who might conceivably have emulated Trilling. The book, with all its flaws, contains much brilliant writing and a good deal of useful insight. Its author is, into the bargain, the head of a great liberal institution, and he is engaged in work that does not absolutely preclude sustained reflection. It is therefore to be regretted that he has composed a panegyric upon the president that is lazily content with the obvious but shallow story line and with what, in 2010, has become the cheap morality of racial melodrama.
If The Bridge has its strengths, it must finally be classed as another attempt to sustain the myth that racial oppression is one of the cardinal sins of today’s America. This comforting baby’s bottle of modern liberalism is a largely fabricated fantasy, yet it is not without real dangers. It has not only spawned an unhealthy obsession with the color of our skins that too often comes at the expense of a more just interest in the content of our characters; it has lulled liberals into the sort of moral complacency that they so frequently deplore in others.
Michael Knox Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal. His most recent book is Forge of Empires 1861–1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made.