Just Read: A Promised Land by Barack Obama

I first started to generally care about things when I was 16 years old.  I use the term “generally care about things,” in lieu of “got interested in politics” because I think there’s an important distinction there, and I think it’s a distinction that is not only becoming increasingly important as we grow more and more polarized, but because this book makes it clear that politics is often in a reality separate from caring about things, another layer of game to be navigated before the “real work” can get done.

Reading that so bluntly, from a former President who was seen by many as a breath of fresh air, it’s easy to see why apathy has taken hold of so many people who no longer feel (or have ever felt) that the system works in their favor. While I must try and check my own partisan leanings, as well as the context that this book was released immediately after a tense Presidential election, Obama pulls surprisingly few punches in his assessments of McConnell, Bohner and the like, and it’s always nice to see someone disliking the people you dislike, and having your bias confirmed even if it’s by someone who actively benefits from sharing those biases ANYWAY…

I credit Obama for sparking my interest in generally caring about things. At 16 years old, I had just started college (if you’re American I mean the British version of college). I’d picked my courses with all the care that can be expected of a somewhat bright student who didn’t know what he was doing, in that I had attended a single open evening, wandered around, talked to a few teachers, and picked the things that sounded semi-interesting. No view to future career prospects, limited attention paid to what I’d already succeeded in during my school days, just based on a series of 5-minute conversations with complete strangers.

Because of that lackadaisical approach, I found myself studying Computing (these days rebranded as computer science), Philosophy, Sociology and Psychology. The College I attended had a mandatory “enrichment” program where we had to select something else to do during Wednesday afternoons, which ranged from kicking back and playing board games, to musical theatre. My selection was Model UN (how I was single throughout this time I have no idea). Through this, I got to know other folks who were interested in politics, and eventually made the decision to drop Psychology for my second year of study and pick-up Government & Politics.

The backdrop for all of this was the year 2008, when hope and yes we can was everywhere. Up until that point, I’d had a vague awareness of American politics. I remembered being vaguely aware of Bill Clinton (although this was during the time that I also thought John Major was a good Prime Minister so it didn’t say too much for my ability to be engaged), and I knew that George Bush was prone to saying things that made him sound unintelligent. My actual viewpoints were somewhat all over the place, a turbulent swell of being from a proud union family that also read the Sun (for shame) and other right-wing rags, as well as five years at one of the countries lowest performing, most working class schools, with exposure to a total of about four Black kids, and three Indian kids, and where the word “gay” was still both an insult and an adjective for something you didn’t want to do. Combine all of that with what I want to romantically describe as an innate sense of justice, and I really did not know where I landed.

The book is written with an overriding sense of humility, something that I’d seen reviewers repeat prior to my own read, that they wished he would just take credit for something. In 2008 I felt like the Obama campaign created this wave of positivity. In 2021, older, wiser, and reflective upon his own words, I’m more inclined to think that the campaign reflected, amplified, and harnessed a mood change that was already underway. A frustration with 7 years of warfare. A desire to reacquaint ourselves with the better angels of our nature. The same arguments that could be made for the 2016 election, just flipped, really.

It’s interesting to me that that’s how I frame the Obama presidency, while others remain fearful and resentful of those eight years, screaming communism and the anti-Christ into the abyss. In the book, these stances are tackled pretty head on. There is some discussion around the role that race played into this, but I almost got the sense that this was something he still doesn’t feel fully comfortable attacking others over. In the preamble, written right after the murder of George Floyd, Obama questions his own history of dealing with racial abuse. As a white person, I can’t and won’t possibly seek to judge how anybody process their race-related trauma, especially when compounded with being the first Black president and the restraint needed to go along with that. I remain convinced that the largest part of the distrust of his presidency stems from deep-rooted racial divisions, and that Palin and her ilk stirred that up with just enough plausible deniability (or, in contemporary parlance, gaslighting), to widen the fissures that remain to this day.

Earlier in this blog, I referred to Obama as having awakened my “generally caring about things,” instead of “being political.” It is my opinion that politics is both everything and nothing. Everything, in that the whims of politicians impact all forms and levels of life, and that power, unchecked, typically results in violence against those without it. Politics is nothing in that one doesn’t have to be involved in politics to make a difference. Indeed, this book left a somewhat sour taste in my mouth toward those involved in “realpolitik,” and made it easier for me to empathize with those who become disillusioned and disenfranchised (however much I may wish they wouldn’t).

I’m late, very late, in getting this piece written and posted. The book was long, but it was definitely captivating. From getting an inside look into the planning of the mission to take down Osama Bin Laden, to being able to hear an inner monologue of sorts surrounding the very process driven decisions made at the highest levels of the federal government, it was what my wife would describe as “a very you kind of book.” A long, detailed, presidential biography. Yes please.

As always, if you care about what I’m reading, you can always find me on Goodreads.

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