Reading Philip Roth’s ‘The Plot Against America’ in the age of Trump

“But why did you go,” my mother asked him, “when it was bound to upset you like this?”

“I went,” he told her, “because every day I ask myself the same question: How can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country. If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I’d think I was having a hallucination.”

While this may sound like someone reacting to another surreal and disturbing moment in the loony Trump presidency, for example the January 6 storming of the Capitol Building in Washington by far right extremists, it is in fact an extract from Philip Roth’s 2004 novel ‘The Plot Against America’.

The people “in charge” are the famed aviator Charles Lindbergh and his far-right cronies in the Republican party, who in Roth’s re-imagining of American history, have swept to power in 1940 (defeating FDR) on a promise of keeping the country out of the War in Europe (“Vote for Lindbergh or vote for war” is their slogan) and maintaining cordial relations with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.

Roth tells the story of a Jewish family living in Newark, New Jersey as they adjust – with increasing fear – to life under the anti-semitic policies of a populist leader amid the darkening perceptions of Jews in mainstream American life.

As with many of his books, Roth used his own family as the model for the fictional one in the novel.

He tells the story from the remembered perspective of his seven-year-old self living in a tidy second-floor flat in the “southwest corner of New Jersey’s largest city” which he shares with his father Herman, a hardworking insurance salesman, his loving mother Bess and his willful 12-year-old brother Stanley.

“Our homeland was America.

Then the Republicans nominated Lindbergh and everything changed,” narrates Philip.

Soon after newly inaugurated President Lindbergh has flown to Iceland to meet Adolf Hitler and sign an agreement of peaceful relations between America and Germany, the Roth family take a long-planned holiday to Washington DC to prove to their children that America is not a fascist country, despite who is in office.

But things soon turns sinister when after returning to their hotel from a day’s sightseeing, the Roth’s find their bags packed and lined up in the hotel foyer, because the room they have booked is no longer available.

“Dear, let’s just go,” she (Philip’s mother)  beseeched my father. “Mr Taylor [the Roth’s tour guide] found us a room nearby.”

No!” my father cried and he threw off the hand with which she tried to snatch his  arm. “This policeman knows why we were evicted. He knows, the manager knows, everybody in this lobby knows.”

Later on in the trip there is an ugly incident in a Washington café involving  another diner, who refers to Walter Winchell, the famed New York columnist and radio journalist – a central character in the novel who uses his public platform to denounce Lindbergh – as a “loudmouth Jew with too much power”

“Loudmouth Jew. And for the second time in less than forty-eight hours,” Roth’s young narrator remarks.

Philip Roth, an American literary giant

Philip Roth says he got the inspiration for the book from a line he read in historian Arthur J Schlesinger’s (no relation) book ‘A Life in the 20th Century’ about the isolationist wing of the Republican Party who wanted to nominate Charles Lindbergh as the 1940 presidential candidate.

“It made me think, ‘What if they had?’ and I wrote the question in the margin. Between writing down that question and the fully evolved book there were three years of work, but that’s how the idea came to me,” Roth said in a September 2004 essay he wrote in the New York Times.

He said in a separate NYT interview in 2004 that Lindbergh’s name was “loaded” because he was a hero to the entire world for his record-breaking solo flight across the Atlantic from Long Island to Paris.

“Then in the late 1930s he ceased being a hero in our household because he began to seem like an anti-semite. His diaries….show that he was essentially a white supremecist. Jews were distatestful to him. They were inferior to him,” Roth said.

After the family returns from Washington, Lindbergh’s newly created sinister Office of American Absorption (OAA) creates a program called “Just Folks” designed to get young Jews to work in rural farming areas. The Roth’s elder son Sandy, a gifted artist, signs up and goes to work in Kentucky where he can “live on a farm…draw all the things there. Tractors. Barns. Animals. All kinds of animals”.

To Sandy, who hides a sketch of Charles Lindbergh in his portfolio under his bed, the farm experience is idyllic. But to Herman Roth, Just Folks is merely an anti-Semitic plot to separate Jewish boys from their families.

Herman sees everything the Lindbergh administration does in its true light. This puts him at war with his eldest son and his naive sister-in-law Evelyn, who is engaged to be married to Newark’s conservative Jewish leader, Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf.

It is Bengelsdorf, who endorsed Lindbergh at campaign rallies, that helped legitimise the aviator’s anti-war and anti-semitic rhetoric that swept him to power in a landslide. Bengelsdorf is then appointed as executive director of the OAA.

Like Sandy, Evelyn refuses to believe Lindbergh has evil intentions against the Jews because her husband-to-be is part of his administration. She calls her brother-in-law Herman “another Jew afraid of his shadow”.

Telling the story of America’s rapid decline under Lindbegh, Roth brilliantly weaves in reimagined historical events and real political figures of the times into the story including, most chillingly, a state visit to the White House by Nazi Germany’s foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop (executed in 1946).

Evelyn attends as the partner of Rabbi Bengelsdorf  where she dances with Von Ribbentrop, appearing in news reel footage that Philip watches when he sneaks into the neighbourhood cinema.

“I found him a very charming gentleman and highly intelligent….” says Evelyn of her Nazi dancing companion.

While reading the novel, amid the November presidential election and all its craziness, I could not help think about Donald Trump, a populist and far right sympathiser who unlike Lindbergh did become US president and whose four years in office were marked by chaos and a rapid disintegration of American democratic values. Many have called Trump a dictator.

It also made think of all my fellow Jews around the world, especially in America, who supported President Trump because he is a so-called friend of Israel (that is the most common explanation I hear). However, they conveniently brush aside or willfully forget that Trump has been a strong supporter of the far right white supremacist movement, which is no friend of the Jews.

Poster for the HBO miniseries.

Perhaps they would identify with Roth’s brilliant creation Rabbi Bengelsdorf, who in his pursuit of power, stoops so low as to dine with Lindbergh’s Nazi friends.

In an interview with the New York Times in January 2018 – a few months before he passed away aged 85 – Roth said that while Charles Lindbergh may have been a genuine racist and anti-semite, he was also because of his flying feats a “genuine American hero”

“Trump, by comparison, is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac, “ says Roth.

I couldn’t agree more.

The Plot Against America is a riveting historical novel that will surely resonate with readers in the post-Trump age as we ponder who might be the next popular figure to make a claim for the White House on a platform of lies and disinformation.

Philip Roth said in the same 2004 NYT essay that because the events he depicted in his novel did not happen in America despite many seeds for them occurring being present (other virulent and influential anti-semites at the time of Lindbergh included carmaker Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest whose Jew-hating radio show was broadcast to tens of millions), it shows how “how lucky we Americans are”.

While Joe Biden has promised to restore America’s democratic values, that luck may have run out.

(Footnote: The Plot Against America has been made into an HBO miniseries by David Simon, the creator of The Wire (one of the best TV shows of all time).

It stars among others Winona Ryder as Evelyn Finkel and the great John Turturro as Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf – I am eager to see it.)

#Fakenews and facts: Journalism in the age of Trump

Fake-NewsPresident Donald Trump, who has railed endlessly against the mainstream media’s criticisms of him through the popular mantra of FAKE NEWS recently turned to his attention to fellow Australian journalist Jonathan Swan, a former Fairfax Media colleague.

Swan, who previously covered Australian politics for the Sydney Morning Herald (an affiliate of my newspaper The Australian Financial Review) has made a name for himself in Washington writing for American news website, Axios and interviewing major White House players like Jared Kushner, the son-in-law and senior adviser to  President Trump.

Swan recently drew the wrath of the leader of the free world when he co-wrote an article on Axios this week that claimed President Trump wanted to “explore using nuclear weapons to stop hurricanes from hitting the United States”.

President Trump responded in characteristic fashion to a story that did not paint him in a very good light:

But Swan stood his ground, replying:

Axios doubled down on its defense of the story, with CEO and co-founder Jim Vandehei writing that the publisher stands solidly behind its reporting, which he said was “meticulously sourced”

“Since we published, additional sources have corroborated our account,” Vandehei added.

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Australian journo Jonathan Swan

Axios has as a key element of its ‘Manifesto’ – ‘Don’t sell BS’ and so stakes its reputation on always been accurate.

 

This of course is the personal manifesto of any good journalist working today (including myself) and has been so since Gutenberg invented the printing press.

But its especially true now as ‘serious journalism (for want of a better word) is upended by the ability for anyone to set up a website and claim to be an authority and respected source of ‘real’ news.

However, all journalists, even brilliant ones, make mistakes from time to time, perhaps more frequently now in the age of 24/7 news and social media.

I don’t know of any journalist, including myself, who has not made an error in a story, big or small. It’s part of the job.

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President Trump 

However, a genuine mistake should never been confused with  FAKE NEWS which has been around long before Donald Trump set foot in the Oval Office and made it his mantra.

 

The tag FAKE NEWS should only be applied to news stories that are not only plainly wrong, but deliberately written so by either including untruths, half-truths, fabricated information or made-up quotes, or by deliberately excluding important information.

A story can be plainly wrong, but not be FAKE NEWS. These stories are easy to spot because a correction, clarification, retraction and/or apology will follow.

However, in the era of Trump, the boundaries have been deliberately blurred.

Trump’s favourite FAKE NEWS targets like The New York Times, Washington Post and CNN are broadly regarded as good sources of objective news, while those he admires and promotes, like Fox News (most of the time) have less then stellar track records on truth and objectivity.

It also got me thinking (based on my own experiences and those of my colleagues) about the reasons journalists make mistakes..

These I suggest are the main reasons good journalists sometimes make bad mistakes:

  1. Making incorrect or dubious assumptions
  2. Misreading or misinterpreting a document or pertinent piece of information
  3. Not verifying information supposedly from a supposed trusted source
  4. Not properly understanding the subject matter.
  5. Relying on poor sources for tip-offs and comments
  6. Poor judgement
  7. Tiredness, being rushed for time (a by product of the age we write in)

If you want to be happier: close your Facebook account

facebook_like_logo_1The global furore created by the data mining of 50 million Facebook users by controversial UK political consultants Cambridge Analytica (reportedly to help Donald Trump win the US election) spawned the Twitter hashtag #DeleteFacebook and a campaign calling for users to abandon the social media giant in droves.

In truth, it just one of a number of reasons for shutting down your Facebook account – if you were looking for one.

Other reasons include the constant stream of fake news flowing down your Facebook feed, the trolls, scumbags and hate speech mongerers who freely ply their trade on Facebook or just the incredible and unfettered power Facebook  and founder Mark Zuckerberg now wields with its 1.2 billion users and rivers of advertising revenue that has crippled the free press.

But there is a far more obvious reason why you should seriously consider doing as the hashtag says and #DeleteFacebook.

Simply put, the latest research shows that frequent use of Facebook is likely to make you a less happier, less well-adjusted and less healthier person.

“Researchers are finding that the curated versions that we post on Facebook and Instagram have real consequences in our actual lives,” said Shankar Vedantam the host of NPR’s Hidden Brain, a popular science and psychology podcast which looks at how people interact with the world.

“As you watch the seemingly idyllic lives of friends on social media, you may find a little voice pointing out that your vacations are dull by contrast, that your kid never scores the winning goal, that your relationships seem to be painted in grey while everyone else’s seem to be in Technicolor,” the eloquent Vedantam went on to say.

Social comparison risk

The podcast episode called “SchadenFacebook” (which you can download here), looked at a 2017 study carried out by academics at Tel Aviv University’s Coller School of Management, which was the first study aimed at separating out correlation (Do lonelier people tend to use Facebook?) from causation (Does Facebook use make you unhappier?) in relation to social media use.

It examined the “natural” experiences of 144 workers at a security firm who initially were not allowed to use Facebook at all and had to delete their accounts. Later, the company allowed some employees to re-open their accounts.

In this unique situation, none of the people got to choose which group they were in, so it couldn’t be that people who were unhappy were choosing to use Facebook, ruling out a correlation bias.

The researchers  collected data from the time no one was allowed to use Facebook to the time some were allowed to have access.

Surprisingly, the study found that users are not generally fooled into accepting that the experiences posted on Facebook by their friends are the true picture.

But did find conclusively that “Facebook usage increases users’ engagement in social comparison and consequently decreases their happiness”.

 

“Using Facebook makes you more comparative. You need to prove yourself to yourself over and over again,”  one of the researchers, Ohad Barzilay, told Hidden Brain.

“You compare yourself to others more often, you judge yourself, am I better or worse than my friends?  Am I happier or are they happier?”

“This [constant] social comparison engagement makes you less happy,” Barzilay said.

Harvard Business Review study

On top of that study,  I tracked down another recent and more comprehensive study on the impact of Facebook use on wellbeing, that was published in the esteemed Harvard Business Review.

Conducted by Holly B. Shakya an assistant professor of global public health at UC San Diego and Nicholas A. Christakis, director of the Human Nature Lab at Yale University, it tracked the wellbeing of 5208 regular Facebook users over a two-year period.

It measured life satisfaction, self-reported mental health, self-reported physical health, and body-mass index.

The findings were: “Overall, our results showed that, while real-world social networks were positively associated with overall well-being, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with overall well-being.

The report went on to say: “These results were particularly strong for mental health; most measures of Facebook use in one year predicted a decrease in mental health in a later year. We found consistently that both liking others’ content and clicking links significantly predicted a subsequent reduction in self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.”

Neither of these findings really surprised me – nor do I suspect would they many other people.

Unfortunately, we often accept at face value what we read and see on Facebook and as the academic studies show use this as a disingenuous point of self-comparison: “There’s so and so having a better holiday then me…or with a nicer house or car…or with a better job…or with happy kids…or a nicer figure….”

But if we weren’t on Facebook voyeuristically trawling through the lives of others, and instead spent time on building our relationship in the real world, the latest research strongly suggests we’d be a lot less envious, a lot less depressed and a lot less self-judging.

Quitting is hard

The problem is thought that quitting Facebook – like any other addiction (and it is an addition!) is not easy.

The world’s most famous online brand (alongside Google) is completely entangled in our lives. It’s on our phones, our iPads and computers and it crops up in everything we see and do: from food packaging, to newspaper articles to everyday conversations.

The brilliance or insidiousness of Facebook, and other social network platforms like Instagram is that it takes advantage of natural human curiosity. Quite simply put: we want to know.

But if you’re feeling depressed or dispirited about your life and feel others are having more fun then you (when in fact their lives are not so shit hot) maybe its time to take the plunge and press the delete button.

“What, you’re not on Facebook?” your friends might ask in shock and horror.

To which you can simply smile and say: “Yes”.

Anthony Weiner: the greatest New York mayor that never was

weiner documentaryThere’s a brilliant documentary floating about called ‘Weiner’ about the disgraced New York politician Anthony Weiner, who gained worldwide notoriety when it was revealed that he was a serial sexter who had sent a woman a picture of his bulging crotch.

The scandal, which forced his resignation as a New York congressman, reignited during his audacious 2013 campaign to be the Democratic nominees for New York mayor, when another woman came forward to reveal she too had been sexting with Weiner. The news ended his chances of becoming mayor at a time when he had, incredibly, won back the support of much of the New York public, and was leading the race.

Like a fly on the wall the viewer is taken right inside the ‘Weiner For Mayor’ campaign with the charismatic showman politician, surrounded by his chaotic, but enthusiastic entourage of campaign managers and media advisors, spreading the word about his plans to make New York a better place.

Also prominent in the documentary is his high-profile, well-connected glamorous wife Huma Abedin, a close confident of Hillary Clinton and who stood by her husband through all his very public indiscretions.

The documentary begins with an old video of an enraged Anthony Weiner shaking his fists and going nuclear on the floor of the House of Representatives, shaming his Republican opponents for not voting in favour of a bill to provide funds to those who fell ill after rushing to assist victims of 9/11.

It’s a powerful video, one that I had not seen before (like most people I only knew of him through those lurid, comic images of his crotch that made headlines around the world) showing Weiner at his best, a passionate politician with real conviction.

It’s an image that’s reinforced throughout the documentary as we see Weiner dancing and jamming at various ethnic rallies, waving a huge rainbow flag at a gay rights parade and trying to explain some of his ideas in the face of repeated questions about his texting indiscretions. “Does anyone have any questions about my campaign?” is a question he frequently asks to the gallery of reporters.

There’s also a moment in the film where we see Weiner in his New York apartment, packing away all the toys left on the floor by his young son, a kind of universal act that any father, including myself could relate to.

And I so I found myself really liking Anthony Weiner, despite what I knew  about him even when the fresh texting scandal broke, throwing everything into chaos and delivering a shattering blow to his wife, his campaign team and the many New Yorkans who had given hime a second chance.

I think it was the election of Donald Trump – a man who without a touch of self-awareness had called Weiner a ‘wackjob pervert‘ – as US president that made me like the skinny New Yorker.

After all Trump was a man alleged to have committed many sexual indiscretions and whom was famously caught on tape telling a TV host that it was a good idea to grab women by “the pussy”, not to mention all the women who have come forward claiming to be harrassed by now leader of the free world.

The difference between the two men – both brash New Yorkans –  was starkly brought into focus by a scene in the film where Weiner, riding home after another long day on the campaign trail, reads an article written about him in the New Yorker magazine:

“Anthony Weiner is a remarkable candidate…as the protagonist of this tale he did not commit adultery, he did not break up a marriage, his own or anyone else’s, he didn’t employ the services of a prostitute, he did not stalk, he did not misuse public funds, he did  not grope or talk dirty to subordinates in any way, he did not have any physical or inappropriate physical contact with any person, his sexting partners have never been in the same room at the same time.”

There is undoubtedly a lot of truth in this observation and as Weiner reads it aloud, you realise he knows it too.

Had the second sexting scandal not broken during his campaign, it is entirely possible Anthony Weiner could now be the mayor of New York. Instead, he ended up finishing a pitiful last in the election race with just a few percent of the vote.

weiner and wife

At the very end of the documentary, we find Weiner sitting in a chair, alone, facing the camera with a perplexed expression on his expressive face.

He seems like a neurotic character from a Woody Allen film trying to understand the workings of his own mind. Why did he do the things he did? Not even he seems to know.

In the end Anthony Weiner’s demise – though at his own hand – seemed a comic-tragedy of almost mythical proportions. Had he managed to keep his bizarre urges in check, who knows how high he could have soared in the political sphere?

And in light of the rise of President Trump and all his obvious character flaws, did it really matter?

But then my view darkened of Anthony Weiner when it emerged that he continued to sext even after the ruination of his political career, and worse, when a lurid picture surfaced of Weiner with his midriff and crotch shown on camera, with his infant son sleeping beside him.

Had the documentary, which was screened last year, included that footage, a much more disturbing image of Weiner would have remained in my mind.

The utter stupidity of a Muslim migration ban

Turkey SyriaIt is hard to believe that almost one in two Australians support a total ban on Muslim migration.

Yet that is the finding of an apparently credible new Essential Media Poll.

As nauseating as that statistic is, it does though provide some clues as to where the likes of One Nation’s Pauline Hanson draws her small support base from. 

And if you extrapolate these findings to other first world countries, it explains the popularity of Donald Trump, the likely next US President, who wants an American ban on Muslim migration and travel.

I wonder how moderate, tolerant Australians feel about this.

I fear for the future of Australia’s enviable multi-cultural society.

I worry about the personal safety of the many traditionally dressed Muslims I see on the train every single day in my commute into work, who may become the target of violence.

And I wonder what prominent Australian muslims like journalist and broadcaster Waleed Aly, Labor MP Ed Husic, Australia Post CEO Ahmed Fahour and many others make of their native homeland and the attitudes of their fellow Australians.

essential-poll

The Essential Poll findings

Might those who want a blanket ban also realise that boxer Anthony Mundine, rugby league star Corey Paterson, cricket star Usman Khawaja and former Demons star Adem Yze are all Muslims? Would they like their family members banned from coming here?

Setting aside the humane argument against such a terrible idea, when you consider the wider ramifications of a ban on Muslim migration, you realise the economic impacts on Australia would be severe.

Economic disaster

By imposing such a ban, Australia would be denied many highly-skilled immigrants who could add greatly to the collective intellectual and cultural wealth of the country.

As it would be logical to assume that a ban on Muslim migration would also include a ban on Muslim visitors (for holiday, family or business) there would be huge negative impacts on foreign investment, tourism, retailing and many other sector of the economy.

Just ponder this: What would a ban mean for airlines from Muslim countries like Emirates, Qatar Airlines, Etihad? Would they stop flying into our airports and out of them? That would seem logical given most of their passengers won’t be able to get visas to come here in the first place.

Think of the massive impacts on trade and investment – Malaysia and Indonesia are Australia’s 10th and 12th biggest trading partners.

Governments and businesses from rich Middle Eastern countries like Qatar, the UAE and Kuwait invest billions in new Australian hotels, in agriculture, in property development, in shopping malls and in housing. They buy our beef and lamb and fruit and veg as we buy products and services from them

These are some of the world’s richest countries with vasts amount of money. How will they continue to operate in Australia if we tell the world we don’t want their citizens as part of our society? Do you think they will continue to invest or might they simply deploy their funds elsewhere?

Might it also be unreasonable to expect Muslim countries to ban Australians from visiting their shores in response to us denying them access to our?. (Perhaps my South African passport will finally come in handy!).

Will Australians still be able to travel to  exotic and wonderful places like Turkey, Morocco and parts of India or even just make a busines trip to Indonesia or have a beach holiday in Bali?

And what about sport, one of the nation’s greatest attributes?  Where would we play our World Cup soccer qualifying matches against teams like Iraq and Iran and the UAE? And how would we play home cricket matches against Pakistan or Bangladesh or Afghanistan? And would our teams travel to these countries in return?

(I could go on and on)

So I ask, has anyone who wants a blanket ban on Muslims coming to Australia (or the USA for that matter) stopped for just a minute, paused and thought it through?

If they did, they might see the utter stupidity of it more clearly – even if they refuse to accept its blatant bigotry and inhumanity.

Reading Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father: The inspirational story of a president in the making

dreams-from-my-fatherEven if Barack Obama had not gone on to become the first African-American president of the United States, he would have lived a remarkable life.

This much is clear, if you read his superb memoir Dreams from My Father, written after he achieved an earlier historic milestone, becoming the first Black president of the 130-year old Harvard Law Review, the esteemed student-run law journal of Harvard University.

Barack Obama was elected Law Review president, aged 28, in 1990. His eloquent comments made in an interview with the New York Times, following his historic appointment, hint at the higher role that lay ahead:

“The fact that I’ve been elected shows a lot of progress. It’s encouraging,” he told the NYT.

“But it’s important that stories like mine aren’t used to say that everything is O.K. for blacks. You have to remember that for every one of me, there are hundreds or thousands of black students with at least equal talent who don’t get a chance.”

After being elected law review president, he received an advance from a publisher to write his life story (up to that point) and the end result was Dreams From My Father. It had modest success at first, but became a bestseller when he became US President in 2009.

What ever you think of President Obama, as his time in office comes to an end, his memoir which reveals a man of the highest integrity (but with many human failings too) is well worth reading, particularly in light of the awful possibility that a Machiavellian power-hungry loose cannon, 69-year-old real estate mogul Donald Trump, might be next in line at the White House.

It’s certainly one of the best autobiographies you will read about any public figure. It’s beautifully written, rich in detail and painfully honest. President Obama would have made a fine writer had he not chosen a path in politics.

The book charts his life, from his early childhood in Hawaii until just before he entered Harvard University in 1988. It ends with his journey to Kenya to meet his family and learn more about his gifted, but troubled father.

Barack Obama Sr was an ambitious, charismatic and larger-than-life foreign exchange student from Kenya who met Kansas-born Ann Dunham while studying at the University of Hawaii. (Like his famous son, he too would study at Harvard, obtaining a Masters in Economics).

Barack – or Barry as his family called him – was born a year after they met in 1961, but the marriage did not last long. His father returned to Kenya where he became a government official and raised his third family. He made money, but then lost it all when the government changed and he would not support their views.  He later struggled with drinking as he descended into poverty.

Barack saw his father only once again, aged about 10, when he came to Hawaii to recover from a car accident (a fearful, bittersweet and awkward time for a young boy, as Barack Obama describes in his memoir). They stayed in intermittent contact until he learned of his father’s sudden death in another car accident in 1982. At the time Barack was 21 and living in a squalid apartment in  Harlem.

“At the time of his death, my father remained a myth to me, both more and less than a man…as a child I knew him only through the stories that my mother and my grandfather told. They all had their favourites…”

Dreams from My Father is ultimately the story of a young’s mans search to understand his brilliant, but troubled father, who despite his lack of physical presence was the foundation stone for Barack Obama’s acute sense of black consciousness, his early waywardness and rebelliousness and his desire to help others through community organising.

In his memoir, Barack Obama recalls his time spent as a kid exploring the rough and tumble back streets of  Jakarta, Indonesia (where he moved, aged 7, with his mother to live with her new Indonesian husband, Lolo) his return to Hawaii to complete his American schooling,  his teenage years partying, drinking, smoking and drug taking but also searching for himself. Later he attends college in Los Angeles where he makes his first public speech calling for a South African boycott and finds it comes naturally to him and that he likes the experience. From there he moves to New York to live in the Black community of Harlem, where he gets a good corporate job with prospects. But he feels lost and directionless and quits to become a community organiser in Chicago, where a hero of his, Harold Washington, is the city’s first African-American mayor.

Be Like Barack The Pros and Cons of a Career in Community Organizing

Barack Obama, during his time in Chicago as a community organiser

A big chunk of the book is given over to his many years spent as a community organiser in Chicago,  meeting community leaders, religious figures and ordinary citizens, understanding the harsh realities of their lives  their daily battles with unemployment, violence, drugs, poverty and neglect. Barack Obama writes candidly about his own naievety in trying to bring about change in people’s lives, his many failures and some notable successes.

In one moving scene he brings a community delegation  from a neglected, polluted and impoverished housing estate called Altgeld Gardens by bus to demand a meeting with the director of the Chicago Housing Association over fears about asbestos contamination. This after an earlier request was ignored. The delegation refuse to leave. Later a TV crew arrives and films interviews with residents of Altgeld. Amid all the publicity the residents are promised, on camera, that testing would start by the end of the day and that a meeting with the director has been arranged. They celebrate later on the bus ride home with caramel popcorn:

“As I chewed on the gooey popcorn, looking out at the lake calm and turqouise now, I tried to a recall a more contented moment.”

During his time in New York and Chicago, Barack Obama meets his sister Auma, who lives in Germany and another brother Roy who lives in Washington DC. Finally he makes the pivotal journey to Kenya, first to the chaos of Nairobi to meet some of his family and then he travels by train across the vast Kenyan plains to the Port city of Kisumu and onto Kogelo, to the tribal family homestead where he meets ‘Granny’ and hears the stories of his father, grandfather and their ancestors.

“Granny nodded and pulled me into a hug before leading us into the house. Small windows let in a little of the afternoon light and the house was sparsely furnished – a few wooden chairs, a coffee table, a worn couch. On the walls were various family artefacts, the Old Man’s Harvard diploma, photographs of him…”

From here the Young Barack Obama would make his way through the hallowed halls of Harvard and from there all the way to the White House.

It’s an amazing journey about a remarkable man, and its beautifully told.

obama family

A Young Barack Obama with his Kenyan family