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Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win
By Shelby Steele

Extended Book Review

This is a book that probably had to be written for it illustrates certain facets of our history of blatant and violent bigotry. It is also a book after its time--it misses or misreads important and historic events. We do not see things as being bad as Steele paints them. He slots American black people as being either bargainers or challengers. In fact, that is not true. There are other varieties and Barack Obama is one of them. He neither challenges nor bargains. He is a black man by his own definition, but most of all he is a human being. He looks at humanity with equality, transcending differences of which color is only one. More importantly, Obama lives equality in all the good meanings of the word. Steele seems to begrudge that fact.

Although cleverly written and glib, Steele's book misreads Obama. Another misread, and equally serious, is his view of American cultural trends. Some years ago, perhaps, we might have agreed with some of his simplified assessments. But recent events, exemplified by the 2008 Potomac Primaries, are that the American voting public sees Obama as a man, not a man of color. [They also see Hillary Clinton as a potential leader of the US, not just a "woman" leader.] Whether or not Obama wins the nomination or the presidency, he has made history. [So will have Clnton for the same reason, courtesy of Susan B. Anthony and numerous others.] Obama is living Dr. Martin Luther King's dream, just not in the way the good doctor envisioned. Rather than challenge or bargain, Obama simply lives the dream. He is an example for all of us, even if he never does anything more.

To be sure bigotry lives on in these United States of America. But it has lost the stranglehold it once had on our national conscience. Of course Rosa Parks, King, and countless others, challenged and bargained. That was necessary during the Civil Rights Movement. What Barack Obama has done is show us that we as a nation can move beyond the Civil-Rights issue to not just blame or forgive, but to a new reality beyond the dream. Indeed, America largely has already. Each of us has the same potential for dignity in this world, and that dignity is worth living and preserving; it is more than our birthright. The past is to be learned from, not relived or denied. Of course this view is idealistic. He is in another sense a very ordinary person, with the many frailties that that go with being human. Even so, many of us lesser mortals have lived pieces of his dream--so he is possible.

Back to Steele and his content. Take his middle paragraph on page seven. Steele begins with Obama's statement that he is rooted in the African-American community but is more than that. [That Obama is running for president after two years in the Senate attests in fact to the 'more than.'] Steele then tags Obama with a complex identity that forces him to try to simplify his persona. Steele then says this reduces Obama to a banality. "What can 'rooted' or 'more than that' mean?" Steele asks. After some convoluted ill-logic, Steele answers his own question: "To become recognizable, he processes himself through the same dumb racial math--he is one thing plus something more--that has been the very source of his vulnerability." Then there is the sub-title of Steele's book: "Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win." This catchy phrase helps sell the book. Upon a read, however, one finds Steele dwells mostly upon the latter. We wonder what his deepest motives really are.

Could he be trying to torpedo Obama's campaign?

His readers will decide!

Whatever we might think about that, Steele'e title, A Bound Man" takes on added significance. Nowhere in Obama's own words, can we find any evidence of his being "bound" in any way except to humanity and to lead. In his own words, what Steele meant by "bound," is: "He is a bound man because he cannot be two opposing world views at the same time--he cannot grant whites their racial innocence and simultaneously withhold it from them." Here Steele falls into a trap of "either/or" thinking, conventionalism. No "race" is innocent. If Obama ever wore shackles in his mind, they are long gone. He is a slave to neither ideology nor special interests. The context of Obama is humanity, the species, not the various breeds therein. At the same time, Obama identifies himself as a black person because our culture views all 'partly black' simply as black, a relic of our racist, dehumanizing, history. At the same time he looks beyond resentment, punishment or the laying on of guilt. American heritage is, after all, becoming mixed ethnic.

Steele's first sentence is about Obama's white mother and black father, which is also his own fortune. Steele understands biracial history well when he writes: "Our vulnerability is that both blacks and whites can use our impossible racial authenticity against us" [our mixed heritage]. This statement is undoubtedly true. It is our take that the difference, the main basic difference, between Steele and Obama lies in how they view and handle the question of just what it is that makes a person authentic.

To Obama, in his own words, it first of all means being human, being real. Obama reaches beyond the "Dream" King gave his life for. Obama's wife Michelle, has always understood that. Now it seems that much of the American public does as well. We need look no further than the 2008 primary ballots boxes. 2009 could yet mark the beginning of a peaceful revolution such as the world has never seen. At least he gives us hope that that might happen. As much as we admire both Clinton and McCain, neither raises such expectations. To us, this is an essence of leadership.

Obama, the persona, is not about White guilt or Black opportunism. Obama is about humanity in all it pluses and minuses. He is, by his own admission, not perfect--he is just an example of what it will take to cool violence, find better ways to resolve differences. Above all, he is human in the achieving sense of the word. Coming from a racially-mixed and broken family, he somehow put his head together better than most of us manage to. He already is a role model. To Steele's great credit, he gives Obama his due; Obama's achievements through 2007, amount to a turning point in American cultural attitudes. Regardless of how Obama fares in 2008 and beyond, Steele put that attitude change in sharp relief. What Steele missed is why that happened and its potential ramifications.

Steel is correct when he dismisses Colin Powell from that role (and Condoleezza Rice). Each of these black people are great individuals. But they were appointed to their jobs, not elected as Obama was. His achievements reflect progress in American public attitudes.

In any event, we wonder what Steele is thinking now, 13 February 2008, after Obama's recent string of eight stirring primary victories--Obama can win. Hillary Clinton will have to remake her campaign in a hurry to stop the momentum Obama has generated beginning with Super Tuesday when unexpectedly he fought Clinton to a draw, and continuing through Maine and the Potomac primaries.

The truly vulnerable, or bound as Steele would have it, have all dropped out of the primary races on both sides of the aisle. Together, Obama and Clinton have turned a page of history: Americans are pitching bigotry out of the election equation with a clarity that is breathtaking; this could be a cultural renewal of democracy of the first order. To be sure, Obama's success is due to that long process begun so long ago by Lincoln--that peaked with Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. Obama is the person of the hour; he has shaken off the the usual option-make the whites feel guilty. It is no accident that Obama has been pointing toward being the right person at the right time. He knows who he is; he shows no animosity toward any other race or any mixture. He knows he can lead, and he wants to.

In Issue No. 1, 2008, pg 169, the Hoover Digest reports an interview of Steele by Margaret Wente (Toronto Globe and Main). In that interview, Steele put the present historic issues succinctly and in sharp relief. Nevertheless, he disparaged Obama when he said: "No one really knows what the man really believes, I think least of all himself." This statement seems to be projection by Steele. Or maybe it is admiration of the love/hate variety.

Steel's book has some banality, to use his word. Yet it has some redeeming facets. His book looks in part like a projection of himself. It is certainly well worth the read by those interested in Steele as a personality. He shows his warts as Obama does his. Most people see warts as such in most of us. Those who do not may still be stuck in Ku-Klux-Klan thinking which belongs in the dustbin of history.

For those concerned about cultural psychology and/or peace, Steele's book is a recommended read--as long as it is not the only such read. See Book and Article Reviews for other recommendations.


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