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In Defense of President Obama Against Cornel West

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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) May 18, 2011: A few days ago, I read Gary Dorrien's essay "Pragmatic Postmodern Prophecy: Cornel West as Social Critic and Public Intellectual" in Dorrien's collection of essays titled ECONOMY, DIFFERENCE, EMPIRE: SOCIAL ETHICS FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE (Columbia University Press, 2010, pages 304-335).

From the endnotes, I learned that Dorrien had adapted this essay from his monumental book SOCIAL ETHICS IN THE MAKING: INTERPRETING AN AMERICAN TRADITION (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008, pages 563-584).

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Dorrien is now the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, and I had started reading some of Dorrien's books recently to learn more about Reinhold Niebuhr's thought, because I had learned from James T. Kloppenberg's book READING OBAMA: DREAMS, HOPE, AND THE AMERICAN POLITICAL TRADITION (Princeton University Press, 2011) that President Barack Obama "has often cited Niebuhr as an important influence on his thought" (page 120).

Dorrien is a great expositor of Reinhold Niebuhr's thought. For example, in volume two of his magnificent three-volume study titled THE MAKING OF AMERICAN LIBERAL THEOLOGY (2003), Dorrien discusses Niebuhr's thought at length (pages 435-483). Dorrien also covers Niebuhr's thought at length in SOCIAL ETHICS IN THE MAKING: INTERPRETING AN AMERICAN TRADITION, mentioned above. In addition, Dorrien discusses Niebuhr's thought in the first four chapters in Dorrien's ECONOMY, DIFFERENCE, EMPIRE: SOCIAL ETHICS FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE, mentioned above, the collection of essays that includes Dorrien's essay about Cornel West and a disappointing essay about Barack Obama.

As a result of my recent interest in Dorrien's writings, I had the names of Cornel West and President Obama fresh in mind when I saw Chris Hedges' article "The Obama Deception: Why Cornel West Went Ballistic" on OpEdNews.

According to the article Cornel West "did 65 campaign events for Obama." As a result, I would say that Cornel West invested himself rather generously in Obama's campaign.

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By contrast, I was not involved in Obama's campaign. I was simply an observer. However, as I listened to televised clips from Obama's speeches and read about his speeches, he sounded to me like he was going to be Superman. But as president, he has turned out to be like Clark Kent, the mild-mannered reporter. No wonder Cornel West is disappointed in President Obama! How many Americans who voted for Obama are not disappointed in him? Because Cornel West devoted so much time and effort in campaigning for Senator Obama, Cornel West's strong disappointment in President Obama is certainly understandable.

President Obama has confounded not only Cornel West's great expectations for him, but also many other people's expectations of him. President Obama takes pride in being non-ideological. But Cornel West would for understandable reasons prefer to see President Obama be more ideological in his decision making.

In Reinhold Niebuhr's terminology, Cornel West could probably be described as idealistic and President Obama as realistic.

Next, I want to turn to Cornel West's characterization of President Obama: "Obama, coming out of Kansas influence, white, loving grandparents, coming out of Hawaii and Indonesia, when he meets these independent black folk who have a history of slavery, Jim Crow, Jane Crow and so on, he is very apprehensive. He has a certain rootlessness, a deracination. It is understandable."

I have no way to assess whether or not President Obama "is very apprehensive," as Cornel West says he is, around independent black folk. However, President Obama himself seems to me to be a rather independent person.

Moreover, he did suffer taunts about the color of his skin from other boys when he was growing up in Indonesia, as Janny Scott details in her book A SINGULAR WOMAN: THE UNTOLD STORY OF BARACK OBAMA'S MOTHER (2011). As a result of those taunts, young Barack Obama learned how to stay cool, calm, and collected as the way to cope with them and thereby deflect them, so that the taunts did not get to him. His generally unflappable demeanor strikes me as a great strength, not a sign of rootlessness or deracination.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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