March 26, 2007

Obama skepticism spreading

In Tuesday's Washington Post, op-edster Richard Cohen cites the same article I examined in Sunday's

"Obama's Back Story
By Richard Cohen

In his memoir, "Dreams From My Father," he recounts a watershed moment of his own -- a "revelation," a "violent" awakening, an incident that "permanently altered" his "vision." Twice he tells how as a 9-year-old he went to the U.S. Embassy in Indonesia (a country where his mother had taken him to live) and came across a Life magazine article about a black man who had tried to whiten his skin through some sort of chemical process. The result was a disaster. "I felt my face and neck get hot," Obama wrote. "My stomach knotted; the type began to blur on the page." The child had, for the first time, confronted racism and its hideous consequences.

Only there is no such issue of Life magazine. So says the Chicago Tribune, which has gone through the Obama memoir with commendable thoroughness. The newspaper conducted "more than 40 interviews with former classmates, teachers, friends and neighbors" from Obama's youth and found both trivial and substantial differences between the stories Obama tells and those recalled by others.

What emerges from the Tribune's reporting is a man who seems much less fixated than he insists on finding his racial identity. When the Tribune told Obama that Life magazine historians could find no such story, Obama suggested it might have been Ebony -- "or it might have been . . . who knows what it was?" (The Tribune says Ebony's archivists also could not come up with such an article.)

Indeed, the memory of the event/non-event is so firmly planted in Obama's mind that it seems to have become an emotional truth for him, far more powerful than an intellectual truth.

I'm not convinced Obama is being disingenuous here. I wouldn't be surprised if this story actually did appear in a major America photojournalism magazine -- not in the iconic "Life," but in the now almost forgotten "Look." The latter, which was published from 1937 to 1971 and had a huge circulation, was a knockoff of "Life" down to its four letter L-word title, so it's frequently confused in memory with "Life." "Look" published many articles about race and civil rights, so this article would have fit in with their editorial predilections.

However, a Tribune reporter tells me that they looked in "Look," so maybe Obama is making it up out of whole cloth.

Cohen continues:

In Obama's case -- and maybe my own -- there might be something more than foggy memory at work. He may be manipulating the facts in order to wrap raw ambition in the gauze of a larger cause. Sheer ambition is no longer tolerated in American public life. Obama was only 34 when his memoir was published, but he was already on his way, a successful packager of himself.

He already knew, I suspect, that a public figure -- he was already the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review -- has to have both a cause and a back story: the PT-109 incident that changes a life, the rural poverty that has such an impact on a boy from Plains, the hope that comes to the man from Hope. No one can seem too ambitious, careerist.

A reader writes:

Everyone who gets into Harvard Law School has to have The Rap.

They have to have the story of teen angst, commitment to healing the world, good deeds, and preferably a healthy dose of some sort of conflict in the real world that gave them some special insight into human nature that makes them unique and diverse. Not TOO conflicted, however, since a felony conviction will prevent you from becoming a lawyer.

In my class, a year after Obama arrived, there was The Photojournalist from Nicaragua, who saw human suffering and experienced Life and Death first hand. There was also The Fly Fisherman, a guy who graduated from college and fly fished across the USA for a couple years, hitchhiking, living in the wilds, experiencing Water and the Land closehand and coming to a more true and full appreciation of Man and Nature.

Obama's autobiography is a book-length Harvard Law School Rap. It has the manufactured conflict, the manufactured struggling, the manufactured multiculturalism with a smidgen of Tragic Mulatto and Man Torn Between Two Cultures, etc. Of course no one in the admissions office ever challenges any individual's Rap since no one has the time, energy or enthusiasm. Think of it the same way you think of a fifty word High Concept movie pitch, like those studio scenes at the beginning of The Player.

Having expanded his Rap with more local color to make his book, all he has done is dig himself a deeper hole of deceit. Harvard won't fact-check student admission essays, but reporters will.

I never had a Rap, likely to the detriment of my college applications. Coming from a pleasant middle-middle class home, I could never think of anything to whine about. I was obviously luckier than 98% of all humans who ever lived, so dwelling on my bits of bad luck in college application essays ("My Struggle with the Heartbreak of Rhinitis"? … Nah …) seemed pointless and boring.

Besides, I'm emotionally shallow, with few hidden depths. While Obama is highly introspective, I'm the opposite: extrospective, I guess. (I just now learned that "extrospective" is a real word, which shows it's an uncommon condition, as opposed to 'extraverted'). Rather than dwell on my own feelings, I'm easily (and endlessly) amused by the outside world.

Well, enough about me. Just move along, folks, nothing to see here…

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

Arrgh. No Obama fan here, but he's referring to a serialization of "Black Like Me" which ran in Sepia magazine.

Took me, oh, five minutes to look it up on Google: "black like me" serialized

Mr. Bruce

Anonymous said...

Black like Me is about a white man becoming black.

Maybe Obama was thinking about Michael Jackson.

michael farris said...

"a Life magazine article about a black man who had tried to whiten his skin through some sort of chemical process"

Black like me was the other way around, a white man who darkened his skin and travelled around, especially in the then segregated south.
It was a hugely influential book. I read it in junior high school IIRC but I don't recall any stories of attempted skin lightening in BLM.
I do vaguely recall reports of intensely uncomfortable hair products meant to straighten black hair but I don't remember if that was in BLM.

Anonymous said...

There were a number of Life-like magazines, Pic, Clic, Vue, etc, etc. Sepia was probably one for Blacks, as "sepia" was code for "black" back then. Billy Eckstein was the Sepia Sinatra, for example.

LaVey goes on at length on these publications which are very rare today.

Briana LeClaire said...

You don't (or at least didn't 20 years ago) have to have a "rap" to get into Eastern colleges as long as you're from a largely rural Western state. That's another quota they have to fill. I remember being in the office of a Middlebury College admissions guy who was trying to make something of a hay-bucking Key Club service project -- "that's so Western!" In my hometown of Boise thanks to checkerboard zoning there are indeed some cows in town, but not enough to justify city kids toting 100-lb. hay bales -- I have no idea where we came up with the project. At any rate the smell of pot in the dorms and the sight of Sugarbush (this is a ski hill?) drove me to the cheap U of Idaho, much to my dad's relief.

Anonymous said...

Someone (obviously this would have to be a group effort rather than the project of a single person) should comb through the Look archives as the Tribune combed through the Life archives. The idea that the story is completely phony strikes me as still possible. It could have been in a still more obscure publication, but would things like Pic, Clic, or Sepia have made it to a distant U.S. Embassy?

Anonymous said...

Come to think of it, since they would only be looking at one year's worth of issues (the last year of publication, no less), one person could do it alone, but he would have to know where to find a Look archive.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the reader's assessment of this (to an extent) being part of the life story that a person writes for themselves for school applications.

The insistence on essays (as opposed to grades or tests scores) combined with the culture of victimization has led thousands (if not millions) of middle-class teenagers to develop their own Raps.

Anonymous said...

Anyone else here find Hillary deeply desirable in a schoolmistressy kind of way?

I would love to be spanked on the bare buttocks by her.

Anonymous said...

The percentage of people's childhood memories that are partially or wholly fabricated is remarkably high. Every time you retrieve a memory you modify it in some way. It is pretty easy to create a recovered memory in people.

Here is a summary of some of the studies:

Anonymous said...

Maybe he was confusing something he read in Life or Look way back in the day with more recent tabloid accounts of Michael Jackson's lifestyle. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I should have read the comments before adding my own. I noticed somebody already covered the Michael Jackson angle.

Steve Sailer said...

The story is reminiscent of the old novel "Black No More:"

This satirical Harlem Renaissance-era novel by black conservative intellectual George S. Schuyler (1895-1977), who wrote for the Pittsburgh Courier and contributed to the NAACP's influential Crisis magazine, is a hilariously insightful treatise on the absurdities of racial identity. Dr. Junius Crookman, a Harlem-based African American physician, mysteriously returns from Germany with a formula that can transform black people into whites. "It looked," Schuyler deadpans, "as though science was to succeed where the Civil War failed." One of the first to enlist Dr. Crookman's services is an insurance salesman named Max Disher, who as the white Matthew Fisher is now free to pursue the white women who once rejected him and otherwise bask in Euro-American social privilege (including a top position in a hate group called the Knights of Nordica). Schuyler unveils the futility of this electro-chemical form of "passing" through the emptiness the Disher/Fisher character encounters in the white cultural world, which doesn't measure up to the Harlem nightlife--revealing the poison behind the notion of wanting to be something you're not. --Eugene Holley Jr.