Thursday, October 08, 2009

author functions

The Kent Johnson/Kenneth Goldsmith Day business has gotten me thinking about authorship issues – that, & the fact that I'm in the middle of grading papers, where I have to be on constant guard for some bleeding chunk of internet-derived prose somehow sneaking in under the name of one of my students. And lo & behold! what should emerge from the tomb but the Bill Ayers-Barack Obama authorship "scandal."

For those of you who don't follow the nail-biting hijinks of American political "discourse," here's the short version: William Ayers was a 1960s radical, a founder of the leftist anti-war group the Weather Underground; he spent a number of years as a fugitive. After coming in from the cold – charges against him for a number of bombings had to be dropped, as the FBI had used illegal tactics in gathering evidence – he became an academic. He's now a highly-regarded professor of education at the University of Illinois, Chicago. And a longtime acquaintance – a bosom buddy, an ideological soul-mate, some on the right say – of Barack Obama.

In 2001 Ayers published Fugitive Days, a memoir of his time with the Weather Underground. Astonishingly enough, in 1995 Obama had published his own memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Intelligence. Something was fishy there, it seemed to those on the right, among them the conservative journalist Jack Cashill, who was convinced that Obama couldn't have written that book (a best-seller, & by all accounts a hell of an absorbing read) on his own. But who was the ghost-writer?

Bill Ayers was the obvious culprit. After all, he was the figure who most clearly linked Obama to a radical anti-government socialist agenda; and he'd written a book, which was also a memoir. And both of them misspelled Frantz Fanon's first name – in the same way! and referred to eyebrows, 6 times in Ayers's book, seven in Obama's! And they each use the terms "baleful" and "bill of particulars"!

This silliness persisted for some time, reaching a particular height right before last year's election, when a right-wing moneybags named Robert Fox offered Peter Millican, an Oxford don & expert on stylometric analysis, $10,000 to "prove" by computer comparison that Ayers had written Obama's book. Millican looked over the two books & quite sensibly opined that they looked very much as if they'd been written by, well, William Ayers & Barack Obama, respectively. For $10k he'd run the analysis, sure, but only if he were free to publicly announce his conclusions. Fox backed down & withdrew the offer.

One would have thought the issue was dead, at least as dead as the argument that Christopher Marlowe had faked his own death, went into hiding, & went on to write all of Shakespeare's plays – a comparable bit of silliness. Until the other day, when conservative blogger Anne Leary ran into Ayers at a Starbucks at Reagan National Airport. And you know what? He confessed:
Then, unprompted he said--I wrote Dreams From My Father. I said, oh, so you admit it. He said--Michelle asked me to. I looked at him. He seemed eager. He's about my height, short. He went on to say--and if you can prove it, we can split the royalties. So I said, stop pulling my leg. Horrible thought. But he came again--I really wrote it, the wording was similar. I said I believe you probably heavily edited it. He said--I wrote it. I said--why would I believe you, you're a liar.
I know what you're thinking: he's indeed pulling her leg. He's had it up to here with this authorship bullshit, & he's talking to this blogging head who's forced herself on him, in a voice dripping with irony ("if you can prove it, we can split the royalties"). Even Leary seems to recognize this, for a brief moment – until she falls back into the far-right's more typical loony conspiratorialism:
But the question remains--is Barack Obama a fraud? Is his myth-making creation and only major accomplishment a product of Bill Ayers' imagination? (or his own) Is our President Barack Obama's biography written by an unrepentant domestic terrorist?
And what's even more astonishing (amusing?) is that the right-wing blogosphere is now alight with crowing exultation over Bill Ayers's "confession." Even Jonah Goldberg of the National Review (remember William F. Buckley? would he have wasted time on this?) finds himself "forced to revise" his "earlier pooh-poohing" of the Cashill story.

What they all seemed to have missed was a National Journal piece over the weekend, recounting a meeting with Ayers at a book signing:
When he finished speaking, we put the authorship question right to him. For a split second, Ayers was nonplussed. Then an Abbie Hoffmanish, steal-this-book-sort-of-smile lit up his face. He gently took National Journal by the arm. “Here’s what I’m going to say. This is my quote. Be sure to write it down: ‘Yes, I wrote Dreams From My Father. I ghostwrote the whole thing. I met with the president three or four times, and then I wrote the entire book.’” He released National Journal’s arm, and beamed in Marxist triumph. “And now I would like the royalties.”
What's missing on the right here, I guess, is any sense of irony. In their frantic quest to find anything with which to smear Obama, they're running with the most obviously sarcastic "confessions" on Ayers's part as to the authorship of a book which I'm sure he'd've been all too glad to have had a hand in, if only to help out with the mortgage. (In all fairness, Goldberg goes on to admit that Ayers seems to be "pulling some chains" – including JG's own.)

The operative assumption here, I suppose, is that politicians aren't talented enough (or don't have the time, or whatever) to write their own books, even their own life-stories. And generally speaking, that's true, if you look at the author-lines on "autobiographies" by most of the major figures of the past few decades. Even the word-peddlers on the right don't seem to write their own books, more often than not: Glenn Beck's books are co-authored with Kevin Balfe, Rush Limbaugh has used a succession of hacks to turn his tirades into linear prose. How then could Obama actually write his own life story?

What they're missing, obviously, is that Obama is a highly educated man – an academic, in fact, having taught at the University of Chicago Law School for 12 years. And one of the main things that academics do is write. That's how we communicate within our disciplines, that's how we argue the issues we care about. I'm not surprised that Obama & Ayers were able to write compelling memoirs – they had compelling stories to tell, & by their very professions they had a certain mastery of language. What would be more surprising would be if they had written downright boring or incoherent books.

1 comment:

Ed Baker said...


next thing you'll know

:how to change a diaper

I am writing another professor

fucking 25 years younger than me!


all thje biddha beer is gonwe!