I can't remember the first time that I read a review in the Sunday New York Times book review, but it must have been more than 60 years ago. That section and the whole Sunday paper have been a fixture in every house or room I have ever lived in, except in the two years that I lived in Africa where we never saw it. (We lived on Time and Newsweek, which arrived several days late.) I have been reading that section, like the somewhat younger New York Review of Books, for so long, it has become a kind of barometer of cultural and political change. Never have I seen that more than this morning, when I read the enormous review of the first volume of Barack Obama's memoir, A Promised Land, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Please read carefully as I try to explain why.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Wikipedia informs me, is 43 years old. She was born in Nigeria, the daughter of a professor and an administrator in a university, and came to the United States for college. The review shows her to be an extremely capable writer, and she is poised and articulate [sic] in an interview that I am listening to as I write. (I know some readers will think that I just committed a micro-aggression by referring to a black woman as articulate, but I have known too many inarticulate and articulate men and women, both white and black, to worry about that.) Those, however, are not the characteristics that have me scratching my head about her selection to review Obama's book. What struck me is that she is principally a fiction writer, the author of four novels--although she has also written two long essays on feminism. Certainly I can imagine female historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin, or an immigrant like Henry Kissinger, or a black historian like David Levering Lewis, publishing a review of a presidential memoir in a leading forum, but I think it would hard to find such a review by a novelist in earlier decades. Why, then, was she selected? The reason is clear: it reflects a long intellectual shift that has recently accelerated, as illustrated both by the Times's own 1619 Project and the events this year that followed the death of George Floyd. Consciously or unconsciously, the Times editors evidently accept the idea that the most important thing about Barack Obama is his race, and that only another black person could do justice to it. That was far more important than finding someone who could put the successes and failures of his eight years in the White House in a broader historical context. My own academic profession is partly to blame: with rare exceptions like Jeremy Suri at UT Austin, we don't turn out serious political historians any more. In this case, however, the Times didn't seek one out.
Not surprisingly, the review focuses on the personal revelations within Obama's book, and what it reveals more generally about his character. Joe Biden has described Obama as the most self-aware man that he has ever known, and Adichie's selections certainly tend to confirm this. He is one of those remarkable people who continually do and observe at the same time. That sets him apart from many of our greatest Presidents. Washington, Jefferson, FDR, Truman and Kennedy were too busy acting, it seems to me, to have been so self-reflective, although Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, Lyndon Johnson and Lincoln resembled Obama more in this respect. Oddly enough, however, I cannot remember Obama ever comparing himself to another President. (I do plan to read the memoir myself, which I have not, and I will be looking for that when I do. I have read the New Yorker excerpt about the early stages of the debate over the ACA.) She also gives him a lot of credit for ambivalence about his own ambition, and suggests that his pursuit of the presidency was less than whole-hearted. There I am skeptical: no one goes through what is necessary to reach the White House who is not determined to get there.
Adichie's account of Obama in power, however--which only covers the President's first term, like the book itself--is extraordinarily incomplete, much more so than the book itself could possibly be. She hardly says a single word about the financial crisis of 2008 that brought him into power or about his response to it in office. For me as an historian his single most important decision was to regard the crisis as a temporary foul-up that could be managed within the existing framework, rather than as overwhelming evidence that American and world capitalism had been heading in a disastrous direction for decades--but she has nothing to say about any of this. More generally she recognizes, and does not disapprove of, his centrism, and accepts his explanation that the public option had to be dropped from the ACA in order to pass it. She is nearly as taciturn about foreign policy, simply noting (needlessly, one might think), that Obama disapproved of the second Iraq war, and believed Afghanistan to be a war of necessity--without asking whether that necessity required the increase in our troop presence that he almost immediately put through. "And in case anyone was wondering," she writes in a strange sentence, " he admires the foreign policy of George H. W. Bush for managing the end of the Gulf War." I find it hard to believe that Obama didn't say something about the disastrous decision of intervene in Libya or his broader response to the Arab Spring, but nothing about those episodes found it way into Adichie's review. Both of those crises took place during his first term, which this volume of the memoirs covers. Space did not determine these omissions. At almost 5000 words, this may be the longest single review that I have ever read in the Sunday New York Times.
In other ways, though, the review provides what the Times editors evidently were looking for. Adichie praises Obama's attitudes towards women, which she traces to his relationships to his mother and grandmother. And then, late in the review, she writes, "But it is on the subject of race that I wish that he had more to say now." We see in what follows another example of the mainstreaming of political race theory. On the one hand, she recognizes and very grudgingly accepts that Obama, to be nominated and elected, could not present himself primarily as a black candidate focused on black concerns. "There is something so unfair about this," she writes, "and yet one realizes that this approach was probably the most pragmatic, the only way to win, much as pragmatism brings with it a foul smell." Many, though far from all, black intellectuals now regard it as their role, if not their duty, to focus exclusively on the issues they believe to be most important to black people--but could a presidential candidate in 2008, when 74% of the electorate was white and 13% black, conceivably be elected by using (or endorsing) that kind of rhetoric? All groups, Adichie claims, have practiced special interest politics--but John F. Kennedy in 1960 had to proclaim that his Catholic religion would not affect any decisions he might make as President, which he did both honestly and categorically.
Here we encounter one of the key principles of critical race and gender theory: that the oppressed have a sacred right to express all their emotions loudly and clearly at all times, simply because they are oppressed. Referring to Obama's account of Congressman Joe Wilson shouting, "You lie!" during his State of the Union address, she writes, "His downplaying of the matter at the time is understandable--he is a Black man who cannot afford anger"--but regrets that now, in his book, he does not explore the theoretical implications of this incident more thoroughly, that it was yet another instance of "a white man disrespecting a Black man." Since Adams and Jefferson, and through Jackson, Lincoln, FDR and Truman, presidents in controversial times have been subject to the most virulent and insulting attacks, including on the floor of Congress. All those men understood that the performance of their office on behalf of the whole American people required them not to respond in kind, but to speak in an entirely different kind of language, and to try to rely on rationality, not emotion. It has occurred to too few of us, I believe, that the white politician who has taken the creed of black and female activists to heart and treated the expression of his own rage as a sacred duty is none other than Donald Trump. No claim of oppression can relieve any of us from the duty to try to lower the temperature of our public life. Until 1966 or so, civil rights leaders understood that better than anyone.
The Times editors have endorsed the idea that race and gender are primary to any issue, and that everything else is secondary, to everything: politics, art and culture. Those ideas began and grew in academia, which they have dominated for some time. In a future post I will discuss the issue of exactly how and why this has happened. In conclusion, I do not regret the Times decision to assign the review to Adichie because she is female, black, or an immigrant. I regret it because she did not make a real attempt to address most of the key issues of Obama's first term, or to place it in historical context--and because I think that is what all the Times's readers really need.