Jack Cashill’s annoyed that Media Matters for America (MMFA) “intimidate[d] editors into not assigning Deconstructing Obama for review.” His evidence?
To date, even though my thesis is widely accepted on the right, not a single conservative publication has reviewed it, not even to challenge the thesis. Other than a quick MMFA-style hit in the Washington Post, no mainstream publication has reviewed the book either.
Now, I’m no mainstream publication, but I am a serious literary scholar—I have credentials and everything—and I did spend a fair amount of time giving his evidence a fair hearing. Suffice it to say that I’m a little hurt that Cashill’s never deigned to respond, especially now that he’s complaining that no one’s ever taken his work seriously. So here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to republish my strongest arguments against Cashill below the fold and invite him to read and respond to them. Only I’m not going to invite him—you are.
Please send a civil email in which you link to this post to jcashill (at) aol (dot) com.
Ask others to do so too. Feel free to link to this post. Who knows? Maybe if enough people ask politely, he’ll decide it’s worth his time to respond.
Moreover, because previous attempt to draw a response from him didn’t work, there’s no reason not to try a more direct approach . So, below the fold you’ll find my evidence. I hope that sooner or later we’ll find a response from Cashill himself in the comments.
Part 1: Who really wrote “Obama”‘s Dreams from My Father?
According to Jack Cashill—in an article first published at WorldNetDaily—Dreams from My Father was probably written by Bill Ayers. Cashill opens by demonstrating that Obama, unlike every undergraduate ever, published crap poems in a college literary journal. These crap poems “show not a glint of promise,” Cashill tells us, nor did a “heavily edited, unsigned student case comment” published in the Harvard Law Review. He then quotes an attorney consulted byPolitico, who called it “a fairly standard example of the genre.” Cashill has a point here:
The “temperate legal language” of “a fairly standard example” of “a heavily edited, unsigned student case comment” is completely different from the style Obama would employ a few years later in his autobiography. Cashill is right to be suspicious. Who wouldn’t write their autobiography in the temperate language of an anonymous legal brief? What style is better suited to the tale of being abandoned by a father and raised to be a black man by a white woman in the wake of the Civil Right Movements?
But Cashill isn’t content to let the matter rest on logic. He consults an expert—in this case,Patrick Juola of the Authorship Attribution Program—and is advised to continue doing “good old-fashioned literary detective work” of the sort that’s proven the plays of William Shakespeare were written by Roger Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, William Stanley, Walter Raleigh, Edmund Spenser, or Edward de Vere. Cashill is no ordinary literary detective: in the past he has been called upon to rescue celebrity biographies, so he recognizes when someone, in this case “[w]hoever rescued Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father[,] invest[s] considerable time to invent a distinct voice and style for an unknown author.” And who is this someone?
How does Cashill know? Because the “distinct voice and style” Ayers invents for Obama “is surely Ayers’ [own].” Ayers invented a style—his own—then wrote Dreams from My Father in it. To the untrained eye, that may sound ridiculous; but as a Doctor of Philosophy of Literature, I assure you his “deconstruction” of Obama’s autobiography is sound and valid.
His technical argument begins by pointing out that both Obama’s Dreams from My Father and Ayers’ Fugitive Days “are obsessed with memory and its instability.” Both address this heretofore unheard topic in the history of autobiography in a very similar style. Compare this passage from Obama:
Identity is funny being yourself is funny as you are never yourself to yourself except as you remember yourself and then of course you do not believe yourself you do not really believe yourself why should you, you know so well so very well that it is not yourself.
To this one from Ayers:
Now it could not be yourself because you cannot remember right and if you do remember right it does not sound right and of course it does not sound right because it is not right. You are of course never yourself.
The obsession with the instability of memory should be evident even to those who have never ghost-written celebrity autobiographies. But Cashill’s deconstruction is far from complete. He amasses a boatload of irrefutable evidence:
- Both Obama and Ayers “use ’storms’ and ‘horizons’ as metaphor and as reality.”
- “Ayers and Obama also speak often of waves and wind, Obama at least a dozen times on wind alone.”
- The polyamorous Ayers has “tangled love affairs” while the undergraduate Obama has “tangled arguments.”
- “On at least 12 occasions, Obama speaks of ‘despair,’” an emotion Ayers has been known to feel.
- “Obama . . . has a fondness for the word ‘murky’ and its aquatic usages.”
- Both . . . make conspicuous use of the word ‘flutter.’”
- The “Fugitive Days” excerpt scores a 54 on reading ease and a 12th grade reading level. The “Dreams’” excerpt scores a 54.8 on reading ease and a 12th grade reading level.
If Cashill’s math fails to convince you—54 is quite close to 54.8, but numbers might not be to your taste—consider that in his analysis, he “introduce[s his] own book, Sucker Punch . . . [a]s a control.” How much more scientific does his deconstruction need to be?
At The Corner, Andy McCarthy evaluates Cashill’s argument and proves himself to be an idiot by finding Cashill’s “lengthy analysis . . . thorough, thoughtful, and alarming—particularly his deconstruction of the text in Obama’s memoir and comparison to the themes, sophistication and signature phraseology of Bill Ayers’ memoir.” To be blunt: if you find Cashill’s identification of “sea imagery” and his lists of words both Obama and Ayers use to be particularly anything other than laughable pablum, you’re an eighth-wit.
If, however, you only use Cashill’s musings as a hypothetical which, if true, suggests all the unsavory things you already believe about Obama, then you’ve fully embraced the Cashill Doctrine. What do I mean by that? If you deconstruct Cashill’s name, you’ll find that it contains the words “cash” and shill.” “Cash” refers to paper bank notes which, in more robust times, could be exchanged for goods or services. A “shill,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “one who poses as a disinterested advocate of another but is actually of the latter’s party; a mouthpiece, a stooge.” It goes without saying that shills often shill for cash, but in this case, I think we can say the shill’s shilling for cash and attention.
Part Two: “Polygraph-level scholarship may suffice for harmless speculation about the authorship of Midsummer’s Night Dream, but not for Dreams From My Father. Too much is at stake.”
As all actual, practicing literary critics know, few sentences in critical works scream tendentiousness louder than:
What should be transparent to any literary critic is that . . .
Literary matters are only “transparent” when they’re not properly literary. If something is transparent, you don’t need a literary critic to ponder the depths it doesn’t have—any old idiot will suffice. And that’s exactly why Jack Cashill, author of the above and an idiot of long-standing, is just the man to prove that Bill Ayers wrote Obama’s autobiography, Dreams From My Father. For Cashill and his mysterious contributors (“[t]he media punishment that Joe the Plumber received” requires they remain anonymous), the case against Obama is a compelling one:
What Mr. Midwest noticed recently is that both Ayers in [A Kind and Just Parent] and Obama in [Dreams From My Father] make reference to the poet Carl Sandburg. In itself, this is not a grand revelation. Let us call it a C-level match. Obama and Ayers seem to have shared the same library in any case . . . Ayers and Obama, however, go beyond citing Sandburg. Each quotes the opening line of his poem “Chicago” . . . This I would call a B-level match. What raises it up a notch to an A-level match is the fact that both misquote “Chicago,” and they do so in exactly the same way.
So both Ayers and Obama misquote the opening line of Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago,” substituting “hog butcher to the world” for “hog butcher for the world.” This mutual error would be significant (an “A-level match”) if Ayers and Obama were the only two people who ever made it, but according to Google Book Search—a secret search engine to which only I have access—the same mistake has been made by Nelson Algren, Alan Lomax, Andrei Codrescu, H.L. Mencken,Paul Krugman, Perry Miller, Donald Hall, Ed McBain, Saul Bellow, S.J. Perelman, Nathanaël West, Ezra Pound, Wright Morris, Allen Ginsberg, Langston Hughes, and the 1967 Illinois Commission on Automation and Technological Progress. (To name but a few.) According to Cashill, I have now proven that Dreams From My Father was written by many a dead man of American letters, a living mystery writer, a New York Times columnist and the 1967 Illinois Commission on Automation and Technological Progress. That bears repeating:
I have an “A-level match” that proves that Obama’s autobiography was written by a “study of the economic and social effects of automation and other technological changes on industry, commerce, agriculture, education, manpower, and society in Illinois” when Obama was only six years old. If that somehow fails to convey to the dubious merits of Cashill’s argument, perhaps this will:
Returning to the exotic, in his Indonesian backyard Obama discovered two “birds of paradise” running wild as well as chickens, ducks, and a “yellow dog with a baleful howl.” In [Ayers’] Fugitive Days, there is even more “howling” than there is in Dreams. . . In [A Kind and Just Parent], he talks specifically about a “yellow dog.” And he uses the word “baleful” to describe an “eye” in Fugitive Days. For the record, “baleful” means “threatening harm.” I had to look it up.
You did read that right. Cashill did cite as “A-level” evidence the fact that Ayers and Obama used a word he didn’t know, despite his being the Executive Editor of Kansas City’s premier business publication, Ingram’s Magazine; despite his having written for Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Weekly Standard; despite his having authored five books of non-fiction; and despite the word “baleful” having appeared in print 342 times in the past six months alone. Granted, all those appearances were in high-minded literary publications like Newsday (“[w]ith his baleful countenance, wild hair, sonorous baritone and sage pronouncements”) or leftist rags like The Washington Times (“warn them in baleful tones if they’ve forgotten, say, the Constitution”), so it would be unreasonable to expect Cashill to have been familiar with the word . . . or would be, were it not for the fact that it also appears 19 times in the pages of the American Thinker, the publication for which Cashill penned this tripe. (Seems he can begin his careful literary analysis of the other 848,000 potential ghost writers closer to home.)
Fortunately for Cashill, his argument is not entirely based on demonstrations of ignorance and popular misquotations (which, when you think about it, is more along the lines of literarydetection than literary criticism anyway), as when he claims that Ayers and Obama are unique among memoirists in their fascination with eyes: “Ayers is fixated with faces, especially eyes [and] Obama is also fixated with faces, especially eyes.” Having performed an extensive study of autobiographical writing, Cashill knows how unique this fixation with eyes is. Consider this passage from Dreams From My Father:
Peter said Peter said eyes are always and eyes are always. Peter said Peter said, eyes are always and Peter said eyes are always. Peter said eyes are always. Peter said eyes are always.
Sorry—that was Gertrude Stein. Here’s the passage from Dreams From My Father:
Whenever I looked in her direction she had her eyes on me. The face she had! The eyes! She lay streched out on the floorboards with her hands under her head and her eyes closed. Sun blazing down, bit of a breeze, water nice and lively. I noticed a scratch on her thigh and asked her how she came by it. Picking gooseberries, she said. I said again I thought it was hopeless and no good going on, and she agreed, without opening her eyes. I asked her to look at me and after a few moments—after a few moments she did, but the eyes just slits, because of the glare. I bent over her to get them in the shadow and they opened. Let me in. We drifted in among the flags and stuck. The way they went down, sighing, before the stem! The eyes she had!
Sorry—that was Samuel Beckett. If I didn’t know better, I’d be inclinced to argue that works that are overtly concerned with the act of remembering and the limitations of memory tend to obsess over the eye and its punned hononym (“I”). Actually, I do know better, so I will: be they modernist experimentations about subjectivity or humble autobiographies, works that concern themselves with the act of remembering and the limitations of memory tend to obsess over the eye and its punned homonym (“I”).
Perhaps it’s unfair of a professional literary critic to expect Cashill to have intimate knowledge of literary modernism. I should cut him some slack and let him perform the kind of close stylistic analysis that I teach my students. Maybe he can handle something simple, like diction:
To this point, I have just skimmed the 759 items in the bill of particulars in my case against Obama’s literary genius. Not familiar with the term “bill of particulars?” Uncertain myself, I looked that one up too. It means a list of written statements made by a party to a court proceeding. Ayers and Obama each refer knowingly to a “bill of particulars.” Doesn’t everyone?
The answer, of course, is no.
Cashill is on to something here. The phrase “bill of particulars” is an uncommon construction, and its repeated use indicates that the speaker has a specialized vocabulary in which this construction regularly appears. According to LexisNexis, this is exactly the case: in the past six months, that exact phrase has been written 509 times and every single one of them looks like this:
United States v. Clark, NO. 05-6507, UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT, 09a0422n.06;, 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 12940; 2009 FED App. 0422N (6th Cir.), June 15, 2009, Filed, NOT RECOMMENDED FOR FULL-TEXT PUBLICATION. SIXTH CIRCUIT RULE 28(g) LIMITS CITATION TO SPECIFIC SITUATIONS. PLEASE SEE RULE 28(g) BEFORE CITING IN A PROCEEDING IN A COURT IN THE SIXTH CIRCUIT. IF CITED, A COPY MUST BE SERVED ON OTHER PARTIES AND THE COURT. THIS NOTICE IS TO BE PROMINENTLY DISPLAYED IF THIS DECISION IS REPRODUCED.
The only people who regularly use the phrase “bill of particulars,” then, are lawyers, and since Bill Ayers isn’t a lawyer, I think we can all agree that Cashill is right: Obama is the author of Bill Ayers’ Fugitive D—wait a minute!
Part Three: “Yet again, Jack Cashill proves why the country needs more actual literary critics.”
Now Cashill’s accusing Michiko Kakutani of plagiarizing his 2008 blockbuster, “The Improvised Odyssey of Barack Obama,” and begins his defense of this claim as one does: by demonstrating that William Ayers is familiar with Homer’s Odyssey.
Ayers knows his Homer. In his 2001 memoir, Fugitive Days, for instance, he specifically identified the Odyssey’s “Cyclops” as a metaphor for the “doomed and helpless” United States. “Picture an oversized, somewhat dim-witted monster, greedy and capricious,” Ayers wrote in his uniquely patriotic way, “its eyes put out by fiery stakes and now flailing in a blind rage, smashing its way through villages and over mountains.”
If, as Cashill hopes to establish, “Ayers knows his Homer,” it would behoove him not to quote Ayers saying that Odysseus put out the eyes of the famously one-eyed monster Polyphemus. That Ayers speaks of a stereoscopic cyclops speaks ill of him; that Cashill attempts to establish both his own and Ayers’s classicist credibility via a quotation about a two-eyed cyclops only proves that neither should be trusted with Homeric parallels. (Leave that to the experts.) Then, as if he anticipated the complaint of the previous sentences, he politely offers evidence of their validity:
In Dreams, Obama confronts his own menacing one-eyed bald man, a Savak-loving Iranian.
Obama once spoke with a one-eyed man, Cashill argues, therefore this reference to a one-eyed cyclops in Dreams From My Father corresponds with Ayers’s reference to a two-eyed one inFugitive Days. Granted, my summary of his point may be uncharitably literal, even though Obama’s one-eyed man had, to all appearances, two eyes (“an older balding man with a glass eye,” the “drift of [which] gave the Iranian a menacing look”); and even though the point of Obama telling this story is that, despite one of the man’s two eyes giving him “a menacing look,” he “was a friendly and curious” person; and even though, unlike the Odyssey, in which the curse of the one-eyed cyclops Polyphemus results in his father, Poseidon, to unleash contrary winds and furious storms, thereby extending the travels and travails of Odysseus, all that resulted from this conversation was that someone else quoted Malcolm X; even though all those parallels break down, maybe I am being uncharitably literal. Once the sentence I quoted above is inserted back into its context, the parallels between Homer’s epic and Obama’s memoir become clear:
In Dreams, Obama confronts his own menacing one-eyed bald man, a Savak-loving Iranian. Before he completes his heroic cycle, he also confronts many of the other distractions: green-eyed seductresses, blind seers, lotus-eaters, the “ghosts” of the underworld, whirlpools, and about a half dozen sundry “demons.”
Obama, as scripted by Ayers, lived the most Odysseus-esque life of anyone ever. I never even knew he went to the underworld! But our President is even more Homeric than that because, in Cashill’s estimation, Obama
assumes the role of both Telemachus and Odysseus, the son seeking the father, and the father seeking home.
This novel statement—no variation of which has appeared in the 2,800 year history of criticism on one of the foundational texts of the Western tradition—was later brazenly stolen by the chief literary critic of the New York Times:
“Dreams From My Father,” written before [Obama] entered politics, was both a searching bildungsroman and an autobiographical quest to understand his roots—a quest in which he cast himself as both a Telemachus in search of his father and an Odysseus in search of a home.
Kakutani should have known better than to borrow such a unique insight into the structure of the Odyssey. Did she really think no one would notice her thievery if she included it as an afterthought to a sentence with which it bears an organic connection? If Cashill’s larger argument is correct—if, that is, “Ayers leaves scarcely an Homeric trope unturned in his mining of the Odyssey to describe Obama’s ‘personal interior journey'”—then any literate person who reads both the Odyssey and Dreams From My Father would pick up and comment upon the Homeric parallels, meaning his sentiment is too mundane to be plagiarized.
Of course, Cashill’s larger argument is not correct. Just because Ayers and Obama both use words that relate to the sea (“fog, mist, ships, seas, boats, oceans, calms, captains, charts, first mates, storms, streams, wind, waves, anchors, barges, horizons, ports, panoramas, moorings, tides, currents, and things howling, fluttering, knotted, ragged, tangled, and murky”) doesn’t mean that Ayers ghostwrote for Obama or that either are directly indebted to Homer. Cashill predicates his complaint against Kakutani on her having stolen the substance of his argument while denying its conclusion. She did nothing of the sort. She tossed off a nifty parallel that fit organically within a larger framework; Cashill erected a larger framework in order to draw tendentious parallels between Circe and Diana Oughton on the grounds that she dated Obama for a year and lived in a nice neighborhood.
Part Four: “Turns out I owe Jack Cashill an apology.”
Because I was wrong, wrong, wrong about the identity of the author of Dreams From My Father. Independent confirmation of Cashill’s claim that William Ayers penned the President’s memoir comes in the form of a book by celebrity biographer Christopher Andersen. Cashill is right to be excited—it’s not every day you blunder to the plate, close your eyes, swing for the fences and have your prayers answered. That’s what the arrival of corroborating evidence in Andersen’s book amounts to, and no researcher who’s found corroboration of the sort in independently researched materials will begrudge Cashill the tone of unreserved glee and grammatical abandon evident in his latest post:
In his new book, “Barack and Michelle: Portrait of an American Marriage,” Best-selling celebrity journalist, Christopher Andersen, has blown a huge hole in the Obama genius myth without intending to do so.
Who cares that book titles are traditionally underlined or italicized, capital letters belong at the beginning of sentences, or that he uses, commas, like an undergraduate when independent research has provided a factual basis for his speculative argument:
Relying on inside sources, quite possibly Michelle Obama herself, Andersen describes how Dreams came to be published—just as I had envisioned it in my articles on the authorship of Dreams. With the deadline pressing, Michelle recommended that Barack seek advice from “his friend and Hyde Park neighbor Bill Ayers.”
Only a killjoy would complain that Michelle Obama couldn’t be a source, “quite possibly” or otherwise, because Andersen wrote an unauthorized biography—which, by definition, is a biography whose subject or subjects did not participate in its composition. That those “inside sources” who knew of Michelle’s purported recommendation are not named, i.e. sourced, is the sort of thing that, despite being true, only someone who hated joy would point out.
Andersen continues, “In the end, Ayers’s contribution to Barack’s Dreams From My Father would be significant—so much so that the book’s language, oddly specific references, literary devices, and themes would bear a jarring similarity to Ayers’s own writing.”
Even though Cashill jettisons the very pretense of formatting book titles here, and even though Andersen’s claim is couched in a conditional clause (“would be significant”) of the sort favored by authors who learned their libel law from the wrong end of many lawsuits, we should not let such quibbles diminish the importance of this independent, corroborating evidence—especially when, even though Cashill doesn’t identify him in his post, these claims come from a named source:
In the end, Ayers’s contribution of Barack’s Dreams from My Father would be significant—so much so that the book’s language, oddly specific references, literary devices, and themes would bear a jarring similiarity to Ayers’s own writings . . .
“There was a good deal of literary back-scratching going on in Hyde Park,” said writerJack Cashill, who noted that a mutual friend of Barack and Ayers, Rashid Khalidi, thanked Ayers for helping him with his book Resurrecting Empire. Ayers, explained Cashill, “provided an informal editing service for like-minded friends in the neighborhood.”
Your eyes do not deceive you. Against odds of astronomical grandeur, Cashill’s independent, corroborating evidence for his theory that William Ayers wrote the President’s memoir is also named Jack Cashill. But, as Cashill—the one who first made the claim, not the independent researcher who verified it—might say, sometimes the world can be as small as the city of the Chicago.