Friday, February 13, 2009

The Audacity of Hope - book by Barak Obama

When I bought this book, it was with a bit of curiosity and lot of skepticism. I thought it should be the political manifesto of a Presidential candidate. I expected the book to be full of platitudes and campaign rhetoric. I expected him to be politically and boringly correct and careful, avoiding hard issues and hot topics. How wrong I was. The book brought out another side of Obama, I did not know or expect. He is a writer, thinker and intellectual. If he did not succeed in politics, he could have made a career out of writing. He writes in the same way as he speaks: direct and forthright. His ideas flow easily , logically and smoothly. He simplifies the issues, freeing them from rhetoric and outlines all the options to tackle them. And then he goes on to give his choice with a healthy respect for the choices which others might take. He has displayed breadth and depth in knowledge and wisdom.

The title of the book fits the man. Or, as they say, the man himself is the message. He took the title Audacity of hope from the sermon of his former pastor and delivered a speech with the same title at the Democratic convention in 2004 which propelled him to nation-wide fame. In his speech he talked about ¨ the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too. Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope¨

Obama has practised and fulfilled his audacious hope by becoming the first black occupant of the white house, in a relativley short political career. He loses the election to the state legislature badly in 2000. He tries to gatecrash into the Democratic convention in LA in the same year without success. He was down with depression and denial. No one including himself could have even dreamed at that time that he would become the President. Disadvantaged as a black, with a funny name including a risky middle name as Hussein and without money or family background how did he hope to achieve what was considered as impossible just eight years back. That is precisely the Audacity of Hope. He gets a lucky break in 2004 Democratic Convention as a keynote speaker, makes use of it to attract national attention and goes on to win a senate seat. He decides to take on the formidable Clinton machine which was plotting for ten years and wins the election overwhelmingly to create history.

Obama has shown a remarkable and refreshing frankness and honesty while dealing with public and personal issues. He has shown exceptional courage in taking on controversial issues such as politics, race, religion, value system of the American society, Iraq war and American foreign policy. This was a dangerous exercise, while standing for the presidential election with thousands looking for slips and errors to pounce on him and bring him down. He has mentioned in this context the formidable power of the American media which can make or break carrers. He says, ¨ for the public I am what the media says I am. I say what they say. I become who they say i have become ¨. Still, he goes beyond political correctness , bares the facts and articulates his views fearlessly. He asserts that he is able to distinguish himself from the pack by this capacity to speak his mind on hard issues

He takes on the issue of race head on. He does not forgive the socity for what was done to his slave ancestors. He is not apologetic in demanding affirmative action. He is convinced that power would concede nothing without a fight. He recalls how white couple would toss the car keys to him outside restaurants, when he is waiting for the valet to bring his car.He chooses not to waste time by recounting the humiliations to which he was subjected as a black man. He takes it in his stride and sometimes with humour. When the girl friends of Michel consider him as cute, while he was dating her, he says it could have been because of the fact that any black man in a suit with a job would look cute. He says one is required to see America on a split screen, to maintain in sight an America that he wants while looking squarely at the America as it is, to acknowledge the sins of the past and the challenges of the present without becoming trapped in cynicism or despair. He talks about the dilemma of black politicians to gauge the right tone to take- too angry? not angry enough?. He says the black leaders should be conscious that rightly or wrongly, white guilt has largely exhausted itself.

On religion, Obama says he started off as an agnostic but later chose to get baptised. He explains why many Americans are, to the surprise of many foreigners, so religious. According to him, the Americans are not content with their work, possessions and busyness. They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives that will lift them above the exhausting and relentless daily toll of life.

He has attacked in the book, the political partisanship and polarisation which have blocked solutions and progress of the country. Everyone knows it and criticises it. The difference is that he believes that it is possible to try and achieve bipartisanship by showing understanding and seeing the merits of the ideas of the other side. He says many American politicians and party cadres are consciously or unconsciously locked in ¨either/ or thinking¨. He not only believes but practises reaching out to the other side with conviction and profit. He differentiates value from ideology. He cautions against ideology which tend to override facts and makes one blind to the other side. Can the politician be honest in the scripted and often makebelieve world of American politics. He says yes and he has proven in his words and deeds. For example while refrring to the perennial American debate about big government or small he quotes Lincoln ¨that we will do collectively , through our government, only those things that we cannot do as well or at all individually and privately. His own quote, ¨we should be guided by what works¨.

Obama delves into the value system of the American society without fear. He dares to question the singular American pursuit of being rich, thin, young, famous, safe and entertained and the empathy defict to what happens outside these pursuits. He says we must test our own ideals, vision and values against realities by a constant process of information gathering, analysis and arguments.

Obama´s commentary on the American foreign policy is a reassurance to the rest of the world which had to suffer the freightening excesses of the neocons. While defending the right of US to uncompromising approach when it comes to its own national security, he is clear that the time has come for US to be sensitive to the concerns of other countries and work with them.

Obama has dealt with other issues such as education, healthcare, globalisation and terrorism, in the same sensitive and intelligent way.

In his analysis of power, he says it requires a certain megalomania to enter politics with the bilef that one has a unique qualification to speak on behalf of others and endure the harrowing and ridiculous process of campaigning. He also points out that while others can lick their wounds privately, the politican´s loss is on public display.He had gone through this feeling of repudiation with the word ¨loser¨flashing from the minds of all around him. He is candid about the shame of begging for campaign funds from the rich and corporates and being tied to the agenda of the givers.

He is frank about his role and guilt as a father and husband. He says that a disproportionate share of raising the kids fell on his wife´s shoulder, while he was relentlessly pursuing his own goals. Whenever he undertook to look after the children, he did it on his own terms and on his own schedule. He confesses how after years of marriage, he felt to be fully domesticated, soft and helpless in attending to even simple household work.

Obama is self-critical and does so with a sense of humour and humility. He mentions the incident when he is introduced by his teenage daughter to her friend. He goes forward to shake her hand. His daughter laughts at it and says" dad, you might not have noticed, but we are in 21st century ¨ . Taken aback, he asks what does one do in 21st century. She says shaking hands is outdated. One just says hai. Regarding his style of speech he says ¨it can be rambling, hesitant and overly verbose and might perhaps find sympathy in the literary class¨.

Of course, the book was also part of his political campaign. It shows in many parts of the book. It is preachy and pleading for votes. He had to write within the constraints of being part of the Democratic party and the need to please the voters and avoid displeasing any constituency.

I enjoyed the book thoroughly and have already ordered his previous book ¨Dreams from my father¨. Obama has been great in giving mesmerising speeches and writing profoundly. Can he deliver as President? Even if he does not succeed much, it is a new start for America. Atleast he has laid an intellectual benchmark. His Audacious Hope is the right message at this present moment of fear and uncertainty caused by the global crisis and job losses.

But the Indian business has gone even ahead of the Audacious Hope of Obama. Four years back I heard in the Indian corporate seminars the phrase ¨Audacious Ambition¨. This set some of the Indians on fire. Mittal took over Arcelor. Tata bought up Jaguar and Landrover. Indra Nooyi took over Pepsi.

Hope and Ambition have become audacious ...and colourful too. The Blacks and Browns add not only colour to America and the world ...but audacious colours....