"It profits me but little that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquillity of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life."

--Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Obama as Gatsby

An important article today from David Maraniss in the Washington Post examines Obama's construction of his identity as a black American, after growing up half-white, half-black in Indonesia and Hawaii, and after being raised by his white mother and her family.   "Construction" is the appropriate term, as one of his early Pakistani friends at Columbia relates:

"Barack was the most deliberate person I ever met in terms of constructing his own identity, and . . . that was an important period for him, first the shift from not international but American, number one, and then not white, but black.”

Now America has always had a strong tradition of self-made men and to the degree that Obama fits into that tradition he is to be admired.   It truly is an amazing story for a young man from a broken home, half-white, half-black, to make it all the way from Indonesia to the White House.   In this he is much more like a Bill Clinton than an FDR or a JFK (or a Mitt Romney, for that matter); he is a man who rose simply on his own talent and audacity (with an emphasis on the latter... lots of people have talent, many fewer have audacity... in my own life I've come to grips with the fact that I might have a surfeit of the former, but I have a lack of the latter), and not because of family or inherited wealth or position.

On the other hand, that character of the American self-made man is also the basis for the dark flip-side of the American dream -- the figure of Gatsby, whose past is a mystery, whose power has a taint of corruption... the man from nowhere who cannot be trusted.   

We have a lot of choices in 2012.   A choice between socialism and free market capitalism.   A choice between the values of the 1960s left and the 1950s center-right.   A choice between a European social-democratic vision of expansive, intrusive government, and an American vision of limited Constitutional government.  

But we also have a choice between two versions of the classic American hero.   If you believe that Obama is a Benjamin Franklin-esque self-made man of achievement and virtue and devotion to the public good, you will vote for him.   If you believe that Obama is a Gatsbyesque huckster devoted to power at all costs, a man who has and will continue to lie about himself, a man whose invented self is a facade of falsehoods, then you will vote against him and for the unheroic, self-effacing, responsible adult, Romney.

For me, at 53, I tend to admire competent adult men who know who they are, and tend to fear men whose characters seem invented.

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