Dynamist Blog

The Old Order Passes

So it's more or less official: Hillary is pulling out and endorsing Obama. I share Megan McArdle's take and appreciate her pointer (though no link!) to Ezra Klein's smart comment on Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. I'm old enough (two years older than Obama) to have the race of my (McCain-aged) parents carefully noted on my North Carolina birth certificate. I remember a time when not supporting legally enforced white supremacy was a controversial position. So, yes, it's a big deal to have a black major-party candidate with a good chance of becoming the next president.

That said, Barack Obama is a real candidate running for the real presidency, not a fictional character, and I am not optimistic about his world view. Dreams from My Father suggests a deep-seated belief that economic and social dynamism inevitably and unrelievedly produce chaos, disorder, and despair. Here's a heart-felt and disturbing passage:

Before we left, Angela asked about the possibility of part-time work for the youth in Altgeld [a housing project]. Mr. Foster looked up at her like she was crazy.

"Every merchant around here turns down thirty applications a day," he said. "Adults. Senior citizens. Experienced workers willing to take whatever they can get. I'm sorry."

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 in 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 Roseland, 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 trade 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 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 that 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 plastic 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 others, the millions left behind in Djakarta, or Lagos, or the West Bank, they would settle into their own Altgeld Gardens, into deeper despair.

Obama's memoir is not a policy tome or a campaign biography but an emotional journey. It does not offer alternatives, only bleak observations and predictions. It is pessimistic, conservative, nostalgic. The theme running through Dreams from My Father is the search for order, for stability, for roots in an undisturbed pre-modern culture. How that yearning for stasis translates into presidential policy is not clear, but I worry. But then I have no nostalgia for the order into which my grandparents were born--even though the old factories have moved away and people no longer grow their own food.

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