Yesterday I expressed my fear that Barack Obama was creating a monster through his extensive use of drones. Although the president does not have the same cavalier attitude towards violent measures as did the Bush/Cheney administration (Michael Tomasky makes this point), we also hold him to higher standards. In a recent New Yorker article, author Teju Cole expresses his dismay that a literature lover like Obama would be making “extraordinarily frequent use of assassinations.”
Cole sets up his criticism of Obama by first talking about literature’s humanizing power. He quotes Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, who has written,
Thanks to literature, to the consciousness it shapes, the desires and longings it inspires…civilization is now less cruel than when storytellers began to humanize life with their fables.
Without fictions, we would be less aware of the importance of freedom for life to be livable, the hell it turns into when it is trampled underfoot by a tyrant, an ideology, or a religion.
Cole also quotes Toni Morrison:
We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.
which he follows up with the following observation:
This sense of literature’s fortifying and essential quality has been evoked by countless other writers and readers. When Marilynne Robinson described fiction as “an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification” she was stating something almost everyone would agree with. We praise literature in self-evident terms: it is better to read than not to read, for reading civilizes us, makes us less cruel, and brings the imaginations of others into ours and vice versa.
Cole admits that literature doesn’t always work and mentions those Nazis who appreciated high culture. He may have in mind German concentration camp commanders who read Goethe and listened to Beethoven to fortify their sense of cultural superiority over the people they were exterminating. Still, Cole says the principle applies to Obama and wonders how he could have embarked on such a murderous campaign.
To set up the contradiction he perceives, Cole lays out the following profile of the president:
Barack Obama is an elegant and literate man with a cosmopolitan sense of the world. He is widely read in philosophy, literature, and history—as befits a former law professor—and he has shown time and again a surprising interest in contemporary fiction. The books a President buys might be as influenced by political calculation as his “enjoyment” of lunch at a small town diner or a round of skeet shooting. Nevertheless, a man who names among his favorite books Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Robinson’s Gilead, and Melville’s Moby Dick is playing the game pretty seriously. His own feel for language in his two books, his praise for authors as various as Philip Roth and Ward Just, as well as the circumstantial evidence of the books he’s been seen holding (the Collected Poems of Derek Walcott, most strikingly), add up to a picture of a man for whom an imaginative engagement with literature is inseparable from life. It thrilled me, when he was elected, to think of the President’s nightstand looking rather similar to mine. We had, once again, a reader in chief, a man in the line of Jefferson and Lincoln.
While I am not happy with Obama’s use of drones, part of me wants to tell Cole to stop being naïve about politics. First of all, he needs to look at his examples. Jefferson may have been remarkably well read, but he still didn’t free any of his 200 slaves.(Correction: he freed two.) He needed them for financial reasons. Lincoln, meanwhile, was not in favor of liberating slaves until 1863 and was unsure of what to do with those South Carolina slaves liberated in 1861. That’s because he wanted to keep border states like Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky, and Delaware in the union, and he only delivered the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 when it was politically expedient to do so.
While I’m critiquing liberal icons, I’ll also note that FDR and JFK both were guilty of abhorrent political moves in order to maintain the allegiance of Dixiecrats, Roosevelt refusing to support anti-lynching legislation and Kennedy, before he became president, undermining civil rights legislation. For that matter, Mario Vargas Llosa, the author Cole quotes to lead off his article, had a spotty record as a politician and was accused of paternalism towards indigenous Peruvians and of colluding in a government cover-up of a massacre. What was that he said about humanizing life?
In short, humanistic principles are put to the test when they come up against political reality. Obama is facing a Republican opposition that would roast him alive, and perhaps attempt to impeach him, if he failed to stop any act of terror that he could have. After all, look at their over-the-top response to the Benghazi State Department deaths, even though Benghazi-type situations have occurred regularly under both Republican and Democratic administrations.
This is not so much to defend Obama as to complicate the conundrum that Cole has presented us with. By all means, hold Obama’s feet to the fire about the drones. But also realize that neither a failure of literature nor a humanistic deficiency on the part of the president has led to his decisions. Sometimes our best hope is that literature’s humane vision will serve as a guide and a reminder, even when it doesn’t carry the day. It’s at least possible to have such conversations with this president.