October 5, 2008

Did Bill Ayers ghostwrite Obama's memoir? Or vice-versa?

Jack Cashill, author of the fine book What's the Matter with California?, speculates that terrorist and Obama colleague Bill Ayers ghostwrote Dreams from My Father based on stylistic similarities between Obama's memoir and Ayers's own memoir Fugitive Days, especially in the more literary flourishes.

Cashill counts up a lot of nautical verbiage in both books, which makes sense for Ayers because he had once served in the Merchant Marine. Perhaps, though, Obama just read a lot of Melville and Conrad (He read Heart of Darkness at Occidental.)

Having read a few pages in the excerpt of Ayers' book available on Amazon, Cashill's idea sounds less crazy than I first thought. Cashill underrates the literary quality of other things Obama has written. Moreover, most of Obama's paying jobs have been writing related -- copy editor at a newsletter shop, briefwriter at his civil rights law firm. Obama's tests for his law school classes were extremely lucid.

Still, I could imagine there is a connection between the two memoirs. Maybe it's there, maybe it's not, but it's a possibility.

Still, Ayers's prose style tends to be breezier and easier to read, while Obama's is more consistently verbose and poetic/pompous. Here are similar ideas on the unreliability of family anecdotes from the opening of each book expressed in somewhat characteristic language. Ayers writes:

As the journey to my birth was told and retold, stretched and exaggerated, it was as if the young couple had arrived by dogsled having crossed the Alps in a blinding blizzard.

The first half of Ayers' sentence sounds rather like Dreams, but the second half is too Erma Bombeckishly plain-spoken for Obama, whose literary dignity always accompanies him.

In contrast, Obama writes:

... as a child I knew [my father] only through the stories that my mother and grandparents told. They all had their favorites, each one seamless, burnished smooth from repeated use. ... That’s how all the stories went-compact, apocryphal, told in rapid succession in the course of one evening, then packed away for months, sometimes years, in my family’s memory.

On the other hand, it is the same thought.

So, I certainly wouldn't rule out that one influenced the other. But, if so, which way? Obama's book was published in the middle of 1995, after he had begun working with Ayers on the Chicago Annenberg Challenge money machine. So, Ayers might have influenced Obama's book in some way. Perhaps he read over the rough draft?

On the other hand, Ayers's book didn't come out until 2001, so it might seem more plausible that Ayers was more influenced by his old colleague and neighbor than vice-versa. After all, Ayers surely read the well-reviewed memoir published by Obama, the Chairman of the Board of the Annenberg Challenge boodoggle that Ayers more or less dreamed up. Obama was in charge of Ayers' plan of handing out 50 or 100 million simoleons to Chicago "community organizations," so certainly Ayers read Obama's book to help in the buttering up process. Heck, Ayres probably thought to himself, "My life is a lot more interesting than this guy's! If he can get his autobiography published, then I should write mine."

One test I would suggest is mimicry of dialect. Dreams displays a fair degree of talent for imitating how people of different backgrounds speak. If Ayers's memoir is lacking this gift, then Cashill's theory is decisively refuted.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

30 comments:

Anonymous said...

Is this the same Jack Cashill who is a conspiracy theorist (Ron Brown, TWA, etc)?

Anonymous said...

Dreams is a beautiful book. I think anyone of any political persuasion would appreciate it. It is deeply introspective, but not too flowery.

Peter said...

Obama was not widely known outside of Chicago when Ayers wrote Fugitive Days in 2001. As far as I know, moreover, Dreams from My Father didn't sell much until after Obama gained a national reputation at the 2004 DNC. It's unlikely, therefore, that Ayers would have been significantly influenced by Obama's book.

Anonymous said...

VERY interesting theory.

Best way to test it is by getting the text of each book and applying a bag-of-words type author classifier, similar to the one which identified Joe Klein as the author of primary colors.

I suggest that someone could do this by:

1) Buying the books on Amazon
2) Buying the digital versions which can be viewed online
3) Scripting the browser to get screen captures
4) Running the screen captures through OCR (Google's Ocropus/Tesseract is the best open source version, very scriptable)
5) Obtaining a sample of validated texts which were *actually* written by Obama and Ayers respectively (and possibly some other controls)
6) Training a classifier on these control/validated texts
7) Applying the classifier to the chapters and paragraphs of the original

You could probably get pretty far by just considering each book as a bag-of-phrases vector from 1-grams up to 5-grams or so.

testing99 said...

Reputedly, some linguistic analysis program was used to finger the author of Primary Colors, some guy at Time.

There might be some use in that, take random passages of text known to be written by each man and try to conduct matches programmatically to each book.

Anonymous said...

Here's the explanation Obama gives in his book for reading "Heart of Darkness":

"I read the book to help me understand just what it is that makes white people so afraid. Their demons. The way ideas get twisted around. It helps me understand how people learn to hate."

C'mon, Steve. Do you really believe Obama's read Conrad and Melville beyond what was required in his "White Colonialism in Africa" course?

PrestoPundit said...

There are fairly accurate computer programs that can tell you if a piece of work is written by the same author.

A serious investigation would make use of this tool.

Steve Sailer said...

Peter writes:

"Obama was not widely known outside of Chicago when Ayers wrote Fugitive Days in 2001. ... It's unlikely, therefore, that Ayers would have been significantly influenced by Obama's book."

Except that in early 1995, Obama became Chairman of the Board of Ayers' brainchild, the Annenberg Challenge.

Jun said...

"I read the book to help me understand just what it is that makes white people so afraid. Their demons. The way ideas get twisted around...."

Obama is really lost-in-space if he thinks that HoD has anything to do with being White or being Black.

Believing that is like thinking that Ibsen's "A Doll's House" has anything to do with feminism.

%-/

James said...

The same type of analysis showed the books in the Book of Mormon were all written by different people.

JeremiahJohnbalaya said...

Speaking of Ayers ... Here's a two year old interview w/ the guy who was just some dude in Obama's neighborhood. He's a very, very left-wing kook.

the right wing—it’s not just conservatives, it’s probably the most reactionary cabal of ideologues I’ve ever seen, operating with a very, very clear ideological purpose—control all three branches of the federal government, control many state governments, control the media

Martin said...

"Jun said...

"I read the book to help me understand just what it is that makes white people so afraid. Their demons. The way ideas get twisted around...."

Obama is really lost-in-space if he thinks that HoD has anything to do with being White or being Black."

It is a common misunderstanding of the book that is pushed in the "colonial studies" curriculum that is now so fashionable at our institutions of higher indoctrination.

You are of course quite right - HoD has damn near nothing to do with race or colonialism.

John S. Bolton said...

Another possibility: both used the same ghostwriter?

tommy said...

Reputedly, some linguistic analysis program was used to finger the author of Primary Colors, some guy at Time.

He is pretty hit-or-miss, but you could email Vassar's Donald Wayne Foster with the Obama-Ayers theory. He seems to enjoy investigating these sort of things.

Steve Sailer said...

"Another possibility: both used the same ghostwriter?"

Maybe some third guy in the neighborhood?

AMac said...

JerimiahJohnbalaya linked to this 2006 interview of Ayers by Reggie Dylan.

--- begin excerpt --

Reggie Dylan: ...Ward Churchill has become a concentration point of [the notion that right-wing-miseducated kids come to university and get challenged with ideas they've never heard before].

Bill Ayers: Well, Ward Churchill is a great example because what I think people, leftists are continually doing with the Ward Churchill case is missing this larger context you and I are talking about and instead kind of parsing, “Well, what did he say and do I agree with it.” What the hell do I care? First of all, there was a thorough study done by a university committee that never should have been set up, and they found a few, a tiny, a handful of instances where he might have borrowed a phrase, but nothing like Doris Kearns-Goodwin did, nothing like, you know, the big academics at Harvard have done, like Dershowitz. And yet somehow he’s held to the standard. And then people on the left again feel like they have to say, well this is part of what Ward says I don’t agree with. What has that got to do with it? He’s being pilloried for his politics, for being a leftist, for being a critic of U.S. imperialism as it relates to Native Americans. How can we as socialists or as communists or as leftists, how can we leave him in the cold and say, well I’m a good leftist because I don’t talk the way Ward talks. I find that appalling. And I would hope that when they come to get Ward, we all link arms and don’t allow it.

--- end excerpt ---

"President-Elect Obama, some guy in your neighborhood vehemently condemns those who have criticized Prof. Ward Churchill as right-wing stooges. This guy, a Distinguished Professor himself, enthusiastically endorses Prof. Churchill's scholarship.

"Do you think this guy's views on education are decent and honorable? Will he help set policy in your Administration? If he asked you to serve on an education-themed initiative, would you do so?"

dearieme said...

Who wrote Obama? Oh, De Vere or Marlowe I suppose.

Joeblow said...

there is some professor i heard of once upon a time on NPR who has created a plagerism detecting program based on word frequency- he purported to prove that letter to Mrs. so and so who lost 5 sons in the Civil War (think Saving Pvt Ryan) was written by Lincoln's assistant or something. The word bequile was important...would be interesting for Obama Ayers.

Michael said...

Obama was a nobody recent law school grad when he wrote Dreams. No one would have ghost-written a book for him back then.

Charlotte said...

"Obama was a nobody recent law school grad when he wrote Dreams. No one would have ghost-written a book for him back then."

Obama was picked by the Brzezinski crew long ago, and for not especially flattering reasons. His "unknown", early 80s Columbia years would reveal much on that subject. He has been through some sort of mind control training, something far deeper and more sinister than the "est" or Landmark that Steve mentions in another thread.
Clinton (Bill) was picked by the Rockefeller group and plucked out of relative obscurity cica 1990. BIll and Hill turned up at the Bilderburg conferences, just prior to the 92 elections. That's when I knew.
I don't believe in the omniscience of the "powers that be" but I do know they plan years ahead. They have time, the money and the staff to do so.

Anonymous said...

So we're to assume that someone so meticulous at witholding any real firm or bold ideological stances from his paper trail decided it would be good idea to have a former bomb-throwing 60s radical ghost write his book. Yeah, it's a possibility, about as much of a possibility as James Watson being black.

Anonymous said...

You don't become editor in chief of the Harvard Law Review by being a poor writer. You do however become a conspiracy theorist by inventing baseless attacks via blog.

Anonymous said...

This might be an interesting question if we were wondering whether Obama could write.

Anonymous said...

"You don't become editor in chief of the Harvard Law Review by being a poor writer."

Might be believable if we saw any examples of his brilliant, promising epistlatory skills. He appears to have written nary an article. He proffered no opinions on any cases. He left no mark as he left no memorable record at Columbia.
He had the title, editor, and editors have staff.

Anonymous said...

this is one of the dumbest fucking blog posts i have ever read

get a clue guys

Mike said...

Does Michelle Malkin ghostwrite this blog?

Audacious Epigone said...

Joeblow and others,

Jack has done (or has had done for him, I should say)
analysis on the text of both books, and they are remarkably similar in ease of readability and required reading level:
Ayers is particularly eloquent when writing about the “fury” of the elements as, curiously, is Obama. Consider the following two passages, the first from “Fugitive Days”:

“I picture the street coming alive, awakening from the fury of winter, stirred from the chilly spring night by cold glimmers of sunlight angling through the city.”

The second from “Dreams”:

“Night now fell in midafternoon, especially when the snowstorms rolled in, boundless prairie storms that set the sky close to the ground, the city lights reflected against the clouds.”

These two sentences are alike in more than their poetry, their length and their gracefully layered structure. They tabulate nearly identically on the Flesch Reading Ease Score (FRES), something of a standard in the field.

The “Fugitive Days” excerpt scores a 54 on reading ease and a 12 th grade reading level. The “Dreams’” excerpt scores a 54.8 on reading ease and a 12 th grade reading level. Scores can range from 0 to 121, so hitting a nearly exact score matters.

A comparable nature passage from my novel, “2006: The Chautauqua Rising,” scores a 61.6 with an 11 th grade reading level. The samples I submitted from my own semi-memoir on race, “Sucker Punch,” score in the 63-76 range.

---

The question is mostly a curiousity, but it's clear that Dreams and Fugitive Days are far more similar to one another than Dreams and the other book Obama putatively wrote, Audacity of Hope, are.

Michael,

Yet he received a $125,000 advance to write the book. He may have been a nobody at the time, but that kind of money doesn't just get handed out unless he has been identified as one who'll become a somebody. And the person(s) who did the identifying was probably already a somebody when the advance was made.

blue said...

Steve Sailer writes:

Cashill counts up a lot of nautical verbiage in both books, which makes sense for Ayers because he had once served in the Merchant Marine. Perhaps, though, Obama just read a lot of Melville and Conrad (He read Heart of Darkness at Occidental.)

And in high school, I read Kipling's "Captains Courageous," which takes place on a fishing boat. I had to constantly refer to an unabridged dictionary to understand what the various nautical terms met.

Kipling had once spent two weeks on a similar fishing boat and then wrote the book.

I read "Captains Courageous" very carefully and tried to understand all the terms I didn't know, but I couldn't imagine ever using that sort of jargon in my own English papers.

Take a look at this line from "Dreams of my Father" singled out by Cashill:

“A steady attack on the white race . . . served as the ballast that could prevent the ideas of personal and communal responsibility from tipping into an ocean of despair.”

Using ballast as a metaphor like that? It's so foreign, at least to someone like me.

I don't know. Maybe people with literary aspirations try methodically and deliberately to come up with interesting metaphors.

Steve Sailer said...

By the way, the nautical metaphors in Obama's book can be explained by his Facebook page, where he lists Melville's Moby Dick as one of his eight favorite books of all time.

Anonymous said...

This is truly frightening stuff. Not the absurd idea that Ayers ghost wrote Obama's memoir, but the fact that there are so many crazy people out there who would believe it.

Can you give us some alien autopsy photographs, or proof that the Holocaust never happened, or maybe some pictures of the 72 year old Elvis Presley in retirement too?