A Complicated Man

One of my students, during a break between classes this afternoon, asked me some very pointed questions about President Obama. His questions were rather pointed, and I had to confess that I did not understand the man very well. There are some people whom it is easy to know and some people who keep their true selves buried deep, and President Obama is certainly in the latter category. He is a man who seems somewhat cold and remote, intellectual and aloof, possessed of rhetorical brilliance but seemingly lacking human warmth. I do not say this as an insult; I myself have often been accused of similar failings.

He strikes me as a profoundly complicated man. His father was a Kenyan socialist idealist, one of many produced and chewed up by Africa in the heady and ultimately disastrous post-colonial period. His complicated childhood in Indonesia is something about which I would like to know more—how much of a stranger and outsider did he feel there, and how did being in a Muslim country for so many of the important years of his life shape his view of faith and law? Did having a stepfather shape him differently than the childhood of Bill Clinton shaped his own view of women and his own family ideals as well as his own political positions? As a person with a disastrous and complicated childhood, I ask myself some pretty pointed questions and have some pretty unpleasant answers to those questions—but I would like to know those answers for our president as well. Even if a knowledge of such matters would not make me agree with him more, they would allow me to gain a better understanding of the man.

One thing about Mr. Obama as a man is very clear. He is a very cerebral person, an intellectual with a taste for abstraction and given to professorial lectures. As a fellow intellectual, and one given to lecturing without any malicious or insulting intent, I do not fault him for his approach the way many other anti-intellectuals would consider him a snob. Speaking metaphorically, some people are drinking buddies and some people are homework buddies. President George W. Bush is the kind of person who would be a drinking buddy (as would be former President Bill Clinton); President Obama is definitely a homework buddy. He is an undoubtedly intelligent man who is nonetheless very private and very distant from others. He does not radiate with warmth and compassion, nor does he encourage a feeling of intimacy. He has the passions of a zealot, so he is not all brains and no heart, but his heart does not show the warmth of a caring soul.

How will history judge the president and man? It is is far too early to tell, but we may guess. He is a John Quincy Adams without the pedigree, humility, endearing quirks, or moral high ground. He also strikes me as being a president much like Jimmy Carter, or Martin van Buren, a man of common background and considerable political gifts but the touch of a proud patrician. All of those men were one-term presidents. Make of that what you will. Despite my considerable political disagreements with him, on one level I am very glad that a personality like his can, even for one term, win the presidency. After all, he and I are not that far apart in temperament, despite our vast difference in worldviews. Nor are our backgrounds all that different. He spent his childhood in exile in Indonesia after his parents split up, I as an internal exile in the heathen lands of the Confederacy after my parents split up. Life in exile deeply shapes one’s personality and hardens ones convictions into granite.

So I am left in looking at President Obama as a sort of funhouse view reflection, with enough similarities to see a resemblance, but far different coloring (both in pigment and in political affiliation). But my student made a pointed observation about how President Obama did not seem very American to him. That comment may be the most damning of all. If people from outside America do not see one as American, how are people inside America (in what is popularly known as ‘fly-over country’) going to see you as one of your own. In that case, a little less distance and a lot more personal warmth may be just the ticket if one wishes to keep one’s job as the Chief Egghead (er, Executive) of the United States of America.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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11 Responses to A Complicated Man

  1. Something I have observed with many people that I talk with is that there is the accepted notion that the greater the intellectual capacity one obtains, the less humanity one exudes. Intellect and logic can be the opposite of passion and soul.
    Another point that I have noticed when talking to people is that it appears as though in the striving to become logical and intelligent, humanity itself is fast losing sight of its humanity?

    “We found the biggest drop in empathy after the year 2000,” said Sara Konrath, a researcher at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research.


    College students today are less likely to “get” the emotions of others than their counterparts 20 and 30 years ago, a new review study suggests. Specifically, today’s students scored 40 percent lower on a measure of empathy than their elders did. The findings are based on a review of 72 studies of 14,000 American college students overall conducted between 1979 and 2009


    “Scholastic learning and polemical divinity retarded the growth of all true knowledge.” David Hume

    This is very sad is all I can say. Some days I feel like I just don’t want to play anymore.

    • I think we could get other people better if we tried. I am a logical and rational person, but also a pretty hot-blooded person as well, and a very loving and affectionate one in the right circumstances (which, sadly, are not often present). But this world does not seem to reward or encourage warmth, especially from those whose native inclination is to be somewhat distant.

  2. Richard says:

    We must be able to infer what God was trying to protect by warning Adam and Eve about eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledged of good and evil. Clearly He knew that we would lose our own humanity the more that we seek to live out of intellect using head logic instead of heart logic.
    There must be somthing to this?

    • Careful, your anti-intellectual bias is showing to a self-avowed intellectual. We must be very clear about what type of knowledge was forbidden to mankind. It was not intellectual head-knowledge. After all, God gave Adam and Eve accurate intellectual knowledge about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: if you eat of that tree you shall surely die. And so they did. Likewise, zeal (heart knowledge) lacking in (head) knowledge is not pleasing to God (see Romans 10:2). God demands both that we have orthodoxy (correct doctrine, known intellectually) and orthopraxy (correct behavior, showing love and outgoing concern for others). Instead, it was the experiential knowledge of choosing between good and evil like choosing between salad and fried chicken at an all-you-can-eat-buffet, testing out good and evil and deciding for ourselves what is right and wrong that was strictly forbidden on pain of death. And this sort of (gnostic) knowledge has been nearly uniform among the gloomy history of mankind, from plowmen to princes, and from priests to prophets.

  3. Richard says:

    Thank you for clearing that up and pointing it out to me. I have been troubled by the idea of intellectual pursuits in this modern day as it appears it is a prime cause for the lack of empathy as the studies show. I appologise for the bias and will remember that my own work places emphasis on balance aka equilibrium.

    When it comes to children, this is where I can get emotional, I see and hear so much about how many children are caring less and less about each other and this is a concern of mine as well as the level of anxiety and distrust in the world.

    I imagine that I too am some sort of intellectual although to a lesser degree from lack of formal education and so again I will temper it and try to explain how there needs to be a balance. It is a funny thing that the Humanities are not encouraged more.

    • i wholeheartedly agree that our current educational system is out of balance. I have always tried to balance math and science and music and the humanities myself, but that has always been a matter of personal effort not often endorsed or promoted officially. But with the education of the humanities as corrupt as it is in most universities I don’t blame students in shying away from abominable courses like Lesbianism in American Literature 1830-1890, or Race, Gender, and Class in American Cinema (The latter was a course I actually had to take for my “diversity” credit as an undergraduate. At least the movies were nice.)

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