Culture of Opportunity: Obama’s Chicago
The People, Politics, and Ideas of Hyde Park

As a student at the University of Chicago, I can say that I’ve lived in Hyde Park for three years. But after reading Rebecca Janowitz’s book Culture of Opportunity, I was forced to wonder if that statement was true. Had I ever really engaged with Hyde Park in the way it deserves? Or had I merely treated it as somewhere to get a meal, find a book, buy my groceries? There is a history and a uniqueness to Hyde Park of which I (like many new residents, or like those who know the neighborhood only as the home of President Obama) was unaware. Janowitz’s timely book goes a long way toward filling this void.

Culture of Opportunity, as a political and social history of the neighborhood, starts with its founding as a garden suburb in the 1850s and goes through its experimental and tension-ridden integration in the 1960s, finally ending with its productively volatile and ever-changing present. Janowitz’s book is also  a contextualization of President Barack Obama, introducing us to a line of progressive Hyde Park politicians of which he is the most recent and successful. But the book is also something of even wider value: a portrait of an entirely unique neighborhood, written by one of its own.

Rebecca Janowitz will be doing a book signing at the Quadrangle Club on May 19th. Click here for event information.

-LS

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In the Words of the People

November 19, 2009

Just the other day, I was breezing through Charlie Madigan’s idiosyncratic yet incisive election history Destiny Calling while waiting for the Red Line to pick me up at the Jackson and State subway station. “Do you mind if I take a look at that?” the person next to me—a slightly plump, baby-faced African-American woman around 24 or 25—asked. “Huh? Oh, yeah, of course,” I mumbled groggily. She took her time looking it over—reading the back carefully, lingering a moment on the cover photo—then handed it back to me with an earnest grin. “That seems like the type of book I would like,” she told me.

As I got on the train, I felt myself let loose a little smile, too. I was reminded of the feeling of genuine connection I had in the summer of 2007, when I hitched a ride to Dubuque, Iowa with a lawyer from Wheaton and went door to door, talking with—not to—its citizens and, more importantly, just listening to them. I was reminded of the giddy feeling I had a few months later, taking the train back home after the AFL-CIO-sponsored debate between the Democratic candidates, when first one, then another fellow college student heard me and my friend discussing the election and excitedly sat down to go over everything with us. I was even reminded a little bit of the euphoria I felt last November, when the election was announced in Obama’s favor and seemingly every student and townie on my Boston-area campus flooded the streets to chant, sing, weep, and simply celebrate as a group.

It’s easy to forget about those feelings now, when every time you turn on the TV you hear about Obama’s struggles thus far and the apparently growing disenchantment with him. Of course, if you had only turned on the TV during the last election cycle, you might not have been aware of how strong and genuine those feelings were, and not only in me. You might even have been surprised by the outcome, having assumed—or, rather, been told—that Obama had no chance of winning the Democratic nomination, let alone the presidency, not with veteran juggernauts like Hillary Clinton around.

But as Madigan—whose forty years in journalism seem to have given him not only a sense of narrative, but also something much more rare these days: a sense of clarity—writes, “So much of what we pay attention to in media coverage of politics is meaningless, a drumbeat of name-calling, polling results, speculation, endless strategy, and gamesmanship.”

In a recent bit on the off-year elections, The Daily Show provided a typically brilliant, pitch-perfect satire of this insubstantial political coverage. People sometimes lament the fact that many of us young people trust Jon Stewart more than traditional newscasters. As though we’re dumber than they used to be. As though flipping the channel would somehow make us smarter. But maybe—just maybe—we trust him because, like Madigan, he’s a media figure who’s all too aware of the ridiculous discourse we’re too smart not to see before our eyes.

A lot has been made about words ever since Obama started campaigning. Not long ago, he had too many of them, and that meant too little substance. Now he has too few, and that means too little substantive progress. That makes sense, I suppose, so long as you remain within the mindset of the political media and the Clinton-era politicos who function as their “expert” guests. For them, it’s always about the strategy, the gamesmanship, about what plays, what sells. It’s about drawing us in with a catch phrase, about finding a more effective ad campaign for each demographic. Even the president’s nominal allies tend to function in this mindset. Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times recently asked the president to frame his agenda with a narrative. Friedman’s suggestion? “Nation-building at home,” which isn’t so much a narrative as a clumsy slogan. (Cue black screen on the TV: Friedman, Inc: Nation-building….at home.) And don’t forget that Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist is perhaps best known for analyzing politics through a marketer’s paradigm—“microtrends,” as he termed his focus.

To them, Obama is special because he has a unique skill with words. That’s true, but it’s not everything: he also has an understanding of the way they support and shape our political and civic culture, and so he works to revitalize that culture by shifting our discursive framework in a way that many in the media can’t comprehend. Too white vs. Jeremiah Wright took place in the media’s discourse; a forty-minute talk with over 6 million YouTube hits took place in Obama’s. For them, this summer’s town hall meetings were about anger and guns; for him, it was about genuinely bringing people into the process outside of the media echo chamber. He may have blundered in taking on Fox News, but he didn’t do it just because they speak for the right; he did it because they’re the most egregious example of this faulty political discourse. There is a reason, after all, that one of the more rousing parts of his health care address focused on discrediting the current debate (“The time for games has passed,” etc.)

So when I turn on the TV and see the media talking about Obama’s failings—yet again—I can’t help but be a bit skeptical. I can’t help but think that they still miss the point: they continue to focus on the meaningless drumbeat of day-to-day Washington while ignoring the flowing melodies he’s conducting around it.

“Away from the set stages and the cell-phone updates and the laptops, there was a much more intriguing version of America,” Madigan writes in Destiny Calling. “The nation is filled with interesting, thoughtful people who have a lot to say if only you just shut up and let them say it for more than a few seconds.”

Shutting up might be tough for the bloviators who fill our TV screens. But by allowing the voices of normal people to fill the page alongside the polls, Madigan reminds us that there are manywonderful stories we’re not getting, and that those stories—those people’s words—are, in the end, the ones that matter.

October 19, 2009

Carmen DedeauxI wonder what Carmen Dedeaux would have to say now about Obama’s promises to repair New Orleans.  She’s a leading character in Charlie Madigan’s book DESTINY CALLING, which focuses on a number of representative Americans in an attempt to explain why Obama won the presidency.  Carmen and her children got blown out of Mississippi by Katrina, and her estimate of the help provided by the Bush administration after the hurricane was not, to put it gently, favorable.  In voting for Obama she wanted a change in the government’s attitude toward relief and rebuilding in the Gulf Coast area, including New Orleans.  Now, four years later, the area continues to limp along–and Obama is reaping criticism for his short-shrifting of this sick feature of American geography.  Of course he has other things on his mind (let us please bury the “full plate” metaphor), but this ought to be near the top somewhere.

Bubble in TimeMDestiny Callingost readers can attest to the theory that books are sometimes best enjoyed when paired together.  Reading William L. O’Neill’s A Bubble in Time: America during the Interwar Years 1989-2001 followed by Charles M. Madigan’s  Destiny Calling: How the People Elected Barack Obama, provides a deeper context and thick description of the cultural shifts before the Bush era as well as in its wake.  O’Neill’s explicit discourse on the tie between popular culture and the American socio-political environment provides the reader with a stronger connection to the material. Madigan’s look at “real” people and what brought them to vote during the 2008 election is not mutually exclusive from O’Neill’s. Instead, it allows readers to analyze not only the direct repercussions of eight years under George W. Bush, but also twenty years of cultural, economic, and political change in America.  For those looking for more information about author tours, back-stories, and more about Charles M. Madigan and Destiny Calling, please visit the book’s website.

DESTINY CALLINGCharles Madigan’s newest book, Destiny Calling: How the People Elected Barack Obama, is now available. Read the untold stories at the heart of Barack Obama being elected as president of the United States.

Read more here.