Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

An Obama Story

John Comaroff is a professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago, where Barack Obama used to teach. Obama still lives in the neighborhood, Hyde Park. Recently, on the radio show Open Source, Comaroff told this story:

We have a cleaner in our building — 70-something-year-old African American guy; sweet, sweet guy. And every evening he comes into our office about six and takes our garbage and stuff. … He didn’t come in on Tuesday — I was up late, working until I went to see election results.

Of course, Hyde Park was abuzz. Hyde Park thinks of this election as its own. And the fact that the Obama kids were at school on Tuesday and Wednesday, and we all had to ride around the TV cameras to get to our parking, was the kind of masochistic pleasure that we’re having in Hyde Park, which after all has always been told it’s the fringe of the nation. We’ve always been told that nothing we do or say counts anywhere else, especially not across the border in Indiana. So to suddenly find ourselves at the center of the political process is interesting.

So [on Wednesday] the guy comes into my office and I say “So, where were you yesterday?” “Ah,” he says, “I was in Grant Park [where Obama gave his victory speech].” “Grant Park?” “Yeah, right near the front — I could have touched Barack Obama.” “How did you get there? It’s tough to get tickets.”

He said “You don’t understand. A few years back, I worked Law School, I cleaned the Law School. And Obama’s office was on my run. He worked late many nights and he was really interested. I’d come by cleaning and he’d always stop me for a chat. Sometimes he’d share food with me — he always brought food in — and the thing was, he sat down and he talked to me. He said ‘Tell me about your community. Tell me what’s going on out there. I wanna know. I wanna know what’s out there on the streets. I wanna know how America is living.’”

And one got the sense that this guy, alienated from the political process, alienated from the work process, found in Obama a real human being.

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November 18, 2008


I think the emphasis on alienation is interesting… Obama’s lack of experience and age were always cited as problems, but I saw them as assets: lack of system imbrication is def. a plus if you want to change things.

posted by Ryan Hayes on November 18, 2008 #

@Ryan Hayes:

I absolutely agree.

I’m young (mid-20’s) and watched the election with my grandparents. My grandmother said, after Obama’s acceptance speech, “Who would have figured, four years ago, that he’d make it?”

I responded that I had, the moment I heard him speak at the convention.

She responded that she had too, she just meant she hadn’t expected he’d make it so soon; she figured he’d run in ‘12, ‘16, or ‘20.

I said that I was always one of the guys who believed that the sooner he ran, the better, that if he stayed in Washington too long he’d end up just like everybody else. (I think John Kerry is a great example of a politician who was eloquent and inspiring when he got his start and is now much the opposite.)

Anyway, it’s interesting, looking back at all the people who thought Obama couldn’t do it this soon, that he’d be better poised if he spent a few more years as a Senator. I always believed he could pull it off if he ran in ‘08, and it’s nice being vindicated.

posted by Thad on November 19, 2008 #

I grew up in Soviet Union and now study Soviet culture, and the first thing that this story reminded me of were Soviet children’s stories about Lenin. In the same way that Obama is depicted here Lenin was systematically depicted speaking with the poor people of the land or with soldiers who guarded him.

This is not to say that Obama has a similarity with Lenin, but the kind of myth-building employed here definitely does.

posted by Nikita on November 19, 2008 #

It’s very nice that Nikita doesn’t think the story proves Obama is just like Lenin. I agree; we should totally wait for the elimination of the kulaks to make that comparison.

Since Nikita agrees that the comparison is weak, maybe she’d prefer to make one to Hitler instead? I mean, isn’t that the more traditional approach?

Obviously, there will be heartwarming stories about anyone who is able to win votes. And many or all of them will be true; who gets to decide their emergence is “myth-building”? And indeed, these stories don’t necessarily prove much. Still, pointing out that some historical monster was also featured in heartwarming stories is the laziest form of slander.

posted by Warren Terra on November 19, 2008 #

Warren, Nikita is right that “the leader cares for the people” is a standard trope, and she’s right to caution against hero-worship. And the words that Comaroff puts in Obama’s mouth - “I wanna know how America is living” - are laughable and only explicable as intentional mythologizing. Isn’t it more likely that he said, “how are you, how is your family?” If he really said, “I wanna know what’s out there on the streets” to an elderly custodian, then christ, he’s a jerk.

  • But Nikita, he wasn’t the leader at the time of this story. He was a guy in an office, and he wasn’t likely ever to be the leader. So the story has some plausibility, and isn’t necessarily fictional myth-building.

posted by Bloix on November 19, 2008 #

Thanks for the link. Great interview.

posted by Jacob Rus on November 20, 2008 #

Warren, comparing the way Obama has been depicted in this story with the way Lenin used to be depicted I only wished to emphasize the similarity in their image as it is being produced, not in their personalities or political ways. By the way, I didn’t have the intention to compare Obama to a common image of a “monster”, in this case I would have chosen Stalin or, indeed, Hitler instead, because they are more universally considered evil.

Bloix, thank you for mentioning the “leader cares for the people” standard trope - this were the words I was looking for. You are right, during the period depicted in the story he wasn’t the big leader yet. For me this story is absolutely plausible and could have happened like that in reality. But there is always an intention in telling a specific story. So, this is non-fictional myth-building. :)

By the way, Nikita is a male name - think of Nikita Khrushchev, for example.

posted by Nikita on November 20, 2008 #

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