The unbearable lightness of being Obama

The former US president lacks conviction and this is apparent in every page and chapter of his new memoir.

"A Promised Land" by former President Barack Obama is displayed in the window of a New York bookstore on November 18, 2020 [AP/Mark Lennihan]
"A Promised Land" by former President Barack Obama is displayed in the window of a New York bookstore on November 18, 2020 [AP/Mark Lennihan]

I am an invisible man. No I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe … I might even be said to possess a mind. 

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

Reading memoirs of bygone politicians out to make a quick buck by reminiscing about their time in office is not exactly my cup of tea. But being in quarantine since last March in the Big Beautiful Apple teaches any old dog some new tricks.

Obama’s new book, A Promised Land, is already a social phenomenon, with some even suggesting it may help struggling bookstores in these pandemic times. It is the first of a planned two-volume set sold to Penguin Random House, along with his wife’s memoir Becoming, for a whopping $65 million.

The publishers clearly thought they could make way more than the $65 million they gave to the Obamas by selling these memoirs across the world, and I made my modest contribution to their efforts to get a good return on their investment by buying my own copy. I even ordered the book on Amazon, making Jeff Bezos a bit richer in the process, too. Obama and Bezos delivered. The mighty volume was in my hands in 24 hours.

Al Jazeera: The Fox News of the Arab World!

I sat down with Obama’s book, with a cup of my reassuring tea in tow, thumbing through its pages. I looked at the glossy pictures inside, read the acknowledgements, the preface, the dust jacket blurbs and even the photo credits. Then I went up and down the index.

All these seemingly secondary elements are actually crucial to any book, as they make up what the French literary theorist Gérard Genette calls the “Paratext” – material that frames the main text and shapes the way it is received and interpreted by the public.

The carefully crafted paratext of this 768-page memoir, from the front cover featuring a handsome and ageing photograph of Obama to the back cover showing him looking towards the Washington Memorial through a window in the Oval Office, emits an august presidential aura. When you take the book in your hands and glance through its pages, you immediately know that you are in the presence of a mighty commander-in-chief, as the saying goes, with his own kill list and squadron of drones to boot.

The index is perhaps the most important part of the paratext, as it tells the reader what names and subjects matter the most. So I dived in there to have an understanding of Obama and his editors’ priorities.

I first looked for the words Palestine and Palestinian. I could not find these words in the index, despite there being several discussions on Palestine in the main text. Obama tells us, for example, that he wanted to go to Tel Aviv in 2009, on his way back from Cairo where he delivered a speech calling for a “new beginning” in US-Muslim relations. The Israelis apparently declined his request, as they did not want him to create the impression that the Palestinian question was “the primary focus” of his Cairo speech or that “the Arab-Israeli conflict was the root cause of the Middle East’s turmoil”.

While such revelations were not deemed important enough to get the word Palestine included in the index, there are plenty of items under Israel and the Israel-Palestine “conflict”. It seems it is only the Palestinians and their homeland that do not exist in Obama’s index.

Out of curiosity, I also looked for this publication, Al Jazeera, in the memoir’s index. It was there pointing to a segment complaining about Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s refusal to take part in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political chicanery.

While criticising Abbas for dismissing a promise by Israel to briefly halt the construction of illegal settlements as “meaningless”, Obama blames Al Jazeera for convincing other Arab leaders to take a similar stance.

“Other Arab leaders quickly echoed [Abbas’] sentiments,” the former president writes, “spurred in part by editorialising from Al Jazeera – the Qatari-controlled media outlet that had become the dominant news source in the region, having built its popularity by fanning the flames of anger and resentment among Arabs with the same algorithmic precision that Fox News deployed so skillfully with conservative white voters in the States.”

Wow! Just wow! One critical voice in the entirety of the Arab and Muslim world not beholden to Obama’s liberal imperialism and he compares it to the nastiest racist outlet in the United States!

Then I looked for the word Iran. It was there, though the Index got the date of the CIA-MI6 coup in Iran wrong. It was in 1953, not in 1951 as the Index says. Imagine, the army of researchers, editors, speech writers and presidential staff that helped Obama put this book together could not even get one crucial date that changed the lives of millions of human beings right.

After going through the entries in the index for some time, I eventually began reading the book itself.

The book, in the end, does not disappoint or surprise. It is what it is: an overdose of Obama’s endearing liberal chumminess, packaged nicely to appease millions of his admirers. A Promised Land is an autobiography of his innocence, his best intentions, his political enemies, his immoral dilemmas. But there is also an invisible ghost hovering over the book – Donald Trump, who was working to dismantle Obama’s legacy in the White House as he was writing these pages. The book is as much an overcompensation for Trump’s demolition derby presidency as it is a tribute to the Obama years.

The immoral consequences of the presidency of a fanatical centrist

The significance of Obama’s A Promised Land, published at this particular juncture in American history, overrides my disdain for his brand of hypocritical environmentalism, “gentler and kinder” warmongering and “liberal” Zionism.

When you read Obama, no matter how much you may disagree with him, you feel reassured you are in the presence of a literate person, a man who can put three consecutive sentences together and form a meaningful paragraph.

This may not mean much in any other civilised country, but in America, after four full years of Donald Trump’s deranged tweets, it is reassuring to remember that there are some among the species of American presidents who are capable of forming a basic argument.

But A Promised Land, while contrasting Trump with Obama, not only underlines the former’s illiteracy, but also the latter’s lack of conviction.

It is as if the famous lines of WB Yeats’s signature poem, The Second Coming, were composed precisely for Obama and Trump:

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

If Obama’s liberal aspirations had only a fraction of Trump’s racist fanaticism.

Obama lacks conviction, and this sad truth is apparent in every page and chapter of A Promised Land.

In this memoir, Obama offers little more than a detailed documentation of his gutless centrism and weak excuses and explanations for the hopelessly immoral and reactionary choices he made as president.

During his two-term presidency, Obama crafted a whole new military logic for murderous drone warfare. The full militarisation of American police also took place on his watch. He was dubbed “deporter-in-chief” because of the wanton cruelties of his immigration policies. Trump’s proverbial “Muslim ban” actually began during his presidency. But in this memoir, all these facts get lost in the miasmatic labyrinth of the former president’s verbose meanderings.

Lost also in these pages is any sense of a moral compass. Obama unleashes an avalanche of words to excuse and justify an almost entirely useless presidency – a position of power he used to empower the already powerful, and cause even more suffering to the defenceless. If he is truly a Christian, he must remember Matthew 16:2 and ask himself, “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

False assurances in dangerous times

Let us forget about Obama’s lost soul and turn to the verbosity of his prose.  Obama’s memoir more than anything else is an intimate, cozy, almost folksy, and self-endearing account of his years as the president of the United States. I can well see how reading this account, after four terrorising years of Donald Trump, would be soothing, comforting and reassuring for Americans.

He writes disarmingly of his coming to terms with his new living and working environment in the White House. He writes lovingly of “the most senior butlers” in the White House, who were “a pair of big, round-bellied Black men with sly senses of humor and the wisdom that comes from having a front-row seat to history”.

When he asked them to treat the first family a bit less formally, Obama tells us, they would not hear of it:

“‘We just want to make sure you’re treated like every other president,’ Von explained.‘That’s right,’ Buddy said. ‘See, you and the First Lady don’t really know what this means to us, Mr President. Having you here ….’ He shook his head. ‘You just don’t know.’”

There are also those tantalising moments in the book when you are almost sure he knows the truth:

“I recognize that there are those who believe that it’s time to discard the myth,” Obama writes “that an examination of America’s past and an even cursory glance at today’s headlines show that this nation’s ideals have always been secondary to conquest and subjugation, a racial caste system and rapacious capitalism, and that to pretend otherwise is to be complicit in a game that was rigged from the start.”

Now that sentence could have been paraphrased into an active voice and made to lead Obama’s insight into his own character and the character of a nation that half despises and half adores him. But alas it does not. The Chicago politician in him never leaves his prose and politics for a second in peace.

He also misreads his own and Trump’s election when he says Trump “promised an elixir for the racial anxiety” of “millions of Americans spooked by a Black man in the White House”.

What a terrible misreading of his own election and what followed! Millions of Americans of all walks of life enthusiastically elected Obama to office, twice. No doubt there is a serious segment of the most racist Americans who hated him then and who hate him now and to whose basest instincts Trump appealed. But Obama refuses to see the corruption of Trump’s adversary Hillary Clinton, and even more fundamentally, his own complacency in the corruption of the Democratic National Committee, as a crucial factor in Trump’s success.

Obama’s book and subsidiary commentaries to market it are full of such cliché, sophomoric, and at times patently wrong and outlandish gaffes. In an interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg timed to promote his book, for example, Obama implicitly compared Trump with Genghis Khan (circa 1158-1227) by way of assuring people the world has moved forward and we are historically better off today than when the Mongol warlord was around.

Really – are we? Nothing else has happened between the time of Genghis Khan and our own time? The genocide of Native Americans, the terror of transatlantic slavery, the dropping of the atom bomb on Japan, and the barbaric slaughter of millions of European Jews and Roma – none of these prevent Obama from going all the way back to Genghis Khan and his antics as an indication of how better off we all are.

These gaffes are emblematic. As you plough through the volume you realise indeed you are in the presence of “a decent man”, as it were, who is the full product of an indecent political culture he could not move an inch into the right direction.

With all his eloquence and all his penmanship, Obama is not the final biographer of his life or his presidency. In their silenced nightmares and deadly desperation, a Palestinian child suffering in Gaza at the receiving end of the weapons Obama sent to Netanyahu or a starving child in Yemen enduring the consequences of the terrorising arsenals he sold to Saudi Arabia is far more eloquent than any hefty volume the US president and the platoon of his researchers and editors and millions of dollars of royalties can muster to sell to masses of desperate Americans hoping against hope theirs is truly “a promised land”.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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