I like Jeffery Goldberg's The Atlantic Interviews and President Obama quite a lot, so I was looking forward to this interview. And boy did it make me want to buy the new fifteen hundred bucks memoir! I first read up something written by Obama when I was in middle school when I chose to skip classes to be in the library. It was a sapphire blue hardback of his Dreams From My Father, one of the first few books I read cover to cover. Memory is hardly helping in my attempt to make this sound epiphanic but it was a book I don't regret reading.
But there is something else I can recall reading about him, not by him, that was quite impactful. I think it was in Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind, talking about how Obama was one of the leaders who understood the value of religion in public square and said you cannot leave the slippers out when you enter the public square. A few years later, I related to the same echoes from Democratic Presidential primary contender Pete Buttigieg when he talked about reclaiming god from the republican party. I wouldn't befriend someone if they are religious and would actively convert if a friend suddenly found a religion, but I don't think Richard Dawkins will save the world.
Mostly when I come out to people as a conservative they don't take it seriously. As recently as a few months back when our editor returned the manuscript she left a note on a paragraph where I talked about how algorithms might have shaped my leanings over the years—"Doesn't seem like that to me." I responded it was my co-author who hadn't let me unleash the full breadth of my birther conspiracies. She still thinks it was in jest. And it's kind of sad because the space of good conservatives has been overtaken by people who should just be called bigots. Or as Aaron Sorkin says, “I'm a registered Republican, I only seem liberal because I believe that hurricanes are caused by high barometric pressure and not gay marriage.”
I liked Obama's politics because even if was able to exercise more legislative control, his progress wasn't founded on antagonism which I am repulsed by even on the left. I struggle to think if my comfort with gradualism is driven by my privilege or my principles. Also, I think I deeply share Obama's optimism about human nature and that is one thing frequently find myself repeating. Even in the interview, Jeffery seems to be trying to reinforce the cynicism about what has happened, while that may be because he wants Obama to articulate the hopefulness, I don't quite get the point of pessimism. Like, yes a lot of things broke, and a lot of people are bad, and there's a lot of sadness...now? The idea that we surrender our agency to a burning world, no matter how poetically stated, is always a bad idea to me. It annoys me sometimes when people detail the accounts of catastrophe in riveting detail and with no intention to fix it or at least doing something about it. This cynicism is great fodder for more things to be cynical about. And especially in democracies, to steal from someone I don't remember, fascism is caused by cynicism. It is when people decide the country is burning and there's nothing they can do about it, that they elect a suicidal buffoon with a tumour in the prefrontal cortex.
You have to believe most people are nice, that entropy of our system will change, that good actor will win in the long-run. If you don't believe in this, I am not sure how I can contribute to the discussion. Though, I don't mean everyone needs to be a part of the solution, detailing out the problem is great public service also. A friend used to tell me about the anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare answering to media's calls of why he doesn't join politics with "We are sick, let us be patients, don't try to make doctors out of us." That is a perfectly reasonable position to hold. Not everyone needs to fight an election, write a book, start a business or host a seminar if they don't like the current ones, if anything far fewer people should. Protesting rather is a tremendous act of faith in the system, and I respect it very much.
Reading this interview, I had a little shift in my opinions about the value of attempts at building bridges. I think you'll enjoy reading about it and being in on the opinion. It also helped me discover the bully reputation of LBJ and how he ended up ushering an era of equal rights while being quite an obnoxious man himself. Finally, another good gain from the interview was reading up a little bit more about Ta-Nehisi Coates. I had heard of him but never paid particular attention to his work, so while I copied some notes from the interview here, let me end my soliloquy with Coates, "One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error. I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard.”
Part of what you’re sensing here are times when I make decisions to be gracious, when I assume the best in people, not because I’m naive but because this is how I choose to operate in the world, because I think the world would be better if more people operated that way. Sometimes I fall short and am disappointed in myself, but at least I think it’s important to be anchored in ethics and morality and basic human decency in how you behave.
"You mentioned earlier that I’m in some ways a never-Trump conservative. That’s not quite right, but what is true is that temperamentally I am sympathetic to a certain strain of conservatism in the sense that I’m not just a materialist. I’m not an economic determinist. I think it’s important, but I think there are things other than stuff and money and income—the religious critique of modern society, that we’ve lost that sense of community."
Yes, and it’s this indication of parts of popular culture that I’ve missed. It’s interesting—people are writing about the fact that Trump increased his support among Black men [in the 2020 presidential election], and the occasional rapper who supported Trump. I have to remind myself that if you listen to rap music, it’s all about the bling, the women, the money. A lot of rap videos are using the same measures of what it means to be successful as Donald Trump is. Everything is gold-plated. That insinuates itself and seeps into the culture. Michelle and I were talking about the fact that although we grew up in very different places, we were both very much working-class, lower-middle-class, in terms of income, and we weren’t subject day-to-day to the sense that if you don’t have this stuff then you are somehow not worthy. America has always had a caste system—rich and poor, not just racially but economically—but it wasn’t in your face most of the time when I was growing up. Then you start seeing Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, that sense that either you’ve got it or you’re a loser. And Donald Trump epitomizes that cultural movement that is deeply ingrained now in American culture.
The populist wave was abetted by Fox News and other right-wing media outlets, he said, and encouraged to spread by social-media companies uninterested in exploring their impact on democracy. “I don’t hold the tech companies entirely responsible,” he said, “because this predates social media. It was already there. But social media has turbocharged it. I know most of these folks. I’ve talked to them about it. The degree to which these companies are insisting that they are more like a phone company than they are like The Atlantic, I do not think is tenable. They are making editorial choices, whether they’ve buried them in algorithms or not. The First Amendment doesn’t require private companies to provide a platform for any view that is out there.”