Dreams From My Father

DREAMS FROM MY FATHER….Alexander Konetzki is a liberal who decided to start his journalism career as an assistant editor at The American Conservative. It was an odd choice, to be sure, but apparently he made a pretty good go of it until a couple of months ago when the magazine finally published a piece that pushed him over the edge: a review of Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father written by noted race obsessive Steve Sailer. Konetzki tells his story in our current issue:

Even before I read the piece I knew I wouldn’t like it. TAC’s editor, who was pleased with Sailer’s work, had told me as much. But I found the piece so offensive when I first read it that I jumped out of my chair and rushed into the managing editor’s office to try to kill it on the spot. She and the editor promptly dismissed my objections. The piece is provocative, they said — it’s edgy. It’s racist, I said — and the magazine will be regarded as such for publishing it.

….The weekend after Kara and Scott dismissed my objections to Sailer’s essay, I read Dreams From My Father….I arrived at the office on Monday….And when I went to her office with Obama’s book in hand, asking again whether we could discuss things, she called across the hall to Scott, who said, “Yeah, look, Alexander, this matter has already been decided. The piece is being published as it is.” I pointed out that I had read the book, and Sailer’s characterization of Obama was factually incorrect. “I have too many other things to worry about,” Scott said coldly. “Steve Sailer is a longtime friend of the magazine, and if you and he read a book differently, well, I’ll take his reading over yours any day.”

This got me curious. I had gotten a copy of Dreams From My Father for Christmas, so I sat down to read it. Then I read Sailer’s essay, “Obama’s Identity Crisis.” So who’s right?

In a word, Konetzki. Basically, Sailer argues that far from being a man who “transcends race,” Obama, at least up through 1995, when Dreams was published, “found solace in nursing a pervasive sense of grievance and animosity against his mother’s race” — i.e., white people. “Why was Obama so insistent upon rejecting the white race?” he asks.

This is, to put it mildly, a crock. Sailer tries to back up his thesis with a few carefully cherry-picked quotes, but even taken at face value all he shows is that Obama was occasionally either annoyed or angry with some of the actions of his white friend and relatives. And it’s true. He was. But it’s absurd to suggest that this demonstrates some kind of deep-seated animosity. I imagine a dark-skinned man growing up in America would have to be a saint to go through life without ever feeling that way.

None of which is to say that Obama wasn’t confused and uncomfortable with his racial identity for much of his first three decades. In fact, that’s the whole point of the book. What’s more — and this is the part of Dreams I found most peculiar — it’s never really clear why. In language that’s often florid and overwrought, but also oddly artificial, he tells us how he feels, but the circumstances of his life are never drawn starkly enough to make it clear why he feels the way he does.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’m white. Maybe African-American readers understand Obama’s feelings without the need for lengthy explanation. Either way, though, the book makes it clear that Obama’s racial angst mostly takes the form of trying to construct a workable black identity for himself. He’s fascinated, as anyone would be, by the Kenyan father he met only once and the extended Kenyan family he’s never met at all (his eventual trip to Kenya to meet them forms the final section of the book), and Sailer wants us to believe that this act of black identification automatically suggests a rejection of Obama’s white heritage. Unfortunately, this says more about Sailer’s state of mind than Obama’s. There’s simply nothing in the book to seriously back it up.

And then there’s Sailer’s conclusion, in which he hints that if Obama becomes president his youthful racial confusion might return, morphing him into an African-style “big man” dedicated to doling out goodies to the Urban League instead of governing as the levelheaded wonk we all think he is. This is almost a parody of Sailer’s usual race obsession, and one that literally comes out of nowhere. Like the rest of the essay, Sailer would have been better off letting Konetzki take a very thick blue pencil to it.