I was looking for something to read and I ran across “Barack Obama: Invisible Man “. I was so captivated by it, I did something I very seldom do, I researched the author. That is how I found David Masciotra. David is an author, lecturer, and an outspoken critic of the problems we face culturally as a nation. He has been called “One of America’s greatest writers” by none other than the Reverend Jesse Jackson. David is also a writer for Salon, one of the nation’s first online magazines. David is also a music lover, which was the icing on the cake for me. He has interviewed some of my favorite artist (Daryl Hall and John Mellencamp to name a few). He also lives right in Middle America, Indiana. All of these items made me track him down and say “David, I need to do a Tea Time with you “ . He graciously accepted and this interview is truly an honor:
- What inspired you to write “Barack Obama: Invisible Man”?
I’ve always found it fascinating and infuriating the way America deals with its unique racial diversity and history. Race is a topic that the American people are always discussing, but are rarely examining with honesty and integrity, mainly due to the lack of willingness of the white majority to scrutinize our own record, beliefs, and behavior. The election of Barack Obama – an avatar for the nation’s multicultural and multiethnic character – was exciting and inspiring. Quickly, however, almost the entire nation seemed to agree that race was insignificant. The right presented a masquerade to conceal their racial resentment and anxiety, acting as if their unprecedented and unwarranted attacks on Obama, ranging from the absurd birther conspiracy theory to a Congressman openly heckling the President, was entirely rational rather than racial. Meanwhile, the left developed a more understandable urge to quickly move to policy discussion, but in doing so, neglected to thoroughly inspect the racial dynamics at play in an Obama presidency.
Throughout the Obama presidency, particularly in the second term, I developed the suspicion that few Americans were looking at Obama with clear eyes. There is a history in the United States of ascribing fears and fantasies onto black citizens, and it began to seem obvious that Obama was a victim of such collective delusion. Barack Obama, the real man and the real leader, was no longer visible, and not just for reasons of race, but also because he is an intellectual in an age of anti-intellectualism, he is hopeful in an age of cynicism and paranoia, and he is elegant in an age of vulgarity.
Ralph Ellison wrote one of the greatest novels in the literary canon, and perhaps, the greatest American novel – Invisible Man. His story features an unnamed narrator, a black man in 1940s Harlem, who on page one, declares, “I am the invisible man. I am invisible simply because people refuse to see me.”
So, I use Ellison’s novel as an analytical framework throughout my own book, arguing that Barack Obama was an invisible president simply because people refused to see him. The right saw a monster, and in the early stages, the left saw a savior. Both were wrong – the right more insidiously and injuriously so – but both camps set Obama up to fail.
- In the book, you dig deep into how our own projections made President Obama, invisible. Do you think that this will bolster or tarnish his legacy?
On the immediate surface, the American people’s refusal to accurately appraise Obama’s leadership and policy platform will tarnish his legacy. A large percentage of Americans are unaware of Obama’s achievements, or show no willingness to properly contextualize his presidency. The late Gore Vidal, one of America’s best writers, christened our country the “United States of Amnesia.” His words resound with truth every day. Take for example, the large percentage of Americans who credit Donald Trump with recent economic improvements. When Obama entered the White House, America was losing hundreds of thousands of jobs per month. When he left, it was adding that amount every month. That hurts Obama.
However, in the long run, I believe that many people will begin to see Obama more clearly, because time creates distance, and distance creates objectivity. American governance, especially from the left, or in Obama’s case, the center-left, is difficult, and that is how the founders intended it. One could compare it to trying to push a broken down eighteen wheeler to the shoulder of the road. With his reforms on health care, higher education, Wall Street transparency, the environment, and prison reform, liberals and leftists can debate whether or not Obama “went far enough,” but people should soon realize that he managed to push the truck, under terribly hostile conditions, a few feet in the right direction.
One of the great lines of my book actually comes from Barack Obama’s former barber in Chicago. The barber predicts that Obama’s legacy will benefit immensely from who followed him into the presidency. I don’t see how anyone but the most ignorant fool could not long for the days of a president with intelligence, maturity, and poise now that Trump has transformed the Executive Branch of Government into an endless episode of Beavis and Butthead.
- You mention in a way that President Obama challenged America’s increasingly anti- intellectual anxiety. What do you believe led us down the road of being so anti- intellectual, as a society?
The late historian and social critic, Richard Hofstadter, wrote the classic book on this subject, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. The book was published in the early 1960s. So, this is an old problem, but it continues to worsen. It is multifaceted, but one of the causes I can easily identify – and I see it with my own students at the colleges where I teach – is a resistance to anything one sees as “impractical.” In America, to put it simply and maybe even crudely, life is all about the money. People don’t see how studying the humanities, social sciences, or fine arts can get them rich. As a consequence, they don’t study much of anything. Polls on Americans’ lack of knowledge on almost any conceivable topic are pretty frightening, and it threatens our entire democracy.
Now, Obama is a true intellectual – a former constitutional law professor, excellent writer with a gift for oratory, and a person of probity and insight who sees the world in all its complexity and nuance. Imagine the tension that would inevitably arise when an intellectual tries to lead a public increasingly hostile toward intellectuals, and suspicious of intellectual rigor. This is one of the issues I inspect in the book.
- I want everyone to buy the book , because it is truly so good , so I will not give too many details, but when writing this book, were there moments where you intentionally wanted to make the reader uncomfortable ?
Yes – the best books not only inform and inspire, but also challenge. Some of the reading experiences I have most treasured are those that left me feeling awakened to something I could not see or did not want to see. That is not always a comfortable feeling.
- One of my favorite musical artist is Bruce Springsteen. You wrote the book “Working on a dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen”. Can you let me know what your intentions were with that book?
Norman Mailer said that “every book is an obsession.” That’s been true in my case. My obsession with American race relations produced Barack Obama: Invisible Man. Working On a Dream, my first book, resulted from my obsession with Springsteen’s music, but more broadly, the relationship between art and politics. My intentions were to delineate the political wisdom of Springsteen’s music, but also explore how an artist can use his creativity and craft to bring an important perspective to bear on national political dialogue.
- Do you think Bruce Springsteen is the kind of face and voice we need on the forefront, politically, in the Trump era?
That is a daunting question, because art and politics are so vastly different, but in general, I would say, yes. During his historic runs for the presidency, Jesse Jackson talked about the need to “leave the racial battleground, find economic common ground, and reach for moral higher ground.” Springsteen’s music aspires to exactly this feat, and could thereby provide a model for organizers and activists. The music is also grandly ambitious, and has the power to inject hope in the heart of the listener. While politics is often cutthroat and dirty, and policy details of conflict and compromise can become mundane, an effective political leader must equip people with the armament of faith. Art, and specifically Springsteen’s music, can provide some instruction on what language to use, and what methods to employ in that service.
- While researching you, I came across so many of your wonderful articles for Salon and I wanted to ask a couple of questions about a few of them. In “Our loneliness epidemic is a political problem, too “You write of loneliness as a killer. With all of the social media and interactive forms of communications available , were you surprised that so many people are lonely and allowing that to polarize their views?
No, because I live in this country. The studies and surveys show that Americans are the loneliest people on the planet, but even if you are unaware of the research, if you observe the way many people live in the United States, it is obvious that people are disconnected. Mother Theresa, after visiting America for the first time, said it is the loneliest place she ever saw. We are a society of high stakes achievement, cutthroat competition, and excessive individualism. These elements do not coalesce to form solid foundation for friendship, community, or healthy politics and functional institutions.
- Do you believe that the Democratic Party is detached from the social activism that it is supposed to include?
Yes, and that is to the party’s detriment. I wrote an essay on Pam Eanes, a former firefighter who lives near me in Northern Indiana who recently ran for a state representative position. She spoke with more clarity and aggression on major social and economic issues than most national leaders. Eanes illustrates the widespread trend of local activists and candidates showing more energy and strength than the DNC. The DNC is entrenched in the old model of top-down political organization – giving a platform and expecting everyone to adopt it as it moves from national offices to local precincts – but that is no longer an effective model, and it is no longer a just one. We need more bottom-up leadership. It will not only lead to more Democratic victories, but also lead to more progress on the key issues of consequence to the American people.
The DNC also appears pitifully detached from the precarity of American life, and by extension, the issues most essential to everyday people struggling to establish lives of decency and dignity. Universal health care, paid family leave, free public universities, and a more robust social safety net must move to the center of the Democratic Party’s vision for America’s future improvement.
- In 2014, a writer from “SOFREP” penned an open letter to you, by name, vilifying your writing. How did you react to such an open and negative attack on your writing and beliefs?
Writing requires a steel skin, and a bit of arrogance and detachment. Ernest Hemingway implored other writers to ignore reviews, even the flattering ones. “If you believe the good ones,” he said, “then you have to believe the bad ones.” Hemingway also gave the following advice: “Tell the truth, and to hell with everybody.”
That sounds cold, but good writing requires that mentality. So, I don’t really react.
- Salon is one of the biggest news sources for progressive news and has been around for over 20 years, which is no small feat for an online newspaper. How does it feel to write for such a publication?
I have a wonderful relationship with Salon, and those who enjoy my writing should celebrate the unsung hero, Erin Keane. She is my editor, and she always gives encouragement when I need it, and on many occasions, has prevented me from making a fool of myself. I feel fortunate to write for Salon, but I also feel a responsibility to the readership to do the best work possible.
- Have you ever written an article and decided that it was too controversial to release?
No, but I did write an essay criticizing how Americans insist on calling every active duty military personnel and combat veteran a “hero.” I wrote that many are heroes, but sexual assault reports indicate that many are not heroes. The article was one of the most shared in Salon’s history. Most readers were enraged, because Fox News picked it up, distorted the real meaning of the essay, and told its audience that I “hate the troops,” which is flat out false. In fact, when I wrote about sexual assault in the military, I was advocating for the troops who are victims of the assault. All of the subtleties were lost, however.
When I was getting pelted by debris from all directions, I received a message from Fred Boenig. Fred is a radio host in Pennsylvania, and along with Terry Ryan, the founder and editor of an outstanding website, The Daily Ripple. All of Fred’s children have served in the military, and one of his sons died while in Afghanistan.
Much to my amazement and humility, Fred got a hold of me to offer his support. We have become good friends, and I would strongly suggest that all of your readers look into his work. Because of Twitter and social media wars, many people focus on the hatred and hostility that defines too much of our political discourse. I’ve experienced my fair share, but writing has also allowed me to form edifying connections with other people and learn their stories. It is a true gift.
- Final Question: You are in confinement for one month with a light, and a television. What book, album, and television series, are you bringing with you and why ?
This is, by far, the most difficult question you’ve asked. It might depend on the month, and what happened the month before. For a general answer, I might select the collection of the Brown Dog novellas by Jim Harrison, because reading those stories offers a variety of experiences. They are profound, but funny; moving, but entertaining. Harrison’s writing provides me with strength and pleasure, and I would need both if I was locked in confinement for one month. If not Brown Dog, I would bring the Library of America edition of the collected writings of Walt Whitman. There is no greater, and more inspiring, American poet.
For the television series, I would bring The Sopranos. It is my favorite show, and it has immense replay value. Its depth manages to impress itself upon you more with each viewing.
Narrowing everything down to one album is probably the most challenging. I’m leaning toward a live album from Gov’t Mule. For an essay I wrote on the band in No Depression, I named them the “world’s best band.” That is sufficient explanation.
Make sure to get a copy of “Barack Obama: Invisible Man “ TODAY
Contributing Editor: KEN MEJIA-BEAL
Ken Mejia-Beal is a concerned citizen, who cares deeply for his country. Ken wants to make the world a better place for all people. A capitalist with a heart who believes in free thinking and human rights. Ken wants to use his words in order to shine a light on political ventures in order to allow those without knowledge to form strong positions through fact based conversation. Ken resides in DuPage County, within Illinois. He has ambitions to motivate those around him to communicate differing ideas while remaining civil.