Thursday, 8 January 2009

Obama the Professor?

There was an absolutely fantastic programme on Radio 4 on Tuesday night about Barack Obama's intellectual influences. Professor President written and presented by Kwame Anthony Appiah really shed new light on Obama's intellectual and academic upbringing and was sprinkled with some excellent interviews.

The one bit of the show that jarred a bit was when Appiah described Obama's work on Chicago's South Side as 'time off.' It made it sound like a bit of a gap year. It was anything but that. It was a vocation and a profound life choice made for both intellectual and personal reasons. It was also part of his path of forging a personal identity.

By describing it as 'time off' I suspect that Appiah was rather displaying his own outlook on the world. There is academia, the true path, and there is there is the other stuff which isn't nearly so serious. For this reason perhaps, an early intellectual influence on Barack Obama's wasn't explored. That is the influence of Saul Alinsky. His pragmatic creed, one shared by Obama, of 'issues, self-interest, power, action' was highly influential on the young Barack Obama and gave him a manual for community organising.

Ultimately, the Alinsky method fell in on itself. Obama could not generate the type of power that he would need to make a real difference. Its confrontational ethos was also proving to be counter-productive. Three years later (a very lengthy period of 'time off') he went to Harvard Law School in disappointment. Appiah's documentary describes his phlegmatic response to receiving the acceptance from Harvard. One suspects, and I'm speculating on the basis of the state of his mind at that point, he may have actually seen acceptance by Harvard as some sort of failure and that he was letting the communities on the South Side of Chicago down.

I interviewed a number of people for Barack Obama: the movement for change who worked with Barack Obama in Altgeld Gardens and it was clear that he placed a very high price on success and was desperate to succeed for those people. Ultimately, the youthful idealism that led him into community organising just wasn't sufficient to make a difference. That's why he pursued law and politics.

Finally, and I don't want to sound over-critical because it was a really excellent documentary, Appiah could have asked why did Obama not pursue an academic route sticking instead to teaching, law practice, and politics? He could have easily have pursued a lifelong academic career. In fact, he was offered tenure at the University of Chicago.

Ultimately, in my view, he rejected the academic route because he never forgot the 'power' and 'action' elements of Alinsky's formula. He retained and still retains a commitment to ideas but that would never be enough for him. So he went into politics. It was there that he could make a real difference. How right he was.

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