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

Application Support Analyst (SQL, CRM, CMS)

£25000 - £29000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Application Suppor...

SEN Teacher - Cerebral Palsy

£75 - £100 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: Randstad Education are looki...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Nursery Nurse - Melton Mowbray

£7 - £8 per hour: Randstad Education Leicester: Randstad Education are current...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: Ed Miliband on low pay; Alan Johnson on Betjeman; Tom Freeman on editing

John Rentoul
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments