Junot Diaz on Barack Obama: 'He doesn't like to fight'

Junot Diaz: telling it like it is

Today on his New Yorker blog, Adam Gopnik attempts to unpack Barack Obama's election-night victory speech for clues to why the President engenders such dislike from his foes on the right. For Gopnik, it comes down to what he sees as Obama's calculated distance:

"...[W]atching him come to the podium and hold it, some of the reasons for that hatred were discernible. Obama is, above all, calm, cool—not needy in any way, and that absence of neediness, that pervasive cool, which reads to even his admirers at times like a slight, ironic detachment from his own eloquence, must seem to his detractors like an infuriating arrogance and remoteness. John Kennedy, who had the same gift of detachment, was often accused, quite fairly, of the same type of self-absorption and indifference to others. He carried no cash in his coat ... Everybody admires the guy who never breaks a sweat—except the guys running alongside him in the race, who would at least like to see him making an effort. A man who is not needy, a philosopher once said, does not always recognize the needs of others."

But there's another way to look at Obama. And the Dominican-born, Jersey-raised, Pulitzer-winning novelist and MIT professor Junot Diaz is not afraid to mince words:

"He doesn't like to fight," he tells my colleague David Scharfenberg in this week's Providence Phoenix.

In January 2010, a year into the Obama administration, Diaz wrote a piece for the New Yorker suggesting that Obama was failing the country . . . as a storyteller: 

"All year I’ve been waiting for Obama to flex his narrative muscles, to tell the story of his presidency, of his Administration, to tell the story of where our country is going and why we should help deliver it there. A coherent, accessible, compelling story—one that is narrow enough to be held in our minds and hearts and that nevertheless is roomy enough for us, the audience, to weave our own predilections, dreams, fears, experiences into its fabric. It should necessarily be a story eight years in duration, a story that no matter what our personal politics are will excite us enough to go out and reëlect the teller just so we can be there for the story’s end. But from where I sit our President has not even told a bad story; he, in my opinion, has told no story at all."

It's Scharfenberg's question to Diaz about that piece -- about whether he thought Obama had learned a lesson since then -- that prompted Diaz to answer that he didn't, and Obama hadn't, and mightn't ever: 

"Part of Obama's problem seems to be beyond narrative ... Part of him is a very strange figure, a reconciliator, where politics — at least as politics works these days — it's all about conflict, it's all about victory, it's all about cutting off the ring on your opponent. It's all about extracting concessions. Literally, it's fucking war."

It's telling that Diaz, a street-poet of the hypermasculine, is less apologetic for Obama's lack of balls than Gopnik, who stands out -- even at the New Yorker -- for being a pretentious, France-loving gasbag. In Gopnik's eyes, Obama has passed through the forge of extreme conflict (one wants to inquire: when, exactly, was that?) and emerged serene, distilled: "By now Obama must know the virtues of fighting and the limits of the invocation of unity," Gopnik writes, "but he knows, too, that a cool man who does not cherish his own warmest rhetoric becomes a mere hot-air artist."

When Gopnik close-reads Obama's lack of fight, he beholds it as "political intelligence" -- "as distinct and intuitive a gift as any of the other kinds of intelligence," of which "a large component ... lies in being faithful to your own fictions."

It almost sounds like Gopnik's saying something nice -- he certainly thinks he is -- until you realize that he's calling Obama a really skilled liar. 

Welcome to your second term, Mr. President. America's finest fiction writer has called you a wimp, one of America's biggest wimps has accused you of fiction, and it's not even lunchtime yet.

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