Wrenching Experiences

A few days ago National Review published a silly piece by Tevi Troy criticizing President Obama's vacation reading list because it was light on Jonah Goldberg books. He seemed to think this argument from Mickey Kaus, that Obama's reading list was "heavy on the wrenching stories of immigrant experiences, something the President already knows quite a bit about," was clever enough to be worth quoting.

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You have to admire the pseudo-birtherism of Kaus' formulation--you can practically see little Barack clutching his Kenyan birth certificate as he steps off the plane. 

Only one of the books on Obama's list counts as a story about "immigrants," namely Abraham Verghese's novel on Ethiopian immigration to the U.S. The other is not a novel, but a history book by Isabel Wilkerson about the great migration of black Americans out of the South during the 20th Century. What they have to do with one another is entirely unknown, except perhaps that they're both about black people, and Obama, being black, already knows about all that stuff, even though he's not of African-American or Ethiopian descent. Might Kaus be referring to the elder Obama or his time in Indonesia? Maybe but what that has to do with either book would remain a mystery. Or perhaps Kaus was talking about Obama's "immigration" from Hawaii to New York City or Chicago? Unclear. 

Anyway, Kaus got called out in his comments, and offered this defense:

"Immigration: To enter and settle in a country or region to which one is not native." I was counting Wilkerson's story of internal migration from the South to the North, which was certainly wrenching. That's two of five--and two of the three he arrived with. But I will change to "migration." Doesn't matter. Point is he ain't exposing himself to fresh or discordant ideas, assuming the list isn't BS.

So Kaus admits that it's nonsense to describe the Wilkerson book as a story about "immigration" but neither her book nor Verghese's is "fresh or discordant," because, what, they're both about people who read as black in an American context? The cultural divides between black descendants of slaves and Ethiopians in the U.S. are actually quite significant, but they largely go under the radar because of cultural chauvanism that assumes continuity of experience based on skin color. But talk to some folks in DC, they'll explain it to you.

And Wilkerson's book, for those who bother to read it, is "fresh and discordant" for a number of reasons, particularly the way it debunks the poor sociology done on Southern migrants, which wrongly blamed them for increases in poverty, crime and social dysfunction despite the fact that they were more likely to have jobs, live in two parent families, and be financially stable. It is also "fresh and discordant" in the sense that it challenges the historical consensus that there were two Great Migrations, positing instead that there was only one that straddled the decades between 1915 and 1970.

Kaus then tones down the dogwhistle a bit by changing "immigrant" to "migrant," which still doesn't make any sense unless we're really just talking about Obama being familiar enough with being black that he shouldn't be reading about them [despite having originated the rather cute conceit of an imaginary editor, Kaus doesn't acknowledge the change in the body of his post --Ed.]

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Again, what "wrenching migrant experience" is Obama so familiar with (Migration to Columbia University?) and how does this at all describe thematic continuity between the two books mentioned?  His father's family is Kenyan, they didn't participate in the Great Migration. They also weren't Ethiopian, so I'm not sure why Obama is assumed to have this wealth of knowledge that would preclude his reading Varghese's novel. These two books about completely different subjects represent a "heavy" emphasis on...what again? 

Anyway it seems obvious that Kaus and Troy are operating under the assumption that Obama is culturally alien to most Americans, and working back from that conclusion they decided to isolate two books in his reading list about completely different things in order to make the point.  This is "sending the wrong message" of cultural otherness which Kaus and Troy will happily emphasize for you if you haven't gotten the idea yet. And that underlying assumption is a fundamental truth worth trumpeting despite the fact that whether we're talking about migration or immigration, Kaus' characterization is nonsense. Nevermind that the story of America is essentially one of "wrenching immigrant experiences."

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