John Walsh: Obama's book is an exercise in vanity

Share
Related Topics

Heroism is in the news, in the graceful person of Aung Sun Suu Kyi, released from house arrest and immediately calling, with virtually her first breath of freedom, for a peaceful revolution in Burma. It was as if her 20-odd years of incarceration had been a mere detail, a hiccup, a weekend mini-break.

The relentlessness of virtue has never been more eloquently demonstrated. Her reappearance on the world stage coincides with President Obama's new dispatch on the subject of heroism, following his two bestselling autobiographies. It's called Of Thee I Sing, and offers a tribute to 13 famous Americans who will, he hopes, inspire his children.

You may recall that Gordon Brown produced a broadly similar book in 2007, called Courage: Eight Portraits, which examined the lives of egregiously virtuous people: Edith Cavell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Raoul Wallenstein, Cicely Saunders (who started the hospice movement) and Aung San Suu Kyi herself.

Brown's approach was hagiographical but his purpose and was clear. He thinks heroism inheres in having a serious moral purpose, in devoting long stretches of your life to "principled causes." So courage isn't just about being brave enough to fight: it all depends what you're fighting for. Soldiers of fortune can be brave but not courageous, in the Gordonian sense.

Barack Obama has no truck with that Sunday-school dreaminess. His 13 heroes are all about achievement, in the arts, sport, politics or war. Washington and Lincoln are both in there, natch, and Neil Armstrong, despite his woeful handing of the one and only line history gave him to speak.

The anti-poverty campaigner Jane Addams is a shoo-in, as is that well-known American, Albert Einstein. You might wonder, though, about Obama's inclusion of Billie Holiday, who ruined her fabulously tremulous, child-woman voice with too many drugs, drinks and abusive men and ended her disordered and pitiful life at 44, and isn't a role model you'd recommend to many kids, except as a model of heroinism.

But as you wonder what qualifies the other figures to appear in this pantheon, it strikes you how crassly tokenist the President has been. He secures the Hispanic vote by including Cesar Chavez, the trades unionist, and solicits the black vote by including Jackie Robinson, the first black US baseball player. Asians are offered the Chinese-American Maya Lin, the Yanks' version of Rachel Whiteread, whose commission of the Vietnam Veterans Monument in Washington drew criticism from various dimwits who thought China and Vietnam were the same place.

It's absurd, isn't it? Mr Robinson and Ms Lin are hardly to be taken for heroes simply by dint of being outsiders who managed to join the establishment despite racist opposition – except that, of course, in doing so, they exactly mirror what Obama later did to American presidential politics. So, by his choice, the President is congratulating himself on his own heroism.

Obama also sucks up to native Americans by including Sitting Bull among his heroes. That's Sitting Bull who so admirably massacred every member of the 7th Cavalry at the Little Big Horn and later demonstrated his commitment to dignity and truth by poising on horseback as a novelty turn in Buffalo Bill's Circus after he surrendered to the US army. Proceeds from the book will go to "the families of injured military personnel." Will they include the Custers? I hope they're grateful.

My First Duchess

According to her job description, Carol Ann Duffy, our brilliant poet laureate, needn't write a poem to celebrate every Royal event. But it would be a shame if she didn't celebrate Britain's first middle-class Royal. Should she not fancy the commission, here's a contender.

Cambridge, Sussex, Connaught, Windsor -
How on earth does one decide?
Shall I leave it to the prince or
Will he leave it to his bride?

Sussex, Connaught, Windsor, Cambridge -
Which should I be Duchess of?
Middleton's a bourgeois name which
Longs to be Holstein-Romanov.

Connaught, Windsor, Cambridge, Sussex -
Places where I'm never found.
Raised 'mid Berkshire's bosky tussocks,
Chelsea's more my stamping-ground.

Jigsaw, Topshop, Party Pieces,
They're the names I really reign o'er.
Would I swap them for a palace?
Darling. That's a complete no-brainor.

Windsor, Cambridge, Sussex, Connaught -
Next the world. And I'll be queen.
Check out my LK Bennett bonnet.
Patience works. Know what I mean?

j.walsh@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - 3-4 Month Fixed Contract - £30-£35k pro rata

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a 3-4 month pro rata fi...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £26,000+

£16000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Telesales Executive is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager

£25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Don’t pity me for eating alone, just give me a better table

Rosie Millard
Aerial view of planned third runway at Heathrow  

Heathrow expansion: This final 'conclusion' has simply fanned the airport flames

Chris Blackhurst
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map