David Remnick: The "Race" Route over Obama’s "Bridge"

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with David Remnick. (27 minutes, 16 mb mp3)

David Remnick is hanging out and indulging me here, late on a book-tour evening, in a little polite rattling of the racial premise of his Obama story, The Bridge.

Race is Remnick’s theme — through young Obama’s assembling of an identity; in the local black politics of Chicago that first roughed him up; in the discontents around the Obama presidency in mid-2010. To me, contrarily, the tell-tale theme of the Obama story is Empire and the sorrows thereof, going back to family tales of colonial Kenya and Obama’s renunciation of “dumb wars” like Iraq.

I’ve been second-guessing Remnick’s emphasis since his remarkable New Yorker piece on “The Joshua Generation” in the issue of November 14, 2008. I wrote him at the time that I thought he’d misheard Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s famous “God damn America” speech. Wright’s “jeremiads,” Remnick wrote, “were meant to rouse, to accuse, to shake off dejection.” They were “part of a tradition well known to millions of church-going African Americans…” But I presumed to point out they weren’t standard rants at all. That “God damn America” line, I noted, “was first spoken in 1903 by the greatest of all American public intellectuals, William James, about the invasion, mutilation and occupation of the Philippines.

“It applies precisely today,” I emailed Remnick. “Reverend Wright’s outburst reflected not especially the sound of the black church but rather the popular intuition, now happily ratified by a national election, that the war in Iraq and nearly eight years of the Bush Doctrine are a damnable violation of our constitutional values and our place in the global, nay universal, scheme of things. The vote on November 4 was as much about Empire as it was about Race, or McCain or Bush, or the Meltdown.”

Remnick tracks the anxiety in the country today, the Age of Obama blues, to the “radical change” of complexion in the White House. I track it rather to the disorientations of extended empire — for example: the Golden State of California, at the brink of bankruptcy, issuing scrip, while Obama surges in Afghanistan, using drones against pre-modern tribesmen and American soldiers each costing $1-million a year. That’s a taste of the tension in our fast gab about a ripping good read in biographical journalism.

CL: Suddenly it dawns on me that we’re looking at David Remnick, who is one of the great writers on post-Soviet Russia. There’s a connection with a picture I can’t get out of my mind. An Italian legal scholar visiting Brown, stood up in the middle of a conference and said: “Don’t you realize, Obama is your Gorbachev… Twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union,” he said in so many words, “the other pillar of the Cold War is shaking. You’ve come up with a good man in a desperate situation — in debt, in disrepute around the world; China is growing and will come out of the recession in a better way than the US will. There are all sorts of strains on the empire, and the real question for Obama, maybe the only question, is: can he hold this thing together?”  So: tear and compare, David: Gorby and Barack.

DR: Look, I in many ways am an admirer of Mikhail Gorbachev, and I certainly think he was the most important political figure in the post-war world in the 20th Century. But a lot of what he did was sensibly and humanely manage the utter dissolution of the last empire on earth – and you will disagree with me on the world “last,” I know. A lot of of what Gorbachev did was with a very different intent. Gorbachev’s initial intent and even his intent all the way through was to have an outcome of a more humane, socialist communist party led Soviet Union. He did not intend for the Soviet Union to dissolve, he only dissolved the Communist Party regretfully after the August coup of 1991. Poetically are there parallels? Maybe. But in terms of practical politics? No. 

I think your analysis of China is, with respect, blind to the fact that the Chinese themselves have far, far, far deeper economic disparities and problems than we normally talk about. When we focus on China we tend to look at the booming Shanghai and the booming Beijing, and forget that there are hundreds of millions of incredibly poor people in a country with no democratic norms whatsoever.

To me, I would pose the question differently. To me, the ideological challenge of the 21st Century to some degree is posed by Russia and it is posed by China. Russia and China, each in their bravado, deeply question the Western presumption that free markets — however regulated, however not, depending on your politics — free markets and democratic norms go hand-in-hand. The Chinese and the Russians are saying “Baloney! We are developing faster than we ever have economically, and we do not cede the notion of democratic norms.”

That to me is the über picture that I see, more than I see a great parallel between Obama and Gorbachev.

David Remnick in conversation about The Bridge with Chris Lydon in Boston, April 29, 2010.

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  • Zak

    Good interview, Chris. I was really pleased to see how you were both able to respectfully disagree with one another on several points while retaining such an overall positive dialogue. Would that there were more of such congeniality out there in this bleak media landscape. And yes, I do think we are witness to the sorrows of empire, whether we choose to see them or not.

    On Obama specifically, one thing has been really bugging me since I watched his monologue at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner the other night. His ability to detach himself from the very real toll of the wars he is leading. When he joked about attacking the Jonas Brothers with predator drones, it was not just a lame attempt at humor, but for me at least, a dark view into Obama’s mind. Is he really so comfortable with our policy of political assassination, not to mention the “accidental” killing of innocent civilian bystanders, that he can mine drones for comic material? I guess a U.S. president has to be the kind of person who is comfortable with a level of responsibility for death that I can’t imagine ever sitting well with me. It was just a disillusioning moment for me, considering how much I wanted Obama to be “change I could believe in” back before he came to power.

    I’d love to hear others’ takes on this.

  • Zuk

    The predator drones served as a non-joke warning to deter any kind of predation on his children, specifically aimed at the media. Sorry to burst your bubble, but it sounds like you prefer to be fooled than have to take responsibility for your own complicity in the empire’s death machine.

  • nother

    One thing I don’t hear much about when it comes to what makes our President tick, is Hawaii. As far as i’m concerned, its fundamental for two reasons. One is explained in this quote:

    “The opportunity that Hawaii offered—to experience a variety of cultures in a climate of mutual respect—became an integral part of my world view, and a basis for the values that I hold most dear.” – Barack Obama

    The second reason is explained by the “Shaka sign:” It means a lot of things and they are all positive, but one of the things it means is “hang loose”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shaka_sign

    President Obama used the hand sign at his inauguration parade.

    I was stationed in Guam and I spent a lot of time in Jamaica and I have a good feel for island culture, and the common denominator is to chill out. That does not mean don’t take things serious, it’s just means times ticks differently. The media always asks how President Obama stays so cool and composed and centered. Well, he’s from the islands man!

    The islands formed this man much more then the his black skin did.

  • Potter

    Regarding the differences in this short conversation, they reflect my own inability at times to come to any firm conclusion about Obama. I don’t want to go negative on him. And I love the different complexion in the White House but it’s not about the complexion in the WH. It’s lack of strong decisive leadership when there is much opportunity and need for it. l agree with this you wrote above Chris:

    Remnick tracks the anxiety in the country today, the Age of Obama blues, to the “radical change” of complexion in the White House. I track it rather to the disorientations of extended empire — for example: the Golden State of California, at the brink of bankruptcy, issuing scrip, while Obama surges in Afghanistan, using drones against pre-modern tribesmen and American soldiers each costing $1-million a year.

    I hated that decision to surge. I thought it indicated either weakness in the face of his generals or political calculation- either way at the expense of lives and security.

    Robert Kuttner writes about the obvious ( Huff post)- Obama’s infuriating insistence on searching for common ground when there is none to be had. So many feel this way. Hopes have been so raised and dashed. He has the power, the intelligence; he knows what is moral and what is not.