Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Free and Alone

Larissa Macfarquhar's recent profile of Barack Obama for the New Yorker is full of probing wisdom about the American Dream and its implications for Obama as he presents the story of himself and his family. Macfarquhar suggests that Obama tried through his early adult life to tread against his parents' inclinations--which are American inclinations--to wander in search of something better and instead sought to cultivate tradition and a sense of place. Indeed, Obama's first memoir Dreams from My Father has a Roots sensibility to it. Macfarquhar's description is unassumingly poignant. She writes:

[W]hen it came time for Obama to leave home he reversed what his mother and father and grandparents had done: he turned around and moved east. First back to the mainland, spending two years of college in California, then farther, to New York. He ended up in Chicago, back in the Midwest, from which his mother’s parents had fled, embracing everything they had escaped—the constriction of tradition, the weight of history, the provincial smallness of community, settling for your whole life in one place with one group of people. He embraced even the dirt, the violence, and the narrowness that came with that place, because they were part of its memory.

Obama's decision to move to Chicago to become a community organizer itself seems to speak to the sort of longing for entrenchment that Macfarquhar describes. I found this all very interesting because for me, whether it is better to work on setting roots or to try and continually explore is a nagging question. It is easy to imagine exciting places and happenings from afar and to believe that somewhere else is better/more interesting/dazzling/full of smarter people than here, and it is a destructive generalization because it is unconfirmable and usually just leads to despair wherever one is. On the other hand, curiosity is difficult to quell--and for a reason. I admire Obama's thoughtfulness about his parents' lives though, as it reflects a wise maturity on his part:

“What strikes me most when I think about the story of my family,” Obama writes, “is a running strain of innocence, an innocence that seems unimaginable, even by the measures of childhood.” Innocence is not, for him, a good quality, or even a redeeming excuse: it is not the opposite of guilt but the opposite of wisdom. In Obama’s description of his maternal grandfather, for instance, there is love but also contempt. “His was an American character, one typical of men of his generation, men who embraced the notion of freedom and individualism and the open road without always knowing its price,” Obama writes. “Men who were both dangerous and promising precisely because of their fundamental innocence; men prone, in the end, to disappointment.”

It is a tricky thing, this balancing of freedom and rootedness, though the two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. At the same time, the former tends to be the more glamorous route for a 20-something. The latter perhaps carries us further in the long run, but again, such approaches don't seem mutually exclusive to me.


Anonymous said...


First of all, I think you need to reveal your personal connections to Obama via Northwestern U. before you praise him on your blog.

Secondly, I have had direct dealings with Obama's Senate office, and it is a disaster. No one on the staff knows what's going on, people are rude, and I am constantly referred to the Senator's fundraising apparatus, when all I have is a policy question of immediate import.

This guy may look good in People Magazine, but he's no leader.

Elaine said...

A couple of things:
First, I don't see why I need to "reveal" my connections with Obama to comment on him. I have no financial connections nor do I have connections to his presidential campaign, besides that I get their e-mails. Though he mentioned me in the first part of his speech at my commencement, I don't see how that makes me biased in his favor anymore than I was before the speech. Obama's mention of me did not make me pro-Obama: I was pro-Obama before he mentioned me (though I am always liable to change my opinion if I don't like his approach to things, etc.). I interviewed Donald Rumsfeld once for my high school paper and thought him a nice guy, but that didn't hinder me from concluding he was a poor Secretary of Defense.

Secondly, I wasn't exactly praising Obama, merely discussing what I thought was interesting and relatable in his profile in the New Yorker.

I sympathize with your dealings with the Seantor's office, as I think it's unacceptable when public officals' don't run their offices well and aren't responsive, but again, I wasn't really praising Obama or his operation.

Finally, I think you ought to sign your comment with your name if you're going to question my writing integrity.