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

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Science versus religion in the three-parent baby debate

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Kylie has helped to boost viewing figures for the talent show  

When an Aussie calls you a ‘bastard’, you know you’ve arrived

Howard Jacobson
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee