The chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Rocco Landesman, provoked ridicule when he said last week that “Barack Obama is the most powerful writer since Julius Caesar.” He didn’t mean that Barack Obama is a literary titan who doth bestride the narrow world like a colossus while petty men like Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy walk under his huge legs and peep about to find ourselves dishonourable graves. But what he did mean, while no less fatuous, is also disquieting in its implications: for the first time, the United States of America has a president whose supporters talk about him in the same effusive and worshipful tones usually reserved for the likes of Stalin, Mao, and Kim Jong Il.
What Landesman really meant that since Obama was the most powerful man in the world and a writer as well, the President was the most politically powerful writer since Caesar. “This is the first president,” Landesman asserted, “that actually writes his own books since Teddy Roosevelt and arguably the first to write them really well since Lincoln.” Landesman is wrong about this in several ways: as Scott Johnson at Powerline pointed out that Lincoln never actually wrote a book, and that Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon wrote books without employing ghostwriters. Johnson also mentions Bill Clinton, although I believe his direct authorship is a bit more in doubt, and John F. Kennedy, whose Profiles in Courage was ghostwritten; “my guess,” Johnson concludes, “is that JFK and Obama share the attribute of authorship in roughly equal measure.”
Probably so. But that didn’t stop Landesman from exulting: “If you accept the premise, and I do, that the United States is the most powerful country in the world, then Barack Obama is the most powerful writer since Julius Caesar. That has to be good for American artists.” Ludicrous? Yes. After all, the inevitable question is, “What has he done to deserve this?” Do Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope really merit being placed above Churchill’s The Second World War, The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, or even Theodore Roosevelt’s The Strenuous Life?
Landesman’s ridiculously exaggerated praise recalls the Soviet literary establishment’s hailing of Stalin’s turgid Marxism and Problems of Linguistics and Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR as “works of genius.” Every German home once had a copy of Mein Kampf, even if nobody in the house read it, and every Chinese citizen once knew that he better own a copy of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book – if he knew what was good for him. Landesman has given Barack Obama the perfect companion to his spurious Nobel Prize: the fulsome and empty literary praise usually reserved for totalitarian autocrats of little or no actual literary accomplishment.
At a time when the Obama Administration is relentlessly demonizing dissenting voices and manifesting a shaky (at best) commitment to the freedom of speech, this is hardly a reassuring message to send. It demonstrates once again this Administration’s utter tone deafness and apparent indifference to genuine concerns about its commitment to core principles of the U.S. Constitution – witness Nancy Pelosi’s incredulous response of “are you serious?” to a questioner who asked her about the Constitutionality of nationalizing health care. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has declared her opposition to attempts at the United Nations to criminalize “defamation of religions” – that is, to make it illegal to speak about the motives and goals of Islamic jihad terrorists. Yet the Obama Administration is sending decidedly mixed signals about its commitment to free speech. Several weeks ago the Obama Administration actually co-sponsored an anti-free speech resolution at the United Nations. Approved by the U.N. Human Rights Council on October 2, the resolution, cosponsored by the U.S. and Egypt, calls on states to condemn and criminalize “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.”
Yet “incitement” and “hatred” are in the eye of the beholder – or more precisely, in the eye of those who make such determinations. The powerful can decide to silence the powerless by classifying their views as “hate speech.” And now the President of the United States has given his imprimatur to this tyranny. Legal expert Eugene Volokh explains:
“But why the fuss, some might ask, if we’re protected by the First Amendment? First, if the U.S. backs a resolution that urges the suppression of some speech, presumably we are taking the view that all countries – including the U.S. – should adhere to this resolution. If we are constitutionally barred from adhering to it by our domestic constitution, then we’re implicitly criticizing that constitution, and committing ourselves to do what we can to change it.”
Obama should withdraw American support for that UN resolution, and urge the passage of a resolution supporting free speech. And he should tell Rocco Landesman to cool his absurd rhetoric. Now, with free speech under attack everywhere, it is not the time to be inviting comparisons with history’s greatest oppressors – even comparisons on the absurdity meter.
Leave a Reply