Comments: Eleanor Obama and the Decent Society

Urm. I hesitate to criticize, because it's been a while since I read that, and I didn't read it too carefully in the first place. In fact, it's possible when I say this I'm thinking of a completely different autobiography. But as I remember it, from time to time the books suggests he's overly self-congratulatory. Indeed, that section strikes me as being less about Elanor Roosevelt and more about how snazzy he is.

That said, there are worse flaws a person can have than being self-congratulatory. (I remember when I mentioned that to Daniel Ellsberg, and he told me, "Jon, only people who are especially sensitive and wonderful point that out.")

Posted by Jonathan Schwarz at April 8, 2009 12:18 AM

That book changed my life; I was just abandoning right wings views when I read "from Yale to Jail" as a young teenager and it completely changed what I wanted to do with my life.

A year or so after I read it I saw that David was going to speak at a weekend long conference in Lawrence Kansas. When I got a ride out there it was the first time I traveled by myself and was completely nervous to be with all these strangers. When the first day broke for lunch I quietly slipped into line when I felt an old man tap my shoulder. I remember him saying exactly "Hi, My name is David. Are you here by yourself? I'm here by myself, why don't you come eat lunch with me?"

I ended up having lunch with him, Tupac's just released from prison godfather and bunch of crazies from MOVE - that lunch is one of my fondest memories ever. David told good stories hunger strikes in prison. Sure the stories may have been a bit overly congratulatory - but I heard them from a nice old man kind enough to see that I was needing company.

Posted by Abarenbe at April 8, 2009 01:01 AM

Jon, you're thinking of the right book. I think it serves a purpose, though. He's saying to the reader, this is what I gave up, but this is what I got in return. He came from a very privileged background, but still chose a life of labor, poverty, and jail due to his convictions.

I probably should have quoted the passage preceding the one I chose, in which he and other student organizers of a protest for the poor, minorities, and war dissenters were invited to have tea at the White House with Mrs. Roosevelt. John Lewis of the UMW was there as well.

The equivalent today might be if Michelle Obama invited Code Pink to the White House, with Andy Stern and Ralph Nader also turning up. I simply can't imagine this happening! My only point is how much more room there used to be for dissent at the highest levels in the culture.

Posted by Aaron Datesman at April 8, 2009 11:05 AM

Aaron, if Michelle Obama invited Ralph Nader to the White House, the entire pwoggiesphere would rise up and have a collective embolism. Pwogs could care less about their Plaster Saint bombing women and children in Pakistan, but they'd have an epileptic fit if Cynthia McKinney stayed over in the Lincoln bedroom.

Posted by AlanSmithee at April 8, 2009 12:08 PM

Aaron and Jon, I don't know precisely what phrases you are reacting to but I must say this. I worked with Dave for a short while when I was a teen, on a Teach-In in Boulder in 1979. I was very impressed by his humility, in person. His writing is somewhat different, as anyone's, but mostly you are misreading him, I think. His style is just from a different generation--one lacking that peculiar recent allergy that abhors the appearance of being pleased with one's self. Today's culture shies away from honest expression of self-stated virtues, I think, partly because successful manipulation and spin are so prevalent as to have been elevated to virtue status. In Dave's time, I'd go so far as to say that earnestness was the virtue and false modesty was seen as the manipulation it is.

Posted by Joel P at April 10, 2009 03:26 AM