The World According to Michelle

Mark Steyn on Michelle Obama:

… the problem for the enigmatic Obama is that his wife gives every indication of broadly subscribing to the Reverend Wright’s world view, albeit without the profanity and accompanying pelvic thrusts.

She was born in 1964, so, unlike, say, Condi Rice, she has no vivid childhood memories of racial segregation. She grew up in a conventional two-parent household which, though poor and living in a small apartment, gathered each evening for dinner, so she’s not a victim of the Great Society’s atomization of the black family. She was among the first generation to benefit from “affirmative action”, which was supposed to ameliorate the lingering grievances of racism but seems, in Mrs Obama’s case, merely to have transformed them into post-modern pseudo-grievance. “All my life I have confronted people who had a certain expectation of me,” she told an audience in Madison. “Every step of the way, there was somebody there telling me what I couldn’t do. Applied to Princeton. ‘You can’t go there, your test scores aren’t high enough.’ I went. I graduated with departmental honors. And then I wanted to go to Harvard. And that was probably a little too tough for me. I didn’t even know why they said that.”

But hang on. By her own admission, her test scores weren’t high enough for Princeton. Yet, rather than telling her, “You can’t go there”, they took her anyway. And all the thanks they get is that her test scores are now a recurring point of resentment: “The stuff that we’re seeing in these polls,” she told an interviewer, “has played out my whole life. You know, always been told by somebody that I’m not ready, that I can’t do something, my scores weren’t high enough.” If you were, say, Elizabeth Edwards and your scores weren’t high enough, that’d be that (Teresa Heinz could probably leverage the whole Mozambican thing). Yet Mrs Obama regards state-mandated compensation for previous racism as a new form of burthen to bear. In an early indication of the post-modern narcissism on display at Zanesville, she arrived as a black woman at Princeton and wrote her undergraduate thesis on the problems of being a black woman at Princeton. Princeton-Educated Blacks And The Black Community is a self-meditation by the then Miss Robinson on the question of whether an Ivy League black student drawn remorselessly into the white world is betraying lower-class blacks. As she puts it:

“A separationist is more likely to have a realistic impression of the plight of the Black lower class because of the likelihood that a separationist is more closely associated with the Black lower class than are integrationist. By actually working with the Black lower class or within their communities as a result of their ideologies, a separationist may better understand the desparation of their situation and feel more hopeless about a resolution as opposed to an integrationist who is ignorant to their plight.”

Ah, the benefits of an elite education. The thesis is dopey, illiterate and bizarrely punctuated, but so are the maunderings of many American students. What makes Miss Robinson’s youthful opus relevant is that the contradictions it agonizes over have dominated her life. Indeed, her apparent bitterness at a society that has given her blessings she could not have enjoyed anywhere else on earth seems explicitly to derive from her inability to live either as an “integrationist who is ignorant to the plight” of “the Black lower class” or a “separationist” embracing its hopelessness and “desperation”. Instead, she rode her privileged education to wealth and success and then felt bad about it. That’s why she talks about money – her money – more than any other putative First Lady ever has: it’s like an ongoing internal dialogue about whether she sold out for too cheap a price.

Still, she’s learned her lesson. As she told her listeners in Ohio:

“We left corporate America, which is a lot of what we’re asking young people to do. Don’t go into corporate America.”

That’s what the Obama campaign is “asking young people to do”? “Don’t go into corporate America”? But isn’t “corporate America” what pays for, among other things, the Gulf Emir-sized retinue of courtiers the average US Senator now travels with?

And in what sense did the Obamas “leave” corporate America? Mrs Obama works for the University of Chicago Hospitals. She’s not a nurse or doctor. She’s a lawyer who was taken on by the hospitals in 2002 to run its “programs for community relations, neighborhood outreach, volunteer recruitment, staff diversity and minority contracting.” In 2005, she got a $200,000 pay raise and was appointed Vice President for Community Affairs and put in charge of managing “the Hospitals’ business diversity program”.

You can appreciate why Barack Obama is less gung ho than Hillary for socialized health care. If you work at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal or the Queen Elizabeth in Birmingham, England, there are certainly the usual professional diversity apparatchiks but they’re not pulling down 350K a year plus benefits. You need a “corporate sector” for that.

This is what makes Michelle Obama in Zanesville another Teresa Heinz in Wendy’s or Prince of Wales making small-talk with black squaddies. Her “adult lifetime” – the period that left her with no pride in her country until the 2008 Iowa caucus – has been spent in some of the most unrepresentative quartiers of American life: Princeton; the ever metastasizing bureaucracy of diversity enforcement; and Jeremiah Wright’s neo-segregationist ghetto of Afrocentric liberation theology and conspiracy theory. If young people were to follow the Obamas’ message and abandon “corporate America” for the above precincts, the nation would collapse. Michelle Obama embodies a peculiar mix of privilege and victimology which is not where most Americans live, or work, or start businesses, or invent products, or create wealth. On the other hand, it does make her a terrific Oprah guest: unlike her sonorous, dignified, restrained husband she has exactly the combination of wealth and vulnerability, success and chippiness prized by connoisseurs of daytime talk-shows.

There’s something pitiful about a political culture that has no use for Mitt Romney, a hugely successful businessman, but venerates a woman who gets the best part of 400 grand for running a “neighborhood outreach” and “staff diversity” program. They seem curious career choices for the closest confidante of a man who claims to be running as a “post-racial” candidate. Which Barack Obama certainly could have been. He’s no tired old race-baiter making a lucrative career out of grievance-mongering, like Jesse Jackson, President-for-Life of the Republic of Himself. In many ways, he’s similar to Colin Powell, a bipartisan figure born to British subjects (in Powell’s case, from the Caribbean; in Obama’s, from colonial Kenya) and thus untinged by the bitterness of the African-American experience. And yet the two most important figures in Obama’s adult life exemplify all the tired obsessions he was supposed to transcend. I don’t agree with Powell on anything very much, from abortion to Iraq. But, with hindsight, it’s a tragedy that he didn’t have the fire in his belly to run in 1996. He was truly the post-racial candidate Senator Obama poses as.

Most Americans – even those upscale white liberals who embraced Obama as the new black best friend they’d been waiting for all these years – don’t want to think about race that much. I don’t suppose the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, in his new 98% white gated community, even thinks about it that much. And as Michelle Obama advised: Feel – don’t think.

Is it a bumper sticker yet? It ought to be. It gets to the heart of the matter better than “CHANGE YOU CAN BELIEVE IN”, “BELIEF YOU CAN CHANGE”, “CHANGE YOU CAN FEEL”, “HOPE YOU CAN GROPE”, or the rest of the pleasantly gaseous uplift. Everyone feels good about Obama. He’s the fellow we’ve wanted to feel good about for so long.

But Michelle Obama, and her own uncertain feelings for America, put a big question mark over that.

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