May 10, 2008

Barack Obama as Eric Hebborn

An excerpt from my new American Conservative article:

How did such a smooth operator as Barack Obama mishandle so ineptly the roadblock that he had to know stood between him and the White House: his intimate two-decade relationship with his far leftist minister, the erudite and articulate Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr.? And what, if anything, can he do to repair the damage?

As I asked more than a year ago in, "Why has Obama tied his fate to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a tactless race man who is the living opposite of the myth Obama is trying to project about himself?"

Obama's candidacy is based on encouraging white voters to assume naively that his mixed race ancestry means that he is somehow genetically programmed for racial and political moderation. Indeed, in his long-postponed denunciation of Wright on April 29th, the reeling Obama made explicit the amusingly eugenic thinking implicit in Obamamania:

"That's in my DNA, trying to promote mutual understanding to insist that we all share common hopes and common dreams as Americans and as human beings."

This kind of fantasizing about Obama was embarrassingly widespread before television finally began paying attention to Wright in March. For example, back on December 30, 2007, conservative columnist George Will enthused about how he can just tell that Obama must share Will's views on race:

"Obama seems to understand America's race fatigue, the unbearable boredom occasioned by today's stale politics generally and by the perfunctory theatrics of race especially…The political implications of this transcendence of confining categories are many, profound and encouraging."

Yet, if I could see from reading pp. 274-295 in Obama's 1995 autobiography Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance that Obama's spiritual mentor would be campaign trouble, why couldn't Obama? You might think that such a cool-headed vivisectionist of other people's political and racial fantasies would have guessed that his surrogate father-figure wouldn't let him get away with misleading the public about the ideological comradeship that led Obama to Wright in the 1980s. Unfortunately, Obama's self-pity keeps him from being as cold-eyed an analyst of himself as he is of others.

Normally, Obama is to the average politician as the great art forger Eric Hebborn was to the run-of-the-mill counterfeiter. Hebborn tried to follow a moral code of his own devising. On 17th Century paper, he would sketch in the style of, say, Rembrandt, but he would not forge Rembrandt's signature. Hebborn's view was that if Sotheby's was foolish and greedy enough to talk themselves into hoping that they were buying a Rembrandt drawing, well, that was their fault, not his.

Similarly, Obama prefers to mislead without lying outright. He likes to obscure the truth under so many thoughtful nuances, dependent clauses, Proustian details, lawyerly evasions, and eloquent summarizations of his opponents' arguments that his audiences ultimately just make up little fantasies about how he must agree with them. Rather like Hebborn, Obama seems to feel that he's not to blame if the press and public want to be fooled.

Sadly, though, Obama has lied repeatedly, and artlessly, about Wright's Youtube sermons, asserting that he had never heard such things and they were being taken out of context. The day after Wright's National Press Club barnburner on April 28 exploded these excuses, Obama pathetically claimed, "The person I saw yesterday was not the person that I met 20 years ago." ...

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

May 9, 2008

"Iron Man"

From my review of "Iron Man" in The American Conservative:

Rather than fighting crime like Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark's focus was foreign policy. In 1963, while prototyping a new Stark Industries weapons system for our advisors in Vietnam, he was captured by "red guerilla tyrant" Wong Chu, who put him to work building a superweapon for some nefarious purpose. Stark, though, secretly banged together a robot exoskeleton (perhaps inspired by the mobile infantry power suits in Robert A. Heinlein's 1959 novel Starship Troopers) and smashed his way out.

The movie is transplanted to Afghanistan in 2008. The villain isn't the Taliban (there are a lot of Muslim potential ticket-buyers out there), but a freelance warlord who has assembled a multicultural gang of mercenaries from across the Eurasian steppe, from Hungary to Mongolia, to rebuild the empire of Genghis Khan. (How using Stark's high tech weaponry to pillage one mud brick village in the Hindu Kush gets him closer to world domination isn't explained.)

In most action movies, the bad guy's henchmen are suicidally devoted to the cause, even if they are just in it for money. In a clever touch of realism in this consistently enjoyable film, however, the hired goons are just bullies who flee in terror from what looks like a man wrapped in pick-up truck bumpers.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


One problem with Obama running on his biography is that he's systematically misled voters into imagining things about the implications of his life story that aren't true. He has a gift for telling people what they want to hear. But that comes with a second problem: one of those people is Barack Obama. He is weak at learning from his own biography, tending to draw lessons that are cliches from the conventional wisdom, no matter how obviously inapt they are.

Here, for example, is the emotional climax of Dreams from My Father, in which Barack Obama Jr. visits his father's and paternal grandfather's graves in Kenya (p. 429). His passionate reflections on his father strike me as heavily Oprah-influenced and bizarrely backward:

I dropped to the ground and swept my hand across the smooth yellow tile. Oh, Father, I cried. There was no shame in your confusion. Just as there had been no shame in your father’s before you. No shame in the fear, or in the fear of his father before him. There was only shame in the silence fear had produced. It was the silence that betrayed us. If it weren’t for that silence, your grandfather might have told your father that he could never escape himself, or re-create himself alone. Your father might have taught those same lessons to you. And you, the son, might have taught your father that this new world that was beckoning all of you involved more than just railroads and indoor toilets and irrigation ditches and gramophones, lifeless instruments that could be absorbed into the old ways. You might have told him that these instruments carried with them a dangerous power, that they demanded a different way of seeing the world. That this power could be absorbed only alongside a faith born out of hardship, a faith that wasn’t new, that wasn’t black or white or Christian or Muslim but that pulsed in the heart of the first African village and the first Kansas homestead-a faith in other people.

The silence killed your faith. And for lack of faith you clung to both too much and too little of your past. Too much of its rigidness, its suspicions, its male cruelties. Too little of the laughter in Granny’s voice, the pleasures of company while herding the goats, the murmur of the market, the stories around the fire. The loyalty that could make up for a lack of airplanes or rifles. Words of encouragement. An embrace. A strong, true love. For all your gifts-the quick mind, the powers of concentration, the charm-you could never forge yourself into a whole man by leaving those things behind….

This is the Daytime Television solution to all problems: Let's get together and talk about our feelings! It doesn't work all that often, and can easily make things worse (as the Jerry Springer show has demonstrated for years), but, who cares? It draws huge ratings because women like talking about feelings.

But, what in God's name is Obama Jr. talking about in regard to his father's faults: "shame," "fear," "silence"? Shamelessness, fearlessness, and won't-shutupness would be a more accurate description of Obama Sr. Here's a man who committed criminal bigamy twice in the U.S., who abandoned Barack Jr., who drove like Mr. Toad in The Wind in the Willows, and who could out-talk any man in the bar.

In the case of Barack Obama Sr., the son's assertion that "silence" was his verbose father's fundamental problem is particularly absurd, since, by all accounts, his drunken would-be Big Man father was All Talk, No Action -- not exactly, the strong, silent type.

Here is a recollection by Kenyan newspaper editor Philip Ochieng, an old "drinking buddy" of Obama Sr.:

Like his father, although charming, generous and extraordinarily clever, Obama Senior was also imperious, cruel and given to boasting about his brain and his wealth.

It was this kind of boasting that proved his undoing in the Kenyatta system – although, as he said, there was tribalism in it –and left him without a job, plunged him into prolonged poverty and dangerously wounded his ego.

Like me, he was excessively fond of Scotch. In his later years, he had fallen into the habit of going home drunk every night. This was what forced Ruth to sue for a divorce to marry another friend of mine, a Tanzanian.

Scotch, indeed, was what proved to be Obama Senior's final undoing. Driving a car always excited him excessively.

Obama Senior had had many extremely serious accidents. In time, both his legs had to be amputated and replaced with iron. But his pride was such that he could not tolerate "crawling like an insect" on the road. I was not surprised when I learned how he had finally died [in another drunken car accident.]

Now, there's nothing here about Obama Sr. that's not somewhere in Obama Jr.'s autobiography. Obama Jr. eventually got the full story on his father. (I quote Ochieng because he's a more concise writer.) But what lessons did he draw from his father's story? The two paragraphs I quoted from Obama above are his impassioned conclusions about his father, and they don't make any sense.

Similarly, Obama's Jr.'s contention that Obama Sr.'s downfall came from leaving African things behind is 180 degrees the reverse of the truth. He returned to Africa to play the Big Man, and there's nothing more African than that. His life was a caricature of all that is notorious about African politicians. Unfortunately, the Big Man pyramid is steep, with room for only a few, and he ultimately fell off.

Obama Sr. had a number of political problems, such as being a Luo under a Kikuyu president, Jomo Kenyatta. And he had initially staked out an ideological position to the left of the government's pro-capitalist economic policy, although it's hard to know how seriously ideology mattered in such a tribalist system. Yet, despite these disadvantages, he wouldn't tone down his Big Man act, bringing down upon him the wrath of the biggest Big Man of them all, Kenyatta.

According to his daughter Auma, Obama Sr. insisted on playing the Big Man until the end, handing out money he couldn't afford to give to relatives and hangers-on, and offering to drive everybody in the bar without a car home.

Moreover, rather than not having enough faith in other people, Obama Sr. had too much. He was a con man who conned himself into believing other people would believe his act. Lots of people did get suckered by him for awhile -- such as the four women by whom he had about eight children (one of them by his first wife might have been a cuckoo's egg), but eventually people figured him out.

So, what in the world, does Obama mean with all his talk of his father's "silence"?

Clearly, he wishes his father had talked more ... to him, rather than to his cronies.

This is also a major theme in Winston Churchill's autobiography -- his bitter regret that his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, rarely spoke to him before cracking up on a far grander scale than Obama Sr., resigning as Chancellor of the Exchequer to precipitate a crisis that would make him Prime Minister, failing, then slowly going mad from syphilis in Parliament.

But, Churchill didn't draw Oprahtastic conclusions from his personal pain.

Now, it could well be that Obama Jr. has actually drawn useful lessons from his father's failure -- he's abstemious *, cautious, and, while he talks a lot, he seldom says anything that anybody who disagrees with him can understand. Still, it would be nice to know a few more things about Obama, like: In this grand finale of your autobiography, were you just pulling our leg in an attempt to make the Oprah Book Club? Or do you really think like that?


* By the way, can we all now stop pressuring Obama to do shots of alcohol on the campaign trail to prove his regular guyness? Obama's father died in a drunken car crash, his half-brother David died in a motorcycle crash after a night of drinking, his half-brother Roy / Abongo converted to Islam to battle his alcoholism, and his grandfather Stanley was a barfly. There are some serious alcohol problems running in his family tree. If Obama doesn't want to drink, he knows best.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

Reuters: "Relieved Castro blames 'Idol' exit on inexperience"

I guess 48 years just wasn't enough on-the-job training for Fidel...

By the way, did you see how brother Raul is now letting Cubans buy personal computers for the first time ever? (I had a personal computer 23.5 years ago.) Only $700. Of course, $700 is a gigantic amount of money for Cubans not high up in the government or getting money from Miami. Cuba is really poor, compared to, say, the Dominican Republic.

In 1959, Fidel promised to issue bonds to pay for $1.85 billion in U.S. owned assets that he had expropriated, but, what with one thing and another, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, etc., that's never been paid. At 5% interest, that comes to $21 billion, which isn't much (for us, but it's a lot for Cuba). At 10% interest that comes to $217 billion, which is a fair chunk of change.

Is there the makings of a deal here? Say the U.S. government offered to pay off the 1958 American debtors with 5% interest and lift the embargo in return for, say, three consecutive free elections over an eight year period, free speech, right of return for exiles, and freedom for Americans to invest in the Cuban economy?

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

May 8, 2008

Condensed books for high school students

I'm not ashamed to say that the copies I own of "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," "Life of Johnson," and "Wealth of Nations" are all shortened greatest hits selections rather than the full length originals by Gibbon, Boswell, and Smith. (Here is P.J. O'Rourke on "Why Is The Wealth of Nations So Damn Long?") And I wish I had a shorter version of "Tom Jones," which I tried to reread recently, but gave up with about 700 pages to go.

If I were a high school English teacher, I'd welcome condensed versions of books. They'd be less intimidating to students and they'd take up less time in class, so you can move on to other books. All the economic incentives these days are for publishers to churn out thick books in which readers can wallow in their favorite author's writing, but classrooms contain a wide variety of tastes, so a class is better off with more shorter books than fewer longer books.

With lots of older books, you could just cut out the descriptive prose. Before visual images became hyperabundant, people had a hunger for mental imagery. So, as late as "The Maltese Falcon" in 1930, you have to endure two pages of description of what Sam Spade looks like, which turned out to be not at all like Humphrey Bogart -- Hammett's Spade is 6'3" and blond.

And lots of fat books have a thin book lurking inside. For example, Tom Wolfe's 426-page The Right Stuff could furnish a terrific 125-page biography of Chuck Yeager.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

"I am King-Ton. As overlord, all will kneel trembling before me and obey my brutal commands." [Crosses arms] "End communication."

The Washington Post reports:

A powerful federal arts commission is urging that the sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr. proposed for a memorial on the Tidal Basin be reworked because it is too "confrontational" and reminiscent of political art in totalitarian states.

The statue is being made in China because, well, that's where everything is being made these days.

[For the origin of the title quote, see here.]

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

With Obama, it's always about Obama

The Epilogue to Dreams from My Father contains a scene where, just before he leaves Kenya, Obama visits a wise old woman Kenyan historian who had known his father. So, here is the Big Lesson of Obama's Kenyan sojourn, which takes up pp. 299-437:

I asked her why she thought black Americans were prone to disappointment when they visited Africa. She shook her head and smiled. “Because they come here looking for the authentic,” she said. “That is bound to disappoint a person. Look at this meal we are eating. Many people will tell you that the Luo are a fish-eating people. But that was not true for all Luo. Only those who lived by the lake. And even for those Luo, it was not always true. Before they settled around the lake, they were pastoralists, like the Masai. Now, if you and your sister behave yourself and eat a proper share of this food, I will offer you tea. Kenyans are very boastful about the quality of their tea, you notice. But of course we got this habit from the English. Our ancestors did not drink such a thing. Then there’s the spices we used to cook this fish. They originally came from India, or Indonesia. So even in this simple meal, you will find it very difficult to be authentic-although the meal is certainly African.” ...

I licked my fingers and washed my hands. “But isn’t there anything left that is truly African?”

“Ah, that’s the thing, isn’t it?” Rukia said. “There does seem to be something different about this place. I don’t know what it is. Perhaps the African, having traveled so far so fast, has a unique perspective on time. Or maybe it is that we have known more suffering than most. Maybe it’s just the land. I don’t know. ...My daughter, ... her first language is not Luo. Not even Swahili. It is English. When I listen to her talk with her friends, it sounds like gibberish to me. They take bits and pieces of everything-English, Swahili, German, Luo. Sometimes, I get fed up with this. Learn to speak one language properly, I tell them.” Rukia laughed to herself. “But I am beginning to resign myself-there’s nothing really to do. They live in a mixed-up world. It’s just as well, I suppose. In the end, I’m less interested in a daughter who’s authentically African than one who is authentically herself.” [pp. 433-434]

Obviously, the main reason "black Americans were prone to disappointment when they visited Africa" is not because Africa isn't "authentic." That's just laughable.

Granted, it's too much to expect Obama to admit that the main reason African-American tourists are prone to disappointment with Africa is because it's disappointing. They go hoping to see what the black man can accomplish without the white man around holding him down, and, well ...

Yet, why did Obama feel compelled to bring this question up and feature Rukia's nonsensical answer so prominently as the Climactic Insight of His Life?

Because her answer, ridiculous as it is, at least validates the central concern of Obama's existence: to prove he's black enough. If even Africans in Africa aren't authentic, as this learned African scholar says, then his being half-white and brought up in a wholly non-black environment doesn't disqualify him from being black enough.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

May 7, 2008

Mama Obamanomics

Barack Obama spent the mid-1980s trying to politically mobilize the black poor in Chicago, giving him, presumably, lots of first-hand insight into their problems. Yet, the 163 pages he devoted to his community organizer years in his 1995 autobiography, published at the height of the debate over welfare, are strikingly lacking in insight.

For example, he only mentions the world "welfare" twice, both times in neutral to positive contexts. Similar terms such as "food stamps" and "Aid to Families with Dependent Children" aren't mentioned at all. The notion that "welfare ... did create some perverse incentives when it came to the work ethic and family stability" (to quote from Obama's 2006 campaign book, The Audacity of Hope, of which he says "This book grew directly out of those conversations on the [2004] campaign trail" -- i.e., he's playing back what he heard from voters) simply never comes up in Dreams from My Father.

So, if welfare wasn't a problem, according to Obama, what was?

I apologize for quoting another slab of Obama's 1995 prose, which was carefully engineered to be unquotable, but it's interesting to see the influence on him of what appears to be his mother's worldview (as exemplified by the title of her 1,067 page anthropology dissertation "Peasant Blacksmithing in Indonesia: Surviving and Thriving Against All Odds"):

As we walked back to the car, we passed a small clothing store full of cheap dresses and brightly colored sweaters, two aging white mannequins now painted black in the window. The store was poorly lit, but toward the back I could make out the figure of a young Korean woman sewing by hand as a child slept beside her.

The scene took me back to my childhood, back to the markets of Indonesia: the hawkers, the leather workers, the old women chewing betelnut and swatting flies off their fruit with whisk brooms. I’d always taken such markets for granted, part of the natural order of things. Now, though, as I thought about Altgeld and Rose-land, Rafiq and Mr. Foster, I saw those Djakarta markets for what they were: fragile, precious things. The people who sold their goods there might have been poor, poorer even than folks out in Altgeld. They hauled fifty pounds of firewood on their backs every day, they ate little, they died young. And yet for all that poverty, there remained in their lives a discernible order, a tapestry of trading routes and middlemen, bribes to pay and customs to observe, the habits of a generation played out every day beneath the bargaining and the noise and the swirling dust. It was the absence of such coherence that made a place like Altgeld so desperate, I thought to myself; it was that loss of order that had made both Rafiq and Mr. Foster, in their own ways, so bitter. For how could we go about stitching a culture back together once it was torn? How long might it take in this land of dollars?

Longer than it took a culture to unravel, I suspected. I tried to imagine the Indonesian workers who were now making their way to the sorts of factories that had once sat along the banks of the Calumet River, joining the ranks of wage labor to assemble the radios and sneakers that sold on Michigan Avenue. I imagined those same Indonesian workers ten, twenty years from now, when their factories would have closed down, a consequence of new technology or lower wages in some other part of the globe. And then the bitter discovery that their markets have vanished; that they no longer remember how to weave their own baskets or carve their own furniture or grow their own food; that even if they remember such craft, the forests that gave them wood are now owned by timber interests, the baskets they once wove have been replaced by more durable plastics. The very existence of the factories, the timber interests, the plastics manufacturer, will have rendered their culture obsolete; the values of hard work and individual initiative turn out to have depended on a system of belief that’s been scrambled by migration and urbanization and imported TV reruns. Some of them would prosper in this new order. Some would move to America. And the others, the millions left behind in Djakarta, or Lagos, or the West Bank, they would settle into their own Altgeld Gardens, into a deeper despair.

If only Andrew Carnegie hadn't put all those black peasant blacksmiths out of business ...

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

Failure is always an option

The California Department of Education offers a potentially rather nifty service to parents on its official website: It provides recommended reading lists customized based on the kid's grade level (K-12) and test score on the California Reading Arts exam, with 13 progressively harder lists at each grade level:
"Based on your child's score on the California English-Language Arts Standards Test, a specific list has been designated as appropriate for him or her in terms of reading difficulty and interest level."

These lists are much less driven by multiculturalist quotas than you'd expect. They're heavy on The Classics of Western Civilization, including ones that nobody reads anymore, like Vergil's Aeneid. And the multiculti stuff is pretty good, like Fences by August Wilson.

Unfortunately, educators are living in a dreamland about what kind of books are suitable for their lowest-scoring students. Let's take a look at the recommended reading list for high school students (grades 9-12) who rank lowest out of the 13 levels of scores on the test. So, that's like youths in the bottom decile in reading ability, right?

Here are five of the 57 recommendations from the bottom of the barrel list:

Collected Poems by W.H. Auden
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw
Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot
Paradise Lost by John Milton

Right ...

Look, at this level, you just want these kids to read something, so you should be recommending, I don't know, 32-page sports hero biographies in big type with lots of pictures. The Da Vinci Code is way too hard for these poor bastards.

This seems to be a general pattern, pushing public school kids toward books that are way over their heads.

Let's now talk about average public high school students, rather than the bottom 1/13th. For example, Shakespeare is frequently introduced to students via Romeo and Juliet, which is the young Shakespeare at his most show-offy and incomprehensible. You should start instead with Julius Caesar, which is written in Shakespeare's simplest style in imitation of Latin. And it's about war and politics, which boys like, and boys are the problem these days. Most of them probably won't get it, but at least they have a fighting chance with Julius Caesar.

For those high school students who go on to a second Shakespeare play, Henry IV, Part I has perhaps the most entertainment value, with war, politics, honor, and some humor that's still kind of funny in Falstaff. Avoid Shakespeare comedies that are based upon transvestism but aren't actually funny, like Twelfth Night. They appeal to a certain type of English teacher, but not to most students. In general, tragedy endures better than comedy.

And avoid "problem plays" like Measure for Measure, which are problem plays because they have problems (i.e., aren't very good).

If you are building a public high school reading list of classics, you should look for 1) simple, 2) short, and 3) appealing to boys, which means you'd start with The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.


My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

Is the history of art a hoax?

Short answer: No.

But, a lot of people suspect it is, so it's worth exploring the question.

In 1993, I attended the enormously popular exhibition at the formidable Chicago Art Institute of the paintings of the Belgian Rene Magritte, a commercial artist in dreary Brussels who did witty Surrealist paintings in his off-hours.

After listening to a lecture on Magritte by the curator of exhibition, I approached her and told her how much more popular Magritte had gotten in just 17 years. In 1976 I'd visited a major exhibition of Magritte's work at the museum of Rice University in Houston, which, at the time, consisted of two quonset huts made of corrugated metal out in the football stadium parking lot. Almost nobody was there.

(It wasn't that Magritte was unpopular in the 1970s -- the famous cover picture for Jackson Browne's 1974 "Late for the Sky" album was a Los Angelesized-version of a well-known Magritte painting. Instead, he was a little too popular for artistic prestige, like M.C. Escher. In the late 1970s, Magritte's paintings inspired album covers by Styx and Gary Numan, which probably did more for his popularity than his prestige.)

And then I asked the poor curator the kind of uncomfortable question that has led me to stop going out in public: "So, if Magritte can climb so much in prestige, can we expect to attend an M.C. Escher retrospective at the Art Institute in a few decades?"

Her face clouded over with consternation. She began to explain that new research into Magritte's life recently discovered that he hadn't spent all his life in boring Brussels, but had actually spent 1927-30 in Paris, where he became friends with the leading artists of the day. And then she stopped, and said, "I don't want to make it sound like being a famous artist is all about who you know ..." And then she stopped again, because that's exactly what it sounded like. I made some encouraging noises to assure her that I'd never dream such a thing, and she got back on track.

The point is of course that who you know is important in the history of art ... because history needs a story.

Why is Picasso's Bull's Head a famous work of art, while the similar Bull's Heads no doubt created earlier by random junkyard proprietors and bicycle shop employees and the like are not famous works of art? Because, of course, Picasso's was created by a famous artist.

And that leads to the question: Why is Picasso a famous artist? And it's very tempting to answer: Because he created famous works of art, like Bull's Head.

Yet, the real answer is: Because he influenced other great artists.

And how do we know they are great artists? Because they influenced other great artists. And how do we know these other great artists are ...

You can see the potential for circular reasoning here.

And, yet, I'd caution against too much cynicism about the received history of art. It is what it is -- a story of who influenced whom -- for a reason. Scholars can't just make it up, at least not all of it. It's artists who ultimately get to decide who their greatest predecessors were, not the critics and historians.

For example, consider the pre-Renaissance Florentine painter Giotto. Is Giotto's inclusion in the history books justified? Well, Giotto influenced Masaccio who influenced Leonardo who influenced Raphael who influenced Caravaggio who influenced Rubens who influenced Van Dyck, so, yes, Giotto is most definitely important. It's not all a huge con game. You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you definitely can't fool Masaccio, Leonardo, Raphael, Caravaggio, Rubens, and Van Dyck all the time.

Conversely, in Victorian times, John Ruskin, perhaps the most influential critic ever, wrote the early Baroque Carraci family out of the history of painting, but they've slowly returned since there is too much objective evidence of their influence on later major painters to permanently ignore them.

The big problem, though, is that, after the development of photography, objective skill declined in importance as a measure of the artist and conceptual cleverness rose in ranking. So, the chances have increase for plausible-sounding critics and scholars to drive art history off track and into the trackless wastes of Art Theory.

For example, the rise in recent years in art history textbooks of jokester Marcel Duchamp as the key figure of 20th Century art reflects what happens when art writers' theorizing becomes untethered from actual artistic skill. For example, Wikipedia informs us: "In December 2004, Duchamp's Fountain was voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century by 500 well-established artists and critics in the British art world." Fountain is a urinal.

It's easy to write about Duchamp, who produced more epigrams and conceptual jests than actual works of visible art. And you can't reality-check Duchamp's influence on the major artists of the 21st Century, since there aren't any major artists of the 21st Century.

So, most of the written history of art, from Vasari onward, is not a hoax, but the closer we get to the present, the less we can say that with any confidence.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

"Finland, the cool attic of Europe"

Ilkka Kokkarinen sends a link to a Finnish government video recruiting skilled immigrants from other European Union countries. It provides some insight into Finns' quietly self-confident sense of their competitive advantages in appealing to the kind of people they want:
"Skilled people enjoy living in Finland. ... Quality of life also includes peace of mind. An ordinary, normal life is good. Finns expect quality, freshness, and functionality as standard. The starting point is that everything works, in any weather or season. Everyday matters are easily taken care of."

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

May 6, 2008

Creativity vs. Personality

Here's Picasso's 1943 sculpture Bull's Head, which H.W. Janson's standard college textbook on art history uses in its Introduction to illustrate the concept of "creativity:"

"Now let us look at the striking Bull's Head by Pablo Picasso (fig. 2), which seems to consist of nothing but the seat and handlebars of an old bicycle. ... Of course, the materials Picasso used are fabricated, but it would be absurd to insist that he must share the credit with the manufacturer, since the seat and handlebars in themselves are not works of art.

"While we feel a certain jolt when we first recognize the ingredients of this visual pun, we also sense that it was a stroke of genius to put them together in this unique way, and we cannot very well deny that it is a work of art."

Okay, I like it, it's cute, but the thought that occurred to me in art history class in 1979 was this: "Why does everybody assume this was 'unique?'"

I would guess that more than a few people preceded Picasso in connecting handlebars and seat to imitate a bull's head. It's the kind of thing my dad came up with every year or two while puttering around in the garage. Maybe he got the idea of assembling two things to look like an animal from Picasso, but I really doubt it. I suspect lots of folks' dads came up with a bicycle seat and handlebars Bull's Head before Picasso did.

If somebody came up with proof that, say, a Bulgarian bicycle repairman created basically the same thing in 1927, would that render Picasso's 1943 version valueless? Would Janson take out Picasso's Bulls Head and put in a picture of the repairman's Bull's Head as the exemplification of artistic creativity?

Yeah, right.

Something that's frequently overlooked about art history is that there has to be a "story." That, say, Bull's Head was independently discovered/created in, say, Bulgaria in 1927, in Uruguay in 1930, in Siam in 1931, and so forth, isn't a good story. It's just a bunch of stuff that (hypothetically) happened. Random acts of creativity aren't a story.

On the other hand, that Picasso from Spain, the land of bullfighting, an artistic genius obsessed with masculine vitality, who had prominently painted a bull's head a few years before in his famous Guernica, one day looked at some junk from an old bicycle and realized that he could create from two everyday objects a bull's head ... now that's a story! It's easy to riff off that because so much is known about Picasso, unlike that poor Bulgarian bastard.

What people are really interested in are personalities. But not too many personalities or the thread of the story gets lost. We pay attention to familiar personalities. Thus, Britney Spears going to Starbucks is the kind of story that interests millions. Granted, it's kind of a boring story ... except that it's about Britney Spears! Similarly, Picasso noticing that two pieces of junk make a bull's head has been taught to millions of college students as the epitome of artistic "creativity," a "unique" "stroke of genius."

What this means is that there's a high degree of path dependency and thus contingency in terms of who is famous. Those who grab the brass ring of fame, whether Britney or Pablo, tend to stay famous.

Thus, Andy Warhol has been famous for 40 years for saying, "In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes." That Andy got the future backwards -- celebrity is much more enduring these days than in 1968 -- is not the point. The point is that he got famous, so he's going to stay famous. That's how it works.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

He loved Big Brother.

William Saletan's ongoing Maoist-style self-criticism for the crimethink of pointing out that James Watson knows more about the genetics of IQ than Watson's critics continues in Slate:

Not Black and White: Rethinking race and genes.
By William Saletan

Five months ago, I wrote a series on race, genes, and intelligence. Everything about it hurt: the research, the writing, the reactions, the regrets. Not a day has gone by that I haven't thought about it. I've been struggling to reconcile two feelings that won't go away: that what I wrote was socially harmful and that I can't honestly renounce the evidence I presented. That evidence, which involved the proposed role of heredity in trait differences by race, is by no means complete or conclusive. But it's not dismissible, either. My colleague Stephen Metcalf summarized the debate better than I did: "It's a conflict between science and science."

When you find yourself in a dilemma this difficult, sometimes the best thing to do is let it sit in your head until you find a way to make sense of it within your value system. I think I'm beginning to find the answer that works for me: I was asking the wrong question.

In last fall's series, I asked myself why I was writing about such an ugly topic. "Because the truth isn't as bad as our ignorant, half-formed fears and suspicions about it," I concluded. "And because you can't solve a problem till you understand it." I wrote my commitment on a piece of paper and leaned it against my computer monitor: The truth doesn't care what you want.

Sometimes, with time and perspective, it's the small, overlooked things that turn out to be big. In retrospect, I was consumed by the wrong word. The flaw in my approach wasn't truth. It was the. Even if hereditary inequality among racial averages is a truth, it's less true, more unjust, and more pernicious than framing the same difference in nonracial terms. "The truth," as I accepted and framed it, was itself half-formed. It was, in that sense, a half-truth. And it flunked the practical test I had assigned it: To the extent that a social problem is genetic, you can't ultimately solve it by understanding it in racial terms.

A study published two weeks ago in Nature Medicine illustrates the point. Gina Kolata of the New York Times explains what happened:

Doctors who treat patients with heart failure have long been puzzled by a peculiar observation. Many black patients seem to do just as well if they take a mainstay of therapy, a class of drugs called beta blockers, as if they do not. [Now researchers] have discovered why: these nonresponsive patients have a slightly altered version of a gene that muscles use to control responses to nerve signals. … As many as 40 percent of blacks and 2 percent of whites have the gene variant, the researchers report. The findings, heart failure specialists say, mean that people with the altered gene might be spared taking what may be, for them, a useless therapy.

In other words, racial observation turned out to be a temporary step toward a deeper genetic explanation. Most blacks don't have the altered gene, and some whites do. Given these findings, prescribing or not prescribing beta blockers based on race rather than genes would be malpractice.

In a similar way, policy prescriptions based on race are social malpractice. Not because you can't find patterns on tests, but because any biological theory that starts with observed racial patterns has to end with genetic differences that cross racial lines. Race is the stone age of genetics. If you're a researcher looking for effects of heredity on medical or educational outcomes, race is the closest thing you presently have to genetic information about most people. And as a proxy measure, it sucks.

Okay, but the reason people get so irrationally upset when talk turns to race is because, much of the time, it's not a proxy measure: "Watch what you say, mister -- you're talking about family here." People care about what you say about their races for the same reasons they care about what you say about their families. And that's not a metaphor.

To say that somebody is, say, white is not just a crude way of saying that they are unlikely to have the gene variant that makes beta blockers ineffective. It's actually much more of a way of saying that on, average, they are more likely to be genealogically related to another white person than to a non-white person. In other words, a white person has more family ties to white people than to nonwhite people. And who you are related to matters, in all sorts of ways, genetic, sociological, political, and personal, ways both subtle and bleedingly obvious.

It's irritating that after a full decade of my yammering away over and over again about a single insight that can clear up a remarkable amount of confusion in public discourse -- that a racial group is an extended family that's partly inbred -- confusion reigns unabated.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

May 5, 2008

Top 50 pundits

Audacious Epigone figures out the demographic breakdown of the London Daily Telegraph's list of top 50 most influential American political pundits.

This is not to say that the Telegraph's list is accurate or inaccurate, just that it's a list somebody made up for a different purpose than demographic analysis, which makes it useful for demographic analysis. These kind of "found subjective lists" have more prima facie plausibility for demographic analysis than when the demographic analyst makes up his own subjective list, since his interest in demographics is likely to bias his list in one way or another.

The most interesting finding, to my mind, was in the Religious/Ethnic background category, where Roman Catholics held a plurality (40% of the top 50 pundits). At least eight of them are more or less Irish (Russert, Matthews, O'Reilly, Hannity, Noonan, Sullivan, Bennett, Shields). (And that's leaving out Pat Buchanan, who is 3/4ths Irish and 3/4ths Catholic, but not quite the same 3/4ths.)

As usual in lists of achievers, Jews (27%) are represented about an order of magnitude more than their share of the population, but it's such a small share of the population that they come in behind Catholics and Protestants (29%).

Men make up 86%. Whites account for 90%, blacks 10%, with nobody else on it (Michelle Malkin didn't make the list, but people I've never heard of, like Rachel Maddow, did). Average age is 52.4.

It's all about what you'd expect from other lists or just from looking at the First Class cabins on airliners -- America is run by middle-aged white men.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

The Hitch on Michelle Obama

In Slate:

Are We Getting Two for One? Is Michelle Obama responsible for the Jeremiah Wright fiasco?

By Christopher Hitchens

I think we can exclude any covert sympathy on Obama's part for Wright's views or style—he has proved time and again that he is not like that, and even his own little nods to "Minister" Farrakhan can probably be excused as a silly form of Chicago South Side political etiquette.

Why? Obama wrote thousands of sympathetic words about Wright's views and style in 1995. If he has changed his mind since then (and in 2004 he said he hadn't), it's his responsibility to prove it to us.

And Obama wrote a couple of pages that were fairly sympathetic to Farrakhan, rejecting his black nationalism on practical, not moral grounds.

On p. 200 of his autobiography, Obama writes:
"If [black] nationalism could create a strong and effective insularity, deliver on its promise of self-respect, then the hurt it might cause well-meaning whites, or the inner turmoil it caused people like me, would be of little consequence."

If nationalism could deliver. As it turned out, questions of effectiveness and not sentiment, caused most of my quarrels with Rafiq [a Black Muslim ally].

After a discussion of the failure of the Nation of Islam's attempts to sell black-only toothpaste and other consumer products, Obama rejects Farrakhanism as being unable to "create a strong and effective insularity."

Hitchens goes on:

All right, then, how is it that the loathsome Wright married him, baptized his children, and received donations from him? Could it possibly have anything, I wonder, to do with Mrs. Obama?

This obvious question is now becoming inescapable, and there is an inexcusable unwillingness among reporters to be the one to ask it. (One can picture Obama looking pained and sensitive and saying, "Keep my wife out of it," or words to that effect, as Clinton tried to do in 1992 when Jerry Brown and Ralph Nader quite correctly inquired about his spouse's influence.) If there is a reason why the potential nominee has been keeping what he himself now admits to be very bad company—and if the rest of his character seems to make this improbable—then either he is hiding something and/or it is legitimate to ask him about his partner.

I direct your attention to Mrs. Obama's 1985 thesis at Princeton University…

A friend asked an old Chicago acquaintance of Obama about Wright a few months ago, and he blamed it on Michelle, but didn't cite any persuasive evidence.

I spent a few hours last week looking for evidence to support this not prima facie implausible presumption, but couldn't find anything in particular on Google. We know that Obama met Jeremiah Wright before he met Michelle Robinson. I've never heard that she was a member of Wright's church when she met Obama in 1989.

The idea that Michelle would knowingly risk becoming First Lady out of personal, ideological, or racial loyalty to Rev. Wright seems less likely the more you think about it. My guess would be that Michelle would strangle baby pandas to get to the White House. She has a need for social dominance, which was unfulfilled in her educational career at intellectually elite schools that she got into because of affirmative action. In contrast, nobody cares if the First Lady isn't all that smart -- she's the First Lady so she's the highest ranking woman at any social gathering.

On the other hand, I haven't seen any evidence that Michelle gave her husband any good advice on his Rev. Wright problem either. (I'm not sure that "giving good advice" is Michelle's strong suit.) There is so much we don't understand about them.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

Dept. of Good News

From Slate:
What's Going on in Abkhazia?
The Russians are meddling in Georgia, and America can't do much about it.

That's Joe Stalin's Georgia, not Jimmy Carter's Georgia, so not doing much about it sounds like a great idea. As for Abkhazia, didn't Harry Potter straighten that whole mess out?

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

May 4, 2008

Why Oprah left Wright: Because she's black enough

I've always guessed that Barack Obama has spent a lot of time studying Oprah Winfrey's success. But, they are very different in important ways.

Allison Samuels reports in Newsweek:

[Oprah] Winfrey was a member of Trinity United from 1984 to 1986, and she continued to attend off and on into the early to the mid-1990s. But then she stopped. A major reason—but by no means the only reason—was the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

According to two sources, Winfrey was never comfortable with the tone of Wright's more incendiary sermons, which she knew had the power to damage her standing as America's favorite daytime talk-show host. "Oprah is a businesswoman, first and foremost," said one longtime friend, who requested anonymity when discussing Winfrey's personal sentiments. "She's always been aware that her audience is very mainstream, and doing anything to offend them just wouldn't be smart. She's been around black churches all her life, so Reverend Wright's anger-filled message didn't surprise her. But it just wasn't what she was looking for in a church." ...

In time, she found [a new church]: her own. "There is the Church of Oprah now," said her longtime friend, with a laugh. "She has her own following."

Friends of Sen. Barack Obama, whose relationship with Wright has rocked his bid for the White House, insist that it would be unfair to compare Winfrey's decision to leave Trinity United with his own decision to stay. "[His] reasons for attending Trinity were totally different,'' said one campaign adviser, who declined to be named discussing the Illinois senator's sentiments. "Early on, he was in search of his identity as an African-American and, more importantly, as an African-American man. Reverend Wright and other male members of the church were instrumental in helping him understand the black experience in America. Winfrey wasn't going for that. She's secure in her blackness, so that didn't have a hold on her.''

Once again, we come back to Obama's Achilles heel being the need to prove he's black enough.

Everybody always says that "Obama is comfortable in his own skin," yet his autobiographical writing is supremely uncomfortable. Last year, I called him "an unfunny Evelyn Waugh," and indeed in its "enough, already!" self-pity, Dreams from My Father is a little reminiscent of Waugh's more overly sincere autobiographical novels, such as Brideshead Revisited. Like Waugh, Obama's analyses of other people are coldly impeccable -- it's his self-conception that's worrisome.

In Britain, it wasn't unthinkable for a novelist to become Prime Minister, as, in fact, Disraeli did. But I don't think anybody ever recommended that Waugh enter politics. Nobody read Brideshead Revisited and said, "Yes, this is the kind of steady hand we want on the tiller of state."

With Obama, I just can't tell. I don't think it's too much to ask that he figure out some way to reassure the voters that his internal conflicts aren't going to get in the way of his duties.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

The Alchemy Age of Education

Here's an excerpt from my new column on how to improve schools:

The vast education business is shot through with charlatans peddling snake oil because the mindset of the education establishment is anti-rational.

Contemporary education theory resembles medieval alchemy, with its high-priced gurus preaching contradictory techniques, because the basic fact—you can't turn lead into gold—is inconceivable.

Yet, once people gave up on the idea of turning lead into gold, they found there was a tremendous amount they could do with lead and gold and all the other elements. The age of scientific chemistry had begun, to the great benefit of humanity.

We're still in the Alchemy Age of education, though.

The essential problem facing any education system: half the kids are below the median in educability.

That's a tautology, so it has to be true. But, to our educrats, it's a damnable heresy.

If we could raise each student to his or her full potential—which of course would be much better than we're doing now—the top half would leave behind the bottom half.

Of course, that's exactly what we're not supposed to do, according to the No Child Left Behind act put together by President Bush and Senator Kennedy.


My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

What Obama wrote about Wright in 1995

Over the last week, there has been much speculation about why Barack Obama closely associated himself with Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. for two decades. Much of the speculation has been ill-informed.

So, for the purpose of better informing the American electorate, I'm going to quote below, at great length, from Chapter 14, pp. 274-295, of Obama's 1995 autobiography, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. I'll leave out only the less Wright-related passages about Harold Washington's death, Obama's acceptance into Harvard Law School, and similar less germane matters.

I've tried to be more inclusive than exclusive, so that the public has a convenient opportunity to inform itself of exactly -- and in context -- what the Presidential candidate wrote in 1995 about his pastor.

Has Obama changed his mind since 1995? Possibly, yet in the Preface to the 2004 edition of Dreams from My Father, Obama denies, in his characteristically graceful yet obscure prose style, that he has changed much:

"I cannot honestly say, however, that the voice in this book is not mine—that I would tell the story much differently today than I did ten years ago, even if certain passages have proven to be inconvenient politically, the grist for pundit commentary and opposition research."

Quoting about 6,000 words of Obama's 442 page memoir raises obvious copyright questions. I would contend that, in the context of the tens of thousands of words I've written about Obama and Wright, this qualifies as "fair use." I would also argue a public policy justification, since Obama's relationship with Wright is widely considered to be a question of substantial political importance in determining who will be the next President of the United States.

If the copyright holder objects, however, I will take this down.

(To my readers uninterested in this topic, I'll just advise that holding down the Page Down key will take you to my earlier posts.)

The implied timeframe of the following chapter is September 1987 to February 1988, although I wouldn't be surprised if Obama compressed a series of events straggling over several years for the purpose of the dramatic unity. I don't see that it's terribly important one way or another.

Chapter 14 comprises the last and climactic part of the mid-section of the book: "Chicago."


IT WAS AN OLD BUILDING, in one of the South Side’s older neighborhoods, still sound but badly in need of tuckpointing and perhaps a new roof. The sanctuary was dark, with several pews that had cracked and splintered; the reddish carpet gave off a musty, damp odor; and at various points the floorboards beneath bucked and dipped like welts in a meadow. Reverend Philips’s office had this same chipped, worn quality, lit only by an antique desk lamp that cast the room in a dull, amber glow. And Reverend Philips himself-he was old. With the window shades drawn, surrounded by stacks of dusty old books, he seemed now to be receding into the wall, as still as a portrait, only his snow-white hair clearly visible, his voice sonorous and disembodied, like the voice of a dream.

We had been talking for close to an hour, mostly about the church. Not his church so much as the church, the historically black church, the church as an institution, the church as an idea. He was an erudite man and began our conversation with a history of slave religion, telling me about the Africans who, newly landed on hostile shores, had sat circled around a fire mixing newfound myths with ancient rhythms, their songs becoming a vessel for those most radical of ideas-survival, and freedom, and hope. The reverend went on to recall the Southern church of his own youth, a small, whitewashed wooden place, he said, built with sweat and pennies saved from share-cropping, where on bright, hot Sunday mornings all the quiet terror and open wounds of the week drained away in tears and shouts of gratitude; the clapping, waving, fanning hands reddening the embers of those same stubborn ideas-survival, and freedom, and hope. He discussed Martin Luther King’s visit to Chicago and the jealousy he had witnessed among some of King’s fellow ministers, their fear of being usurped; and the emergence of the Muslims, whose anger Reverend Philips understood: It was his own anger, he said, an anger that he didn’t expect he would ever entirely escape but that through prayer he had learned to control-and that he had tried not to pass down to his children.

Now he was explaining the history of churches in Chicago. There were thousands of them, and it seemed as if he knew them all: the tiny storefronts and the large stone edifices; the high-yella congregations that sat stiff as cadets as they sang from their stern hymnals, and the charismatics who shook as their bodies expelled God’s unintelligible tongue. Most of the larger churches in Chicago had been a blend of these two forms, Reverend Philips explained, an example of segregation’s hidden blessings, the way it forced the lawyer and the doctor to live and worship right next to the maid and the laborer. Like a great pumping heart, the church had circulated goods, information, values, and ideas back and forth and back again, between rich and poor, learned and unlearned, sinner and saved.

He wasn’t sure, he said, how much longer his church would continue to serve that function. Most of his better-off members had moved away to tidier neighborhoods, suburban life. They still drove back every Sunday, out of loyalty or habit. But the nature of their involvement had changed. They hesitated to volunteer for anything-a tutoring program, a home visitation-that might keep them in the city after dark. They wanted more security around the church, a fenced-in parking lot to protect their cars. Reverend Philips expected that once he passed on, many of those members would stop coming back. They would start new churches, tidy like their new streets. He feared that the link to the past would be finally broken, that the children would no longer retain the memory of that first circle, around a fire….

His voice began to trail off; I felt he was getting tired. I asked him for introductions to other pastors who might be interested in organizing, and he mentioned a few names-there was a dynamic young pastor, he said, a Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Jr., pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, who might be worth talking to; his message seemed to appeal to young people like me. Reverend Philips gave me his number, and as I got up to leave, I said, “If we could bring just fifty churches together, we might be able to reverse some of the trends you’ve been talking about."

Reverend Philips nodded and said, “You may be right, Mr. Obama. You have some interesting ideas. But you see, the churches around here are used to doing things their own way. Sometimes, the congregations even more than the pastors.” He opened the door for me, then paused. “By the way, what church do you belong to?”

“I…I attend different services."

“But you’re not a member anywhere?”

“Still searching, I guess."

“Well, I can understand that. It might help your mission if you had a church home, though. It doesn’t matter where, really. What you’re asking from pastors requires us to set aside some of our more priestly concerns in favor of prophecy. That requires a good deal of faith on our part. It makes us want to know just where you’re getting yours from. Faith, that is."

Outside, I put on my sunglasses and walked past a group of older men who had set out their lawn chairs on the sidewalk for a game of bid whist. It was a gorgeous day, seventy-five in late September. Instead of driving straight to my next appointment, I decided to linger, letting my legs hang out the open car door, watching the old men play their game. They didn’t talk much, these men. They reminded me of the men Gramps used to play bridge with-the same thick, stiff hands; the same thin, natty socks and improbably slender shoes; the same beads of sweat along the folds of their necks, just beneath their flat caps. I tried to remember the names of those men back in Hawaii, what they had done for a living, wondering what residue of themselves they’d left in me. They had been mysteries to me then, those old black men; that mystery was part of what had brought me to Chicago. And now, now that I was leaving Chicago, I wondered if I understood them any better than before.

I hadn’t told anyone except Johnnie [Obama's right hand man in his community organizing group] about my decision. I figured there would be time for an announcement later; I wouldn’t even hear back from the law schools until January. …

And I had things to learn in law school, things that would help me bring about real change. I would learn about interest rates, corporate mergers, the legislative process; about the way businesses and banks were put together; how real estate ventures succeeded or failed. I would learn power’s currency in all its intricacy and detail, knowledge that would have compromised me before coming to Chicago but that I could now bring back to where it was needed, back to Roseland, back to Altgeld; bring it back like Promethean fire.

That’s the story I had been telling myself, the same story I imagined my father telling himself twenty-eight years before, as he had boarded the plane to America, the land of dreams. He, too, had probably believed he was acting out some grand design, that he wasn’t simply fleeing from possible inconsequence. And, in fact, he had returned to Kenya, hadn’t he? But only as a divided man, his plans, his dreams, soon turned to dust…. [ellipses in the original]

Would the same thing happen to me? Maybe Johnnie was right; maybe once you stripped away the rationalizations, it always came down to a simple matter of escape. An escape from poverty or boredom or crime or the shackles of your skin. Maybe, by going to law school, I’d be repeating a pattern that had been set in motion centuries before, the moment white men, themselves spurred on by their own fears of inconsequence, had landed on Africa’s shores, bringing with them their guns and blind hunger, to drag away the conquered in chains. That first encounter had redrawn the map of black life, recentered its universe, created the very idea of escape-an idea that lived on in Frank and those other old black men who had found refuge in Hawaii; in green-eyed Joyce back at Occidental, just wanting to be an individual; in Auma, torn between Germany and Kenya; in Roy, finding out that he couldn’t start over. And here, in the South Side, among members of Reverend Philips’s church, some of whom had probably marched alongside Dr. King, believing then that they marched for a higher purpose, for rights and for principles and for all God’s children, but who at some point had realized that power was unyielding and principles unstable, and that even after laws were passed and lynchings ceased, the closest thing to freedom would still involve escape, emotional if not physical, away from ourselves, away from what we knew, flight into the outer reaches of the white man’s empire-or closer into its bosom.

The analogies weren’t exactly right. The relationship between black and white, the meaning of escape, would never be quite the same for me as it had been for Frank, or for the Old Man, or even for Roy. And as segregated as Chicago was, as strained as race relations were, the success of the civil rights movement had at least created some overlap between communities, more room to maneuver for people like me. I could work in the black community as an organizer or a lawyer and still live in a high rise downtown. Or the other way around: I could work in a blue-chip law firm but live in the South Side and buy a big house, drive a nice car, make my donations to the NAACP and Harold’s campaign, speak at local high schools. A role model, they’d call me, an example of black male success.

Was there anything wrong with that? Johnnie obviously didn’t think so. He had smiled, I realized now, not because he judged me but precisely because he didn’t; because he, like my leaders, didn’t see anything wrong with such success.

That was one of the lessons I’d learned these past two and a half years, wasn’t it?-that most black folks weren’t like the father of my dreams, the man in my mother’s stories, full of high-blown ideals and quick to pass judgment. They were more like my stepfather, Lolo, practical people who knew life was too hard to judge each other’s choices, too messy to live according to abstract ideals. No one expected self-sacrifice from me-not Rafiq, who of late had been pestering me about helping him raise money from white foundations for his latest scheme; not Reverend Smalls, who had decided to run for the state senator’s seat and was anxious for our support. As far as they were concerned, my color had always been a sufficient criterion for community membership, enough of a cross to bear.

Was that all that had brought me to Chicago, I wondered-the desire for such simple acceptance? That had been part of it, certainly, one meaning to community. But there had been another meaning, too, a more demanding impulse. Sure, you could be black and still not give a damn about what happened in Altgeld or Roseland. You didn’t have to care about boys like Kyle, young mothers like Bernadette or Sadie. But to be right with yourself, to do right by others, to lend meaning to a community’s suffering and take part in its healing-that required something more. It required the kind of commitment that Dr. Collier made every day out in Altgeld. It required the kind of sacrifices a man like Asante had been willing to make with his students.

It required faith. I glanced up now at the small, second-story window of the church, imagining the old pastor inside, drafting his sermon for the week. Where did your faith come from? he had asked. It suddenly occurred to me that I didn’t have an answer. Perhaps, still, I had faith in myself. But faith in one’s self was never enough.

I stamped out my cigarette and started the car. I looked into my rearview mirror and, driving off, watched the old, silent cardplayers recede from my sight.

With Johnnie handling the organization’s day-to-day activities, I met with more black ministers in the area, hoping to convince them to join the organization. It was a slow process, for unlike their Catholic counterparts, most black pastors were fiercely independent, secure in their congregations and with little obvious need for outside assistance. Whenever I first reached them on the phone, they would often be suspicious or evasive, uncertain as to why this Muslim-or worse yet, this Irishman, O’Bama-wanted a few minutes of their time. And a handful I met with conformed to the prototypes found in Richard Wright novels or Malcolm X speeches: sanctimonious graybeards preaching pie-in-the-sky, or slick Holy Rollers with flashy cars and a constant eye on the collection plate.

For the most part, though, once I’d had a chance to meet these men face-to-face, I would come away impressed. As a group, they turned out to be thoughtful, hardworking men, with a confidence, a certainty of purpose, that made them by far the best organizers in the neighborhood. They were generous with their time, interested in the issues, surprisingly willing to open themselves to my scrutiny. One minister talked about a former gambling addiction. Another told me about his years as a successful executive and a secret drunk. They all mentioned periods of religious doubt; the corruption of the world and their own hearts; the striking bottom and shattering of pride; and then finally the resurrection of self, a self alloyed to something larger. That was the source of their confidence, they insisted: their personal fall, their subsequent redemption. It was what gave them the authority to preach the Good News.

Had I heard the Good News? some of them would ask me.

Do you know where it is that your faith is coming from?

When I asked for other pastors to talk to, several gave me the name of Reverend Wright, the same minister Reverend Philips had mentioned that day at his church. Younger ministers seemed to regard Reverend Wright as a mentor of sorts, his church a model for what they themselves hoped to accomplish. Older pastors were more cautious with their praise, impressed with the rapid growth of Trinity’s congregation but somewhat scornful of its popularity among young black professionals. (“A buppie church,” one pastor would tell me.)

Toward the end of October I finally got a chance to pay Reverend Wright a visit and see the church for myself. It sat flush on Ninety-fifth Street in a mostly residential neighborhood a few blocks down from the Louden Home projects. I had expected something imposing, but it turned out to be a low, modest structure of red brick and angular windows, landscaped with evergreens and sculpted shrubs and a small sign spiked into the grass-FREE SOUTH AFRICA in simple block letters. Inside, the church was cool and murmured with activity. A group of small children waited to be picked up from day care. A crew of teenage girls passed by, dressed for what looked like an African dance class. Four elderly women emerged from the sanctuary, and one of them shouted “God is good!” causing the others to respond giddily “All the time!”

Eventually a pretty woman with a brisk, cheerful manner came up and introduced herself as Tracy, one of Reverend Wright’s assistants. She said that the reverend was running a few minutes late and asked if I wanted some coffee. As I followed her back into a kitchen toward the rear of the church, we began to chat, about the church mostly, but also a little about her. It had been a difficult year, she said: Her husband had recently died, and in just a few weeks she’d be moving out to the suburbs. She had wrestled long and hard with the decision, for she had lived most of her life in the city. But she had decided the move would be best for her teenage son. She began to explain how there were a lot more black families in the suburbs these days; how her son would be free to walk down the street without getting harassed; how the school he’d be attending had music courses, a full band, free instruments and uniforms.

“He’s always wanted to be in a band,” she said softly.

As we were talking, I noticed a man in his late forties walking toward us. He had silver hair, a silver mustache and goatee; he was dressed in a gray three-piece suit. He moved slowly, methodically, as if conserving energy, sorting through his mail as he walked, humming a simple tune to himself.

“Barack,” he said as if we were old friends, “let’s see if Tracy here will let me have a minute of your time."

“Don’t pay him no mind, Barack,” Tracy said, standing up and straightening out her skirt. “I should have warned you that Rev likes to act silly sometimes."

Reverend Wright smiled and led me into a small, cluttered office. “Sorry for being late,” he said, closing the door behind him. “We’re trying to build a new sanctuary, and I had to meet with the bankers. I’m telling you, doc, they always want something else from you. Latest thing is another life insurance policy on me. In case I drop dead tomorrow. They figure the whole church’ll collapse without me."

“Is it true?”

Reverend Wright shook his head. “I’m not the church, Barack. If I die tomorrow, I hope the congregation will give me a decent burial. I like to think a few tears will be shed. But as soon as I’m six feet under, they’ll be right back on the case, figuring out how to make this church live up to its mission."

He had grown up in Philadelphia, the son of a Baptist minister. He had resisted his father’s vocation at first, joining the Marines out of college, dabbling with liquor, Islam, and black nationalism in the sixties. But the call of his faith had apparently remained, a steady tug on his heart, and eventually he’d entered Howard, then the University of Chicago, where he spent six years studying for a Ph.D. in the history of religion. He learned Hebrew and Greek, read the literature of Tillich and Niebuhr and the black liberation theologians. The anger and humor of the streets, the book learning and occasional twenty-five-cent word, all this he had brought with him to Trinity almost two decades ago. And although it was only later that I would learn much of this biography, it became clear in that very first meeting that, despite the reverend’s frequent disclaimers, it was this capacious talent of his-this ability to hold together, if not reconcile, the conflicting strains of black experience-upon which Trinity’s success had ultimately been built.

“We got a lot of different personalities here,” he told me. “Got the Africanist over here. The traditionalist over here. Once in a while, I have to stick my hand in the pot-smooth things over before stuff gets ugly. But that’s rare. Usually, if somebody’s got an idea for a new ministry, I just tell ’em to run with it and get outta their way."

His approach had obviously worked: the church had grown from two hundred to four thousand members during his tenure; there were organizations for every taste, from yoga classes to Caribbean clubs. He was especially pleased with the church’s progress in getting more men involved, although he admitted that they still had a way to go.

“Nothing’s harder than reaching young brothers like yourself,” he said. “They worry about looking soft. They worry about what their buddies are gonna say about ’em. They tell themselves church is a woman’s thing-that it’s a sign of weakness for a man to admit that he’s got spiritual needs."

The reverend looked up at me then, a look that made me nervous. I decided to shift the conversation to more familiar ground, telling him about DCP and the issues we were working on, explaining the need for involvement from larger churches like his. He sat patiently and listened to my pitch, and when I was finished he gave a small nod.

“I’ll try to help you if I can,” he said. “But you should know that having us involved in your effort isn’t necessarily a feather in your cap."

“Why’s that?” Reverend Wright shrugged. “Some of my fellow clergy don’t appreciate what we’re about. They feel like we’re too radical. Others, we ain’t radical enough. Too emotional. Not emotional enough. Our emphasis on African history, on scholarship-”

“Some people say,” I interrupted, “that the church is too upwardly mobile."

The reverend’s smile faded. “That’s a lot of bull,” he said sharply. “People who talk that mess reflect their own confusion. They’ve bought into the whole business of class that keeps us from working together. Half of ’em think that the former gang-banger or the former Muslim got no business in a Christian church. Other half think any black man with an education or a job, or any church that respects scholarship, is somehow suspect.

“We don’t buy into these false divisions here. It’s not about income, Barack. Cops don’t check my bank account when they pull me over and make me spread-eagle against the car. These miseducated brothers, like that sociologist at the University of Chicago, talking about ‘the declining significance of race.’ Now, what country is he living in?”

But wasn’t there a reality to the class divisions, I wondered? I mentioned the conversation I’d had with his assistant, the tendency of those with means to move out of the line of fire. He took off his glasses and rubbed what I now saw to be a pair of tired eyes.

“I’ve given Tracy my opinion about moving out of the city,” he said quietly. “That boy of hers is gonna get out there and won’t have a clue about where, or who, he is."

“It’s tough to take chances with your child’s safety."

“Life’s not safe for a black man in this country, Barack. Never has been. Probably never will be."

A secretary buzzed, reminding Reverend Wright of his next appointment. We shook hands, and he agreed to have Tracy prepare a list of members for me to meet. Afterward, in the parking lot, I sat in my car and thumbed through a silver brochure that I’d picked up in the reception area. It contained a set of guiding principles-a “Black Value System”-that the congregation had adopted in 1979. At the top of the list was a commitment to God, “who will give us the strength to give up prayerful passivism and become Black Christian activists, soldiers for Black freedom and the dignity of all humankind.” Then a commitment to the black community and black family, education, the work ethic, discipline, and self-respect.

A sensible, heartfelt list-not so different, I suspected, from the values old Reverend Philips might have learned in his whitewashed country church two generations before. There was one particular passage in Trinity’s brochure that stood out, though, a commandment more self-conscious in its tone, requiring greater elaboration. “A Disavowal of the Pursuit of Middleclassness,” the heading read. “While it is permissible to chase ‘middleincomeness’ with all our might,” the text stated, those blessed with the talent or good fortune to achieve success in the American mainstream must avoid the “psychological entrapment of Black ‘middleclassness’ that hypnotizes the successful brother or sister into believing they are better than the rest and teaches them to think in terms of ‘we’ and ‘they’ instead of ‘US’!”

[It's informative to quote that "value" in full from Trinity's website:

8. Disavowal of the Pursuit of “Middleclassness.” Classic methodology on control of captives teaches that captors must be able to identify the “talented tenth” of those subjugated, especially those who show promise of providing the kind of leadership that might threaten the captor’s control.

Those so identified are separated from the rest of the people by:

  1. Killing them off directly, and/or fostering a social system that encourages them to kill off one another.
  2. Placing them in concentration camps, and/or structuring an economic environment that induces captive youth to fill the jails and prisons.
  3. Seducing them into a socioeconomic class system which, while training them to earn more dollars, hypnotizes them into believing they are better than others and teaches them to think in terms of “we” and “they” instead of “us.”
  4. So, while it is permissible to chase “middleclassness” with all our might, we must avoid the third separation method – the psychological entrapment of Black “middleclassness.” If we avoid this snare, we will also diminish our “voluntary” contributions to methods A and B. And more importantly, Black people no longer will be deprived of their birthright: the leadership, resourcefulness and example of their own talented persons.]

My thoughts would often return to that declaration in the weeks that followed as I met with various members of Trinity. I decided that Reverend Wright was at least partly justified in dismissing the church’s critics, for the bulk of its membership was solidly working class, the same teachers and secretaries and government workers one found in other big black churches throughout the city. Residents from the nearby housing project had been actively recruited, and programs designed to meet the needs of the poor-legal aid, tutorials, drug programs-took up a substantial amount of the church’s resources.

Still, there was no denying that the church had a disproportionate number of black professionals in its ranks: engineers, doctors, accountants, and corporate managers. Some of them had been raised in Trinity; others had transferred in from other denominations. Many confessed to a long absence from any religious practice-a conscious choice for some, part of a political or intellectual awakening, but more often because church had seemed irrelevant to them as they’d pursued their careers in largely white institutions.

At some point, though, they all told me of having reached a spiritual dead end; a feeling, at once inchoate and oppressive, that they’d been cut off from themselves. Intermittently, then more regularly, they had returned to the church, finding in Trinity some of the same things every religion hopes to offer its converts: a spiritual harbor and the chance to see one’s gifts appreciated and acknowledged in a way that a paycheck never can; an assurance, as bones stiffened and hair began to gray, that they belonged to something that would outlast their own lives-and that, when their time finally came, a community would be there to remember.

But not all of what these people sought was strictly religious, I thought; it wasn’t just Jesus they were coming home to. It occurred to me that Trinity, with its African themes, its emphasis on black history, continued the role that Reverend Philips had described earlier as a redistributor of values and circulator of ideas. Only now the redistribution didn’t run in just a single direction from the schoolteacher or the physician who saw it as a Christian duty to help the sharecropper or the young man fresh from the South adapt to big-city life. The flow of culture now ran in reverse as well; the former gang-banger, the teenage mother, had their own forms of validation-claims of greater deprivation, and hence authenticity, their presence in the church providing the lawyer or doctor with an education from the streets. By widening its doors to allow all who would enter, a church like Trinity assured its members that their fates remained inseparably bound, that an intelligible “us” still remained.

It was a powerful program, this cultural community, one more pliant than simple nationalism, more sustaining than my own brand of organizing. Still, I couldn’t help wondering whether it would be enough to keep more people from leaving the city or young men out of jail. Would the Christian fellowship between a black school administrator, say, and a black school parent change the way the schools were run? Would the interest in maintaining such unity allow Reverend Wright to take a forceful stand on the latest proposals to reform public housing? And if men like Reverend Wright failed to take a stand, if churches like Trinity refused to engage with real power and risk genuine conflict, then what chance would there be of holding the larger community intact?

Sometimes I would put such questions to the people I met with. They would respond with the same bemused look Reverend Philips and Reverend Wright had given me. For them, the principles in Trinity’s brochure were articles of faith no less than belief in the Resurrection. You have some good ideas, they would tell me. Maybe if you joined the church you could help us start a community program. Why don’t you come by on Sunday?

And I would shrug and play the question off, unable to confess that I could no longer distinguish between faith and mere folly, between faith and simple endurance; that while I believed in the sincerity I heard in their voices, I remained a reluctant skeptic, doubtful of my own motives, wary of expedient conversion, having too many quarrels with God to accept a salvation too easily won.

The day before Thanksgiving, [Chicago mayor] Harold Washington died.

In February, I received my acceptance from Harvard. …

I had scheduled a luncheon that week at our office for the twenty or so ministers whose churches had agreed to join the organization. …

I woke up at six A.M. that Sunday. It was still dark outside. I shaved, brushed the lint from my only suit, and arrived at the church by seven-thirty. Most of the pews were already filled. A white-gloved usher led me past elderly matrons in wide plumaged hats, tall unsmiling men in suits and ties and mud-cloth kufis, children in their Sunday best. A parent from Dr. Collier’s school waved at me; an official from the CHA with whom I’d had several run-ins nodded curtly. I shunted through to the center of a row and stuffed myself between a plump older woman who failed to scoot over and a young family of four, the father already sweating in his coarse woolen jacket, the mother telling the two young boys beside her to stop kicking each other.

“Where’s God?” I overheard the toddler ask his brother.

“Shut up,” the older boy replied.

“Both of you settle down right now,” the mother said.

Trinity’s associate pastor, a middle-aged woman with graying hair and a no-nonsense demeanor, read the bulletin and led sleepy voices through a few traditional hymns. Then the choir filed down the aisle dressed in white robes and kentecloth shawls, clapping and singing as they fanned out behind the altar, an organ following the quickening drums:

I’m so glad, Jesus lifted me!
I’m so glad, Jesus lifted me!
I’m so glad, Jesus lifted me!
Singing Glory, Ha-le-lu-yah!
Jesus lifted me!

As the congregation joined in, the deacons, then Reverend Wright, appeared beneath the large cross that hung from the rafters. The reverend remained silent while devotions were read, scanning the faces in front of him, watching the collection basket pass from hand to hand. When the collection was over, he stepped up to the pulpit and read the names of those who had passed away that week, those who were ailing, each name causing a flutter somewhere in the crowd, the murmur of recognition.

“Let us join hands,” the reverend said, “as we kneel and pray at the foot of an old rugged cross-”


“Lord, we come first to thank you for what you’ve already done for us…. We come to thank you most of all for Jesus. Lord, we come from different walks of life. Some considered high, and some low…but all on equal ground at the foot of this cross. Lord, thank you! For Jesus, Lord…our burden bearer and heavy load sharer, we thank you…."

The title of Reverend Wright’s sermon that morning was “The Audacity of Hope.” He began with a passage from the Book of Samuel-the story of Hannah, who, barren and taunted by her rivals, had wept and shaken in prayer before her God. The story reminded him, he said, of a sermon a fellow pastor had preached at a conference some years before, in which the pastor described going to a museum and being confronted by a painting titled Hope.

“The painting depicts a harpist,” Reverend Wright explained, “a woman who at first glance appears to be sitting atop a great mountain. Until you take a closer look and see that the woman is bruised and bloodied, dressed in tattered rags, the harp reduced to a single frayed string. Your eye is then drawn down to the scene below, down to the valley below, where everywhere are the ravages of famine, the drumbeat of war, a world groaning under strife and deprivation.

“It is this world, a world where cruise ships throw away more food in a day than most residents of Port-au-Prince see in a year, where white folks’ greed runs a world in need, apartheid in one hemisphere, apathy in another hemisphere…That’s the world! On which hope sits!”

And so it went, a meditation on a fallen world. While the boys next to me doodled on their church bulletin, Reverend Wright spoke of Sharpsville and Hiroshima, the callousness of policy makers in the White House and in the State House. As the sermon unfolded, though, the stories of strife became more prosaic, the pain more immediate. The reverend spoke of the hardship that the congregation would face tomorrow, the pain of those far from the mountain-top, worrying about paying the light bill. But also the pain of those closer to the metaphorical summit: the middle-class woman who seems to have all her worldly needs taken care of but whose husband is treating her like “the maid, the household service, the jitney service, and the escort service all rolled into one”; the child whose wealthy parents worry more about “the texture of hair on the outside of the head than the quality of education inside the head."

“Isn’t that…the world that each of us stands on?”


“Like Hannah, we have known bitter times! Daily, we face rejection and despair!”

“Say it!”

“And yet consider once again the painting before us. Hope! Like Hannah, that harpist is looking upwards, a few faint notes floating upwards towards the heavens. She dares to hope…. She has the audacity…to make music…and praise God…on the one string…she has left!”

People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend’s voice up into the rafters. As I watched and listened from my seat, I began to hear all the notes from the past three years swirl about me. The courage and fear of Ruby and Will. The race pride and anger of men like Rafiq. The desire to let go, the desire to escape, the desire to give oneself up to a God that could somehow put a floor on despair.

And in that single note-hope!-I heard something else; at the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones. Those stories-of survival, and freedom, and hope-became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world. Our trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black; in chronicling our journey, the stories and songs gave us a means to reclaim memories that we didn’t need to feel shamed about, memories more accessible than those of ancient Egypt, memories that all people might study and cherish-and with which we could start to rebuild. And if a part of me continued to feel that this Sunday communion sometimes simplified our condition, that it could sometimes disguise or suppress the very real conflicts among us and would fulfill its promise only through action, I also felt for the first time how that spirit carried within it, nascent, incomplete, the possibility of moving beyond our narrow dreams.

“The audacity of hope! I still remember my grandmother, singing in the house, ‘There’s a bright side somewhere…don’t rest till you find it….’”

“That’s right!”

“The audacity of hope! Times when we couldn’t pay the bills. Times when it looked like I wasn’t ever going to amount to anything…at the age of fifteen, busted for grand larceny auto theft…and yet and still my momma and daddy would break into a song… Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus.

Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus.
Thank you, Je-sus, Thank you, Lo-ord.
You brought me fro-om
A mighty long way, mighty long way.

“And it made no sense to me, this singing! Why were they thanking Him for all of their troubles? I’d ask myself. But see, I was only looking at the horizontal dimension of their lives!”

“Tell it now!”

“I didn’t understand that they were talking about the vertical dimension! About their relationship to God! I didn’t understand that they were thanking Him in advance for all that they dared to hope for in me! Oh, I thank you, Jesus, for not letting go of me when I let go of you! Oh yes, Jesus, I thank you…."

As the choir lifted back up into song, as the congregation began to applaud those who were walking to the altar to accept Reverend Wright’s call, I felt a light touch on the top of my hand. I looked down to see the older of the two boys sitting beside me, his face slightly apprehensive as he handed me a pocket tissue. Beside him, his mother glanced at me with a faint smile before turning back toward the altar. It was only as I thanked the boy that I felt the tears running down my cheeks.

“Oh, Jesus,” I heard the older woman beside me whisper softly. “Thank you for carrying us this far."

The third section of the book, "Kenya," covers pp. 297-430. It describes Obama's visit to his father's country later in 1988. This is followed by an Epilogue, briefly covering the period up through Obama's 1992 wedding. Rev. Wright is only mentioned once more in the book, on pp. 440, as presiding at the wedding.

As far as I can tell, Jesus doesn't come up at all after pp. 295.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer