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Friday, January 6, 2017
Who Has More Privilege Than Barack Obama?
Jonathan F. Keiler
Thankfully, America is not a land of nobility, but not all noble ideas are un-American. The sense of aristocratic obligation, recognized in the French noblesse oblige or German Adel verpflichtet, is a decent, honorable idea for those in this country born into privilege and a good indication of character. We'll find out about this with Donald Trump. With respect to Barack Obama, we already know what he makes of his privileged status, and it is a sad commentary both on the man and on the left-wing-dominated public space that encouraged and facilitated his rise.
Obama was not born into substantial wealth, but his family on both sides was well connected, providing a traditional advantage that allowed him entry into elite society. This old-style leg up then combined with modern leftist ethnic-racial privileges, overwhelmingly present in academia and the media, to advance Obama at every turn. This created a powerful cocktail of built-in benefits that gave Obama almost every conceivable benefit of the doubt while at the same time allowing him to claim victim status. More than anything else, it is this dynamic that explains his rise and his selfishness. It also clarifies Obama's heavy narcissism, bullying behavior, and utter lack of graciousness.
Without these privileges, Obama gets nowhere. If you are inclined to learn more about how Obama got this way, readDavid Maraniss's much heralded, largely hagiographic biography of Obama's early years, if you can bear it. Before I bought it, I noted a two-star review on Amazon: "Boring." Often such smart-aleck one-word reviews are off the mark, but not this time.
It is not Maraniss's fault; he's a decent writer. It's the subject matter. Most of the book's tales of young Obama and those around him literally made my eyes water with the incredible dullness of it all. The book is filled with tedious, superficial minutiae to fill up pages – e.g., excruciating detail of Obama's digs, restaurants he might have frequented, graffiti on bathroom stalls he didn't write. Obama was an unremarkable young man, whose major documented accomplishment before law school was coming up with new ways to smoke pot with his Choom Gang pals.
It is law school that I want to examine, an experience I share with Obama. I am his rough contemporary and went to a relatively high-end law school during the same period he was at Harvard.
After attending Hawaii's prestigious private Punahou high school, Obama got into the equally tony if not exceedingly prestigious Occidental College in California. From there, he managed to transfer to Columbia. At no point do we know his grades or test scores, which he's not released. Maraniss briefly addresses the likelihood that Obama got into Columbia via affirmative action and dismisses it with a complete non sequitur, noting that a minority classmate of Obama's had very good SAT scores. After a couple of unremarkable years at Columbia, Obama became a community organizer in Chicago. Then, rather easily, obviously though traditional connections and modern racial privileges, he got into Harvard Law School.
Harvard Law is the inflection point in Obama's career. It was there he became the first black president of the prestigious Law Review, attracting press attention, which enticed literary agents, leading to the idea of his producing a memoir, which eventually Bill Ayers wrote for him, making Obama rich and giving him an undeserved reputation as a gifted writer and social observer. The rest is obvious.
Obama's election to president of the Harvard Law Review is no mystery. He was black and glib, and the very liberal members of the Law Review obviously saw his election as a progressive necessity. This despite the fact it is not clear that as a second-year editor, he actually wrote anything other than possibly contributing anonymously to a short case note, meager (to be generous) production that would usually be disqualifying for leading the august journal. What is mysterious is how he got on the Law Review in the first place as a second-year student, to get elected president in his third year.
I know a little about this, so bear with a personal anecdote. Unlike Obama, I did not go to an exclusive prep school or well heeled private college, but I did get good grades at the state college I attended and scored well enough on the LSAT to get into a relatively high-end law school. As a white male, my grades and scores were not Harvard material, though they were good enough for some lower-end Ivy League schools. Ultimately, I decided to attend Washington and Lee University, which offered relatively low tuition at the time.
At W&L, as at Harvard, there were two ways to get on Law Review in the 1980s. One was based on grades – the top students made it automatically. The second way, introduced in law schools in part to encourage minority participation, was "writing on." Lower-ranked students could submit articles at the end of their first year, and theoretically, the best authors would be placed on Law Review. Stuck in the middle of my class as a first-year student, I signed up to do just that, but I got lazy over the summer and never wrote or submitted anything.
Imagine my surprise at the end of the summer when the editor-in-chief called to congratulate me for making the Law Review. I was almost certain I could not have made it based on grades, and unless I wrote and submitted a paper in a drunken stupor – possible, but then the paper could not have been very good – there was no way I could have been properly selected, and I told him as much. He was nonplussed. I don't think he'd ever known anyone to turn an appointment down. But after making sure I was serious, he thanked me and said he'd look into it. I never heard from him again.
I believe that almost exactly the same thing happened with Obama, except that he said, "Yes!" At least there is no record or account of Obama writing anything to get on the Law Review, and we can assume that his grades were mediocre, or he would have released them.
Now and again, I've wondered if my life and career would have been different had I said, "Yes!," too. But it just wasn't in me, and had I done it, I would always have worried that whatever leg up Law Review gave me came at someone else's expense. Obama had no such qualms, having come from privilege and with the extra attitude that he was still nonetheless a victim and owed.
This worldview is reflected in the remainder of Obama's career, his presidency, and perhaps most notably his relations with foreign leaders. These people, as his status equals, recognize Obama's fundamental fragility and weakness. So it is no surprise that the two leaders with whom he has the worst relations, Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu, are both hard men of real accomplishment, with some sense of noble obligation to their people. Thus, it is at least partly salutatory that Obama leaves office having come a cropper against both of them, neither his history of privilege nor victimized self-image having moved either man.