Sojourner Truth

E.J.Dionne writes in today's Post:

The great opportunity this year for less scrupulous Republican strategists is that Obama is both black and a Columbia-and-Harvard-educated former professor who lived in the intellectually rarified precincts of Hyde Park in Chicago, Manhattan's Upper West Side and Cambridge, Mass. They can go after him subtly on race and overtly on elitism. They can turn the facts of Obama's life into mutually reinforcing liabilities.

As if on cue, David Brooks responds:

And the root of it is probably this: Obama has been a sojourner. He opened his book “Dreams From My Father” with a quotation from Chronicles: “For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers.”

There is a sense that because of his unique background and temperament, Obama lives apart. He put one foot in the institutions he rose through on his journey but never fully engaged. As a result, voters have trouble placing him in his context, understanding the roots and values in which he is ineluctably embedded.

Of course there is no evidence for Brooks' assertion that "voters have trouble [unsure, etc.]" other than the fact that Obama is not crushing McCain in the polls.  It seems Brooks is the one who has trouble placing Obama.  Given the vast amount of empirical data about voter preferences, Brooks would be better served seeking his explanatory story there.

But no.  Brooks would rather make observations of the very silly kind–the kind that could characterize anyone of us at any time.  For example:

And so it goes. He is a liberal, but not fully liberal. He has sometimes opposed the Chicago political establishment, but is also part of it. He spoke at a rally against the Iraq war, while distancing himself from many antiwar activists.

Isn't this the narrative that many supporters of McCain use in his favor (he bucks the party trend–he's a maverick, etc.)?  All of this to establish the point that Obama is some kind of careerist cipher, whose very success, independence, and upward mobility are signs that he doesn't really belong.  Of course Brooks has expanded the trope somewhat–by insisting that the sheer fact of living an indentifiable cariacature constitutes a virtue.

13 thoughts on “Sojourner Truth”

  1. Well you start with lack of evidence and you end up with lack of evidence:
    – Dionne:  “Nonetheless, the Obama camp was caught short, and the candidate backed off a critique of McCain on race. McCain largely left the matter to his surrogates.
    And to go back even further than that:
    – Obama: “Obama spoke first about how his opponents would try to “make you scared of me,” noting that he “doesn’t look like all those other presidents” on our currency”

    Well, one of my professors always said that we should let people define themselves. There is absolutely no proof that McCain made anything close to the arguments Obama speaks of. And Dionne seems to imply that McCain was just careful not to link himself with those who do play the race card, but deep down he wants it …. he “left the matter to his surrogates”.

    There is a difference between elitism, race and  “his unique background and temperament”.
    However, Brooks assumes he knows to much again by putting his thoughts into the voters’ minds. He should just speak for himself here. He is definetly guilty of lack of evidence here.
    My question is this though:If he changes the “voters” with “I”,  would that work better? In other words, is his big mistake the fact that he assumes he can read voters’ minds; or, that his argument about Obama’s background makes him hard to connect to “regular people” like him?

  2. Sometimes Obama sleeps, and sometimes he is awake. Sometimes he is eating, and sometimes foodless…

  3. Seems to me that there are two problems with Brooks’ piece. As sociology Brooks’ column seems weak, as analysis of Obama’s biography it seems lame.

    The first is as BN points out the lack of evidence for attributing his view to voters at large. He could weaken his claim and offer it as a possible explanation, but he offers no evidence to suggest that it is actually what explains the lack of a landslide.

    The second lies with his narrative constructivism. On the basis of two quotes:

    Last week Jodi Kantor of The Times described Obama’s 12 years at the University of Chicago Law School. “The young law professor stood apart in too many ways to count,” Kantor wrote.

    He had some accomplishments, but as Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker wrote, he was famously bored by the institution and used it as a stepping stone to higher things.

    He creates a picture of Obama as a “sojourner” as someone who passes through institutions rather than is “of them” (whatever that could possibly mean).

    He then infers that by being a “sojourner” he has failed to define himself and perhaps has concealed himself. This then he thinks explains why the electorate is uncertain about him

    I don’t find this construction fallacious, just wildly speculative. The hint of character critique is moderate compared to Brooks’ columns during the 04 cycle, but is still palpable.

    We are at that stage of the election where a candidate offers policy proposals and the punditry. seemingly on cue, starts wildly speculating about “character.” Cp. Goldberg’s Obama is a Po-Mo Intellectual, Krauthammer over the last few weeks.

  4. Good points Colin.
    That’s why I don’t see the connection between Dionne’s article and Brooks’. There are no hints of race or elitism in Brooks’ article, just plain speculation about his past.

  5. It’s obvious that Brooks’s speculation has cultural, racial, and academic tinges to it.  Read the quote above again: “because of his unique background….” 

  6. Brooks is certainly an instance of the general strategy of representing Obama’s background as liability rather than strength (“They can turn the facts of Obama’s life into mutually reinforcing liabilities.”)

    The dude had three high powered jobs at the same time (state senator, civil right’s lawyer, professor) and Brooks wants to hold that against him because he was “in these jobs” but not “of them.”

    And Dionne’s point was “subtly on race and overtly on elitism”–Brooks is doing his best in the realm of the latter. It’s not exactly elitism he is charging as “detached, self-interested, untrustworthy, slippery, dishonest” and that whole register that is opposed to “down to earth straight shooters.”

  7. Perhaps this isn’t an original thought, but I often think the Times keeps Brooks around just to provide an ego boost for their other sub-standard writers (viz. Friedman, Dowd, etc.)….

    Nice to see everyone last week.



  8. jcasey, it’s the racial tinges that I can’t see in Brooks’ article. Brooks dismisses age or race as the main point of his argument:
    “His age probably has something to do with it. So does his race. But …”
    As far as the elitism charge, I would hope that we want somebody better than us to lead us. I think people don’t mind that. What they do mind is the arrogance and looking down to people. But Brooks does not go there. He just points out some facts and based on that claims that Obama is suffering from an identity crisis.
    I think in the end, Brooks’ argument is that people love to put other people into boxes, and because they can’t do that with Obama they don’t trust him:
    “But voters seem to be slow to trust a sojourner they cannot place. “

  9. You’re getting the hang of the Brooks style BN–think of something, then repeat it with “people want” in front of it.  Brilliant.  As for the race issue–read Dionne again, he said, as Colin pointed out above, “subtly on race. . .”.  “So does his race” and references to “unique background,” however clumsy, would be “subtle.”

  10. jcasey, you’re right. He puts his opinions in people’s mouth without any evidence. That’s his fallacy. However, the question I had was with the whole argument. Take away “people” and replace it with “I”.  The last line will be like ” I’m slow to trust a sojourner that I can’t place”. Of course, if he does that it becomes just a personal opinion and it’s not as strong.

  11. That does eliminate one of the two problems (the lack of argument for his sociological claim), but the other one remains. Brooks claims that because O. is a sojourner it is unclear who he is. He then constructs a narrative that illustrates the sojourning and provides a couple of quotations to confirm it.

    I find this unpersuasive. As I suggested earlier, couldn’t we attribute O.’s putative avoidance of allowing an institution to define him to the fact that he was busy defining himself (lawyer. senator, professor, father). The idea that he is some sort of enigma, who avoids defining himself seems implausible to me, though it is clearly the line that the punditry has settled upon.

    Even if Brooks’ uncertainty about O. is a result of perceiving him to be a sojourner, I don’t find that a particularly reasonable judgment. He’s welcome to it, but it seems uninteresting at best. Instead of vague biographical references and lazy speculation we could look at issues and ask whether he has positions on them–has he defined himself in his energy policy? has he defined himself in his tax plan? Or his health plan? Or his vote on FISA (sigh)?

    All of this nonsense about politicians defining themselves by the “stands” they take is contrived, as is this handwringing over “who Barack really is.” I have no reason to believe, at this point, that he is/has been careless, or ignorant, or corrupt. (On the other hand, there  is reason to suspect all of these things about his opponent.) That’s about as far as I think character speculation can or should take us. (Even that should be held weakly, as there are plenty of reasons to doubt them).

    The reason Brooks attributes these views to the electorate is that he wants to suggest that there is some credibility to them, rather than lame speculations meant to sow seeds of doubt in the reader’s mind about O.’s credibility. It’s cheap, but certainly not beneath Brooks.

  12. This sort of column is becoming a Brooks formula.
    Recently [7/17] Brooks couldn’t find a scientific explantion for poverty, therefore he could conclude there was no reason to organize assistance.
    Now, he can’t find anyone to explain Obama’s past "travels", so Barack must be an enigma, and therefore he is "flawed".
    Is Brooks ignorance going to be his lazy writing style, or an epistemological question for conservatives?

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