Shadow and Act (Modern Library Nonfiction #91)

(This is the tenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Power Broker.)

mlnf91When I first made my bold belly flop into the crisp waters of Ralph Ellison’s deep pool earlier this year, I felt instantly dismayed that it would be a good decade before I could perform thoughtful freestyle in response to his masterpiece Invisible Man (ML Fiction #19). As far as I’m concerned, that novel’s vivid imagery, beginning with its fierce and intensely revealing Battle Royale scene and culminating in its harrowing entrapment of the unnamed narrator, stands toe-to-toe with Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March as one of the most compelling panoramas of mid-20th century American life ever put to print, albeit one presented through a more hyperreal lens.

But many of today’s leading writers, ranging from Ta-Nehisi Coates to Jacqueline Woodson, have looked more to James Baldwin as their truth-telling cicerone, that fearless sage whose indisputably hypnotic energy was abundant enough to help any contemporary humanist grapple with the nightmarish realities that America continues to sweep under its bright plush neoliberal rug. At a cursory glance, largely because Ellison’s emphasis was more on culture than overt politics, it’s easy to see Ellison as a complacent “Maybe I’m Amazed” to Baldwin’s gritty “Cold Turkey,” especially when one considers the risk-averse conservatism which led to Ellison being attacked as an Uncle Tom during a 1968 panel at Grinnell College along with his selfish refusal to help emerging African-American authors after his success. But according to biographer Arnold Rampersad, Baldwin believed Ralph Ellison to be the angriest person he knew. And if one dives into Ellison’s actual words, Shadow and Act is an essential volume, which includes one of the most thrilling Molotov cocktails ever pitched into the face of a clueless literary critic, that is often just as potent and as lapel-grabbing as Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.

For it would seem that while Negroes have been undergoing a process of “Americanization” from a time preceding this birth of this nation — including the fusing of their blood lines with other non-African strains, there has been a stubborn confusion as to their American identity. Somehow it was assumed that the Negroes, of all the diverse American peoples, would remain unaffected by the climate, the weather, the political circumstances — from which not even slaves were exempt — the social structures, the national manners, the modes of production and the tides of the market, the national ideals, the conflicts of values, the rising and falling of national morale, or the complex give and take of acculturalization which was undergone by all others who found their existence within the American democracy.

This passage, taken from an Ellison essay on Amiri Baraka’s Blues People, is not altogether different from Baldwin’s view of America as “a paranoid color wheel” in The Evidence of Things Not Seen, where Baldwin posited that a retreat into the bigoted mystique of Southern pride represented the ultimate denial of “Americanization” and thus African-American identity. Yet the common experiences that cut across racial lines, recently investigated with comic perspicacity on a “Black Jeopardy” Saturday Night Live sketch, may very well be a humanizing force to counter the despicable hate and madness that inspires uneducated white males to desecrate a Mississippi black church or a vicious demagogue to call one of his supporters “a thug” for having the temerity to ask him to be more respectful and inclusive.

Ellison, however, was too smart and too wide of a reader to confine these sins of dehumanization to their obvious targets. Like Baldwin and Coates and Richard Wright, Ellison looked to France for answers and, while never actually residing there, he certainly counted André Malraux and Paul Valéry among his hard influences. In writing about Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Ellison wisely singled out critics who failed to consider the full extent of African-American humanity even as they simultaneously demanded an on-the-nose and unambiguous “explanation” of who Wright was. (And it’s worth noting that Ellison himself, who was given his first professional writing gig by Wright, was also just as critical of Wright’s ideological propositions as Baldwin.) Ellison described how “the prevailing mood of American criticism has so thoroughly excluded the Negro that it fails to recognize some of the most basic tenets of Western democratic thought when encountering them in a black skin” and deservedly excoriated whites for seeing Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson merely as the ne plus ultra of African-American artistic innovation rather than the beginning of a great movement.

shriversombreroAt issue, in Ellison’s time and today, is the degree to which any individual voice is allowed to express himself. And Ellison rightly resented any force that would stifle this, whether it be the lingering dregs of Southern slavery telling the African-American how he must act or who he must be in telling his story as well as the myopic critics who would gainsay any voice by way of their boxlike assumptions about other Americans. One sees this unthinking lurch towards authoritarianism today with such white supremacists as Jonathan Franzen, Lionel Shriver, and the many Brooklyn novelists who, despite setting their works in gentrified neighborhoods still prominently populated by African-Americans, fail to include, much less humanize, black people who still live there.

“White supremacist” may seem like a harshly provocative label for any bumbling white writer who lacks the democratic bonhomie to leave the house and talk with other people and consider that those who do not share his skin color may indeed share more common experience than presumed. But if these writers are going to boast about how their narratives allegedly tell the truth about America while refusing to accept challenge for their gaping holes and denying the complexity of vital people who make up this great nation, then it seems apposite to bring a loaded gun to a knife fight. If we accept Ellison’s view of race as “an irrational sea in which Americans flounder like convoyed ships in a gale,” then it is clear that these egotistical, self-appointed seers are buckling on damaged vessels hewing to shambling sea routes mapped out by blustering navigators basking in white privilege, hitting murky ports festooned with ancient barnacles that they adamantly refuse to remove.

Franzen, despite growing up in a city in which half the population is African-American, recently told Slate‘s Isaac Chotiner that he could not countenance writing about other races because he has not loved them or gone out of his way to know them and thus excludes non-white characters from his massive and increasingly mediocre novels. Shriver wrote a novel, The Mandibles, in which the only black characters are (1) Leulla, bound to a chair and walked with a leash, and (2) Selma, who speaks in a racist Mammy patois (“I love the pitcher of all them rich folk having to cough they big piles of gold”). She then had the effrontery to deliver a keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival arguing for the right to “try on other people’s hats,” failing to understand that creating dimensional characters involves a great deal more than playing dress-up at the country club. She quoted from a Margot Kaminski review of Chris Cleave’s Little Bee that offered the perfectly reasonable consideration, one that doesn’t deny an author’s right to cross boundaries, that an author may wish to take “special care…with a story that’s not implicitly yours to tell.” Such forethought clearly means constructing an identity that is more human rather than crassly archetypal, an eminently pragmatic consideration on how any work of contemporary art should probably reflect the many identities that make up our world. But for Shriver, a character should be manipulated at an author’s whim, even if her creative vagaries represent an impoverishment of imagination. For Shriver, inserting another nonwhite, non-heteronormative character into The Mandibles represented “issues that might distract from my central subject moment of apocalyptic economics.” Which brings us back to Ellison’s question of “Americanization” and how “the diverse American peoples” are indeed regularly affected by the decisions of those who uphold the status quo, whether overtly or covertly.

Writer Maxine Benba-Clarke bravely confronted Shriver with the full monty of this dismissive racism and Shriver responded, “When I come to your country. I expect. To be treated. With hospitality.” And with that vile and shrill answer, devoid of humanity and humility, Shriver exposed the upright incomprehension of her position, stepping from behind the arras as a kind of literary Jan Smuts for the 21st century.1

If this current state of affairs represents a bristling example of Giambattista Vico’s corsi e ricorsi, and I believe it does, then Ellison’s essay, “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,” astutely demonstrates how this cultural amaurosis went down before, with 20th century authors willfully misreading Mark Twain, failing to see that Huck’s release of Jim represented a moment that not only involved recognizing Jim as a human being, but admitting “the evil implicit in his ’emancipation'” as well as Twain accepting “his personal responsibility in the condition of society.” With great creative power comes great creative responsibility. Ellison points to Ernest Hemingway scouring The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn merely for its technical accomplishments rather than this moral candor and how William Faulkner, despite being “the greatest artist the South has produced,” may not be have been quite the all-encompassing oracle, given that The Unvanquished‘s Ringo is, despite his loyalty, devoid of humanity. In another essay on Stephen Crane, Ellison reaffirms that great art involves “the cost of moral perception, of achieving an informed sense of life, in a universe which is essentially hostile to man and in which skill and courage and loyalty are virtues which help in the struggle but by no means exempt us from the necessary plunge into the storm-sea-war of experience.” And in the essays on music that form the book’s second section (“Sound and the Mainstream”), Ellison cements this ethos with his personal experience growing up in the South. If literature might help us to confront the complexities of moral perception, then the lyrical, floating tones of a majestic singer or a distinctive cat shredding eloquently on an axe might aid us in expressing it. And that quest for authentic expression is forever in conflict with audience assumptions, as seen with such powerful figures as Charlie Parker, whom Ellison describes as “a sacrificial figure whose struggles against personal chaos…served as entertainment for a ravenous, sensation-starved, culturally disoriented public which had but the slightest notion of its real significance.”

What makes Ellison’s demands for inclusive identity quite sophisticated is the vital component of admitting one’s own complicity, an act well beyond the superficial expression of easily forgotten shame or white guilt that none of the 20th or the 21st century writers identified here have had the guts to push past. And Ellison wasn’t just a writer who pointed fingers. He held himself just as accountable, as seen in a terrific 1985 essay called “An Extravagance of Laughter” (not included in Shadow and Act, but found in Going with the Territory), in which Ellison writes about how he went to the theatre to see Jack Kirkland’s adaptation of Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road. (I wrote about Tobacco Road in 2011 as part of this series and praised the way that this still volatile novel pushes its audience to confront its own prejudices against the impoverished through remarkably flamboyant characters.) Upon seeing wanton animal passion among poor whites on the stage, Ellison burst into an uncontrollable paroxysm of laughter, which emerged as he was still negotiating the rituals of New York life shortly after arriving from the South. Ellison compared his reaction, which provoked outraged leers from the largely white audience, to an informal social ceremony he observed while he was a student at Tuskegee that involved a set of enormous whitewashed barrels labeled FOR COLORED placed in public space. If an African-American felt an overwhelming desire to laugh, he would thrust his head into the pit of the barrel and do so. Ellison observes that African-Americans “who in light of their social status and past condition of servitude were regarded as having absolutely nothing in their daily experience which could possibly inspire rational laughter.” And the expression of this inherently human quality, despite being a cathartic part of reckoning with identity and one’s position in the world, was nevertheless positioned out of sight and thus out of mind.

When I took an improv class at UCB earlier this year, I had an instructor who offered rather austere prohibitions to any strain of humor considered “too dark” or “punching down,” which would effectively disqualify both Tobacco Road and the Tuskegee barrel ritual that Ellison describes.2 These restrictions greatly frustrated me and a few of my classmates, who didn’t necessarily see the exploration of edgy comic terrain as a default choice, but merely one part of asserting an identity inclusive of many perspectives. I challenged the notion of confining behavior to obvious choices and ended up getting a phone call from the registrar, who was a smart and genial man and with whom I ended up having a friendly and thoughtful volley about comedy. I had apparently been ratted out by one student, who claimed that I was “disrupting” the class when I was merely inquiring about my own complicity in establishing base reality. In my efforts to further clarify my position, I sent a lengthy email to the instructor, one referencing “An Extravagance of Laughter,” and pointed out that delving into the uncomfortable was a vital part of reckoning with truth and ensuring that you grew your voice and evolved as an artist. I never received a reply. I can’t say that I blame him.

Ellison’s inquiry into the roots of how we find common ground with others suggests that we may be able to do so if we (a) acknowledge the completeness of other identities and (b) allow enough room for necessary catharsis and the acknowledgment of our feelings and our failings as we take baby steps towards better understanding each other.

The most blistering firebomb in the book is, of course, the infamous essay “The World and the Jug,” which demonstrates just what happens when you assume rather than take the time to know another person. It is a refreshingly uncoiled response that one could not imagine being published in this age of “No haters” reviewing policies and genial retreat from substantive subjects in today’s book review sections. Reacting to Irving Howe’s “Black Boys and Native Sons,” Ellison condemns Howe for not seeing “a human being but an abstract embodiment of living hell” and truly hammers home the need for all art to be considered on the basis of its human experience rather than the spectator’s constricting inferences. Howe’s great mistake was to view all African-American novels through the prism of a “protest novel” and this effectively revealed his own biases against what black writers had to say and very much for certain prerigged ideas that Howe expected them to say. “Must I be condemned because my sense of Negro life was quite different?” writes Ellison in response to Howe roping him in with Richard Wright and James Baldwin. And Ellison pours on the vinegar by not only observing how Howe self-plagiarized passages from previous reviews, but how his intractable ideology led him to defend the “old-fashioned” violence contained in Wright’s The Long Dream, which, whatever its merits, clearly did not keep current with the changing dialogue at the time.

Shadow and Act, with its inclusion of interviews and speeches and riffs on music (along with a sketch of a struggling mother), may be confused with a personal scrapbook. But it is, first and foremost, one man’s effort to assert his identity and his philosophy in the most cathartic and inclusive way possible. We still have much to learn from Ellison more than fifty years after these essays first appeared. And while I will always be galvanized by James Baldwin (who awaits our study in a few years), Ralph Ellison offers plentiful flagstones to face the present and the future.

SUPPLEMENT: One of the great mysteries that has bedeviled Ralph Ellison fans for decades is the identity of the critic who attacked Invisible Man as a “literary race riot.” In a Paris Review interview included in Shadow and Act, Ellison had this to say about the critic:

But there is one widely syndicated critical bankrupt who made liberal noises during the thirties and has been frightened ever since. He attacked my book as a “literary race riot.”

With the generous help of Ellison’s biographer Arnold Rampersad (who gave me an idea of where the quote might be found in an email volley) and the good people at the New York Public Library, I have tracked down the “widely syndicated critical bankrupt” in question.

sterlingnorthHis name is Sterling North, best known for the children’s novel Rascal in 1963. He wrote widely popular (and rightly forgotten) children’s books while writing book reviews for various newspapers. North was such a vanilla-minded man that he comics “a poisonous mushroom growth” and seemed to have it in for any work of art that dared to do something different — or that didn’t involve treacly narratives involving raising baby raccoons.

And then, in the April 16, 1952 issue of the New York World-Telegram, he belittled Ellison’s masterpiece, writing these words:

This is one of the most tragic and disturbing books I have ever read. For the most part brilliantly written and deeply sincere, it is, at the same time, bitter, violent and unbalanced. Except for a few closing pages in which the author tries to express something like a sane outlook on race relations, it is composed largely of such scenes of interracial strife that it achieves the effect of one continuous literary race riot. Ralph Ellison is a Negro with almost as much writing talent as Richard Wright. Like his embittered hero (known only as “I’ throughout the book, Mr. Ellison received scholarships to help him through college, one from the State of Oklahoma which made possible three years at the Tuskegee Institute, and one from the Rosenwald Foundation.

If Mr. Ellison is as scornful and bitter about this sort of assistance as he lets his “hero” be, those who made the money available must wonder if it was well spent.

North’s remarkably condescending words offer an alarming view of the cultural oppression that Ellison was fighting against and serve as further justification for Ellison’s views in Shadow and Act. Aside from his gross mischaracterization of Ellison’s novel, there is North’s troubling assumptions that Ellison should be grateful in the manner of an obsequious and servile stereotype, only deserves a scholarship if he writes a novel that fits North’s limited idea of what African-American identity should be, and that future white benefactors should think twice about granting opportunities for future uppity Ellisons.

It’s doubtful that The Sterling North Society will recognize this calumny, but this is despicable racism by any measure. A dive into North’s past also reveals So Dear to My Heart, a 1948 film adaptation of North’s Midnight and Jeremiah that reveled in Uncle Tom representations of African-Americans.

North’s full review of The Invisible Man can be read below:


Next Up: James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough!

What Jonathan Franzen Didn’t Include in His New York Times Op-Ed

On May 28, 2011, The New York Times published a Jonathan Franzen op-ed “adapted from a commencement speech he delivered on May 21 at Kenyon College. The piece contained a link to an audio version of the piece. Here’s a breakdown of what Franzen didn’t include (I have not included throat clearing or minor linking words):

“Good morning, class of 2011. Good morning, relatives and faculty. It’s a great honor and pleasure to be here with you today. I’m going to go ahead and assume you all knew what you were getting into when you chose a literary writer to deliver this address. I’m going to do what literary writers do, which is talk about themselves in the hope that my experience has some resonance with your own experience. I’d like to work my way around to the subject of love and its relation to my life and to the strange techno-consumerist world that you guys are inheriting.” (Beginning to 00:38)

“…powerful Blackberry Bold with a five megapixel camera and 3G capability.” (Bolded product description dropped, 00:43-00:48)

“…tiny track pad…” (“tiny” dropped, 1:03)

“…impelling them to action by speaking incantations…” (dropped, but this may have been a reading flub, 2:02-2:04)

“Let me toss out the idea that according to the logic of techno-consumerism in which markets discover….” (dropped, 2:26-2:28)

“…the ongoing transformation…” (“ongoing” dropped, 3:48)

“…fallen for your schtick. Those people exist to make you feel good about yourself, but how good can your feeling be when it’s provided by the people you don’t respect? You may find yourself becoming depressed…” (dropped, 5:17-5:23)

“dissed” upgraded to “disrespected” (6:34)

“One of the heartening things about the plague of cell phones in my Manhattan neighborhood is that among all the texting zombies and the party-planning yakkers on the sidewalks, I sometimes get to walk along somebody who’s having an honest to God fight with the person they love. I’m sure they prefer not to be having the fight on a public sidewalk, but here it’s happening to them anyway and they’re behaving in a very, very uncool way. Shouting, accusing, and pleading, abusing. This is the kind of thing that gives me hope for the world.. Which is not to say that love is only about fighting or that radically self-involved people aren’t capable of accusing and abusing.” (dropped, 7:53-8:30)

“When I was a senior in college, I took the first seminar the college had ever offered in literary theory. And I fell in love with the most brilliant student in the seminar. Both of us liked how instantly powerful literary theory made us feel. It’s similar to modern consumer technology in this regard. And we flattered ourselves on how much more sophisticated we were than the kids who were still doing those tedious old close textual readings. For various theoretical reasons, we also thought it would be cool to get married. (uncomfortable laughter from students) A longer story than we have time for here, but my mother, who had spent twenty years making me into a person who craved full commitment love now turned around and advocated that I spend my twenties, as she put it, footloose and fancy free. Naturally, since I thought she was wrong about everything, I assumed she was wrong about this. I had to find out the hard way what a messy business commitment is. The first thing we jettisoned was theory. My soon-to-be wife once memorably remarked after an unhappy scene in bed, ‘You can’t deconstruct and undress at the same time.’ (more uncomfortable laughter) Try it. We spent a year on different continents and very quickly discovered that, although it was fun to fill the pages of our letters to each other with theoretical riffs, it wasn’t so much fun to read those pages. But what really killed theory for me, and began to cure me more generally of my obsession with how I appeared to other people, was my love of fiction. There may be a superficial similarity between revising a piece of fiction and revising your webpage or your Facebook profile. But a page of prose doesn’t have those slick graphics to help bolster your self-image. If you’re moved to try and return the gift that other people’s fiction represents for you, you eventually can’t ignore what’s fraudulent or second-hand in your own pages. These pages are a mirror too. And if you really love fiction, you’ll find that the only pages worth keeping are the ones that reflect you as you really are.” (9:00-11:00)

“unliked” instead of “disliked” (11:08)

“My wife and I, having married too young, eventually surrendered so much of ourselves and caused each other so much pain that we each had reason to regret ever having taken the plunge. And yet I can’t quite make myself regret it. For one thing, our struggle to honor our commitment actively came to constitute who we were as people. We weren’t helium molecules floating inertly through life. We bonded and we changed. For another thing, and this may be my main message to you…..[segues into “pain hurts”]” (11:27-11:55)

“What I said earlier about how engagement with something you love compels you to face up to who you really are may apply particularly to fiction writing. But it’s true of just about any work you undertake and love. I’d like to conclude here by talking about another love of mine.” (12:34-12:49)

“And since I’d been fired up by critical theory and I was looking for things to find wrong with the world and reasons to hate the people who ran it…” (bold parts dropped, 12:59-13:05)

“…the angrier and more people hating I became…” (bold part dropped, 13:20-13:25)

“Finally, around the time my marriage was breaking up, I made a conscious decision to stop worrying about the environment” changed to “Finally, in the mid-1990s, I made a conscious decision to stop worrying…” (13:26-13:29)

“I had no choice but to start worrying about the environment again. Yeah, what a drag.” (bold part dropped, 14:38-14:40)

“Like I said, the bird thing was very unexpected to me. For most of my life, I hadn’t given much thought to animals. And maybe I was unlucky to find my way to the birds so relatively late in life. Or maybe I was lucky to find my way to them at all. Once you’re hit with a love like that, however late or early, it changes your relation to the world. In my case, for example, I’d abandoned doing journalism after a few early experience [sic] because the world of facts didn’t excite me the way the world of fiction did. But after my avian conversion experience, which has taught me to run toward my pain and anger and despair rather than away from them, I started taking on a new kind of journalistic assignment. Whatever I most hated at a particular moment became the thing I wanted to write about. I went to Washington in the summer of 2003 when the Republicans were doing things to the country that enraged me. I went to China a few years later because I was being kept awake at night by my anger about the havoc the Chinese are wreaking on the environment. I went to the Mediterranean to interview the hunters and poachers who were slaughtering migratory songbirds. In each case, when meeting the enemy, I found people who I really liked. In some cases, outright loved. Hilarious, generous, brilliant gay Republican staffers. Fearless, miraculous, young Chinese nature lovers. A gun crazy Italian legislator who had very soft eyes and who quoted the animal rights advocate Peter Singer to me. In each case, the blanket hatred that had come so easily to me wasn’t so easy anymore. (15:59-17:26)

(Photo credit: Daniel Sillman)

Barack Obama: The West Point Operator


President Barack Obama stood tonight before the seated West Point cadets and revealed himself to be a shallow political opportunist, a man who views mortal sacrifice with all the cold and uncomprehending analysis of a clinical dilettante who is in over his head. Obama stared hard into his twin prompters, as if expecting some illusory plane to crash and conflagrate. One detected the whiff of self-sabotage as this newly christened lame duck spoke without spontaneity, failing to hit any note that even approximated empathy. Yes, he had signed letters of condolence to the families of every American who has given up a life. But there was nothing in his dead eyes to suggest a solace that extended beyond bureaucratic acts or a leader who knew what he was doing. This was shallow and unconsummated political theater, and, for me, a profound feeling of nausea kicked in at the ten minute mark.

Obama preferred to regale the crowd with hollow tough talk, but, judging from the few cutaway shots, the West Point throngs didn’t seem terribly convinced. He reminded us all, including those brave progressives daring to huddle around high-def sets for some benefit of the doubt, that he was the Commander-in-Chief. In a line that will no doubt be fiercely argued by febrile teabaggers, he declared that he had seen “firsthand the terrible wages of war.” It was as if he still needed to prove something just less than a year into his Presidency. But in an age of economic disaster, unseen relief, and international terror, the time for needless reminders and phony platitudes has now passed. Actions that live up to the mandate have become beyond necessary, and Obama demonstrated again that he cannot deliver. This geeky, number-crunching adolescent, who painfully reminded us that he had once stood against the Iraq War, pretended once again to be an adult, and his speech was a firm betrayal of the alleged ethos that secured his November victory. When that dreadful noun “hope” came up thrice, applied to Afghanistan’s untenable wasteland, the linguistic political operator and almost certain one-term President came out of the closet. It was also an unpardonable insult for Obama to suggest that “we must come together to end this war successfully,” a sentiment at odds with the exigencies of healthy democracy and language uncomfortably close to the previous Oval Office hick now laughing his ass off in Dallas. One expects a failure to grasp the realities of human conflict from some desperate corporate leader making an awkward speech at a company retreat, but not the ostensible leader of the free world. Had a cadet yelled, “You lie!” tonight, I would have applauded him as a patriot.

This was a hard spectacle for anyone on the left to endure. The social networks were strangely silent. It was eerily symbolic that YouTube opted to live-stream an Alicia Keys concert over tonight’s cold hard truth. Obama, the man who had fueled his base through the Internet, had been abandoned by his most fervent online boosters. And this sizable cluster was really the canton who needed to hear this speech more than anyone else. Perhaps they will be braver in the morning, when they can stomach some predawn douse of icy and abrasive water. Obama’s speech was a tremendous slur against optimism and possibility, for it invited cynicism rather than respect. This was not a delivery that could galvanize the hardscrabble American heart, for it offered only fungible realities.

Obama failed to sell the brave recruits or the American people on the reasons behind the Afghanistan surge. Lives would be lost, but for what? These unspecified threats and specious connections were the reasons why so many of us opposed Bush. Obama said that he owed us “a mission that is clearly defined, and worthy of your service,” but remained too general on the details. His objectives involved denying al-Qaeda a safe haven, reversing the Taliban’s momentum, and denying them the ability to overthrow the government. But these goals carried distressing echoes of the administrative arrogance depicted in David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, and remained doubly troubling with the assumptive hubris. For Obama was there to tell us that those seeing another Vietnam were relying upon “a false reading of history” and offered no text in return. His inference rested on the principle that Vietnam was the natural parallel, rather than the failed ten-year campaign by Russia, much less the ongoing clusterfuck in Iraq, which, in Obama’s words, was “well-known and need not be repeated here.”

Obama claimed that “this is not just America’s war,” He preferred to mimic the language of our previous President, awkwardly jutting his chin in deference to the eight-year charlatan’s cowboy tic. But it did not seem to occur to him that such arrogance — conveyed through subdued and unconvincing burlesque and a stunning failure to be even remotely real — is not how any nation builds coalitions.

This was a Powerpoint presentation delivered without the slides. Obama sweated, looking like a boxer past his prime, and didn’t seem to comprehend that human lives were in the balance. When Obama stated that “the days of providing a blank check are over,” one was speedily reminded of the no-strings-attached check handled to the rapacious thugs at Goldman Sachs and the $787 billion stimulus package that has allegedly “created or saved” 640,000 jobs (or about $248,000 spent for each job). Obama offered a timeline, but for all of his talk about “addressing these costs openly and honestly,” he was reticent to drop specific pecuniary numbers for his escalation plan. He offered yet another hollow promise to close Guantanamo Bay, but the travesty that continues to sully alleged American virtues must end with a decisive action.

When speaking about Afghanistan, Obama looked directly into the camera, as if expecting a pockmarked population to watch, and said, “We do not seek to occupy other nations. We will not claim another nation’s resources or target other peoples because their faith or ethnicity is different from ours.” But I did not believe him. And there is no reason to expect an Afghanistan civilian to believe him. Before the speech, two of his officials had used the word “surge” in relation to these developments. And Malalai Joya, writing bravely in The Guardian, intimated that an escalation of troops is a war crime against her country. (Both links found helpfully through Glenn Greenwald.)

None of these concerns were considered. There remained the cliched faith in “workers and businesses who will rebuild our economy,” but none of this could atone for the pressing reality that more than a tenth of us are without a livelihood and nearly one fifth of African-American males are far worse off. As Obama heads on to Oslo to collect his Nobel Peace Prize, one is reminded of the 1973 Swedish hypocrisy. One begins to hear Kissinger’s duplicities in Obama’s dulcet voice.

Which leads anyone living in the waking world to conclude justly that Obama’s idealism is gone. His rhetoric is hollow. This is a dead parrot.