Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Book Review: No He Can't

No He Can't: How Barack Obama Is Dismantling Hope and ChangeNo He Can't: How Barack Obama Is Dismantling Hope and Change by Kevin McCullough

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


[Sigh]

Yes, I've read this. Don't judge me! It was free, on the condition that I review. Which I shall do, now.

Honestly, I don't even know where to begin with this. I'm tempted to go the sarcasm route ("Having read this book, I no longer believe Obama has sold his soul to the devil, I now believe that Old Scratch has sold his soul to Obama..."), but frankly, I don't think that's wise or fair. So instead, I'll treat this the way I'd treat it if I were going to use it in a class. Which I am not. Ever.

Even harder is restraining myself where I disagree with McCullough on certain things. I don’t think it’s fair to criticize him for not thinking the same things are important that I think are important, so I’ll leave off things I think he should have talked about. Nor have I allowed myself to criticize his format. I realize that his native tongue is that of a columnist, and as someone who worked as one of those for a few years, I recognize that his tools of the trade are different and that he can’t be held to the same citation format that, say, I hold my freshmen students too. (If you’ve never worked in print media: citation rules are looser and generally run on the honor code, with the understanding that if you’re challenged, you can show your source. This is generally intended to save space and allow more material…) So no criticism there either …

Hardest of all is the fact that on some level, McCullough and I likely end up on the same side of things. I am certainly no fan of Obama as a president, and I tend to think that he is the ultimate proof that no academic should be given political power, ever. The man is clearly lost in a job that is far too difficult for someone with no actual leadership experience. We’re fortunate that, despite the economy, the world situation isn’t as terrible as it has been from time-to-time in the past. We’re not fighting a Civil War, or engaged with a mighty world power like Germany in the 40s or Spain in the 1890s. Nor do we have labor strikes or massive civil unrest. All things considered, if we’re going to have someone in office who has no clue what he’s doing, this is about as good a time as we could hope for. Okay, soapbox now put away…

The point of all of this is to say that I have some serious issues with the right wing as well, which makes it difficult to talk about this (and similar) books without sounding like I’m defending the current administration.

Okay, enough caveats, on to the review!

First, just the details:

Outline

McCullough breaks his book into four sections:

Part One: Economics (Financial Policy)
Part Two: "National Insecurity" (i.e. Foreign Policy and Military Policy)
Part Three: Erosion of Rights (Domestic Policy)
Part Four: Accountability to Caesar (Religious Policy)

Each section has five or six chapters, each of which is further broken into two parts, a longish analysis of Obama and the general state of the nation, and a shorter declaration of McCullough's position on the issue (if you're still in any doubt at that point), usually titled "Time for a Bit of Clarity."

This structure is a bit deceptive, really the book has only two major sections (though they do from time to time get a bit muddled): economics and religion.

Theme

McCullough's stated them is: "clarity trumps unity... always. For demanding unity or unification... without demanding an evaluation of the moral foundation on which such unity rests is an assured path to destruction." (pg 192)

That is the stated theme. What, ironically, is much less clear, is exactly what McCullough is trying to say. Back to this in a bit as well.

And, I think that’s enough. It’s not like this is a great work of philosophy, where even the structure teaches us something. Really, it’s more of a lengthy diary entry, loosely organized around a right-wing pundit’s analysis of the left-wing Obama administration.

On to the review proper!

Strengths

1. The book is well written and readable. Which of course is to be expected from a professional writer. Even more than that, though, it’s written as if it were a compilation of columns (which it might very well be), so chapters and sections tend to be short and fairly fast paced.

2. Whatever else he’s been doing the past few years, McCullough has certainly been following the career of Barak Obama with a great deal of interest. The amount of detail in this book can at times be overwhelming.

3. McCullough, for all his clear disagreement with the Obama administration, really doesn’t take any cheap shots. He sticks to issues and concerns which are generally agreed on (so none of the “birth certificate” nonsense), and highlights well some of the differences between mainstream right and left in the nation today.

4. There’s a whole chapter dedicated to praising the aspects of Obama where McCullough thinks he’s doing a good job (okay, maybe it’s more of a “section” than a chapter, but it’s still there). So kudos to McCullough for at least admitting that there’s some common ground.

5. McCullough recognizes that a (he calls it “the”) fundamental difference between left and right in America is theology. Which is a great starting place, but then he goes on to suggest that the difference is that a) the right believes that God is the moral authority in our lives, who “guides… actions, calls… to repentance, and seeks to mold them into better people;” often through the institutions of parenthood and marriage; while b) the left believes that God is unconcerned, “uninvolved or uninterested and certainly unauthoritative in today’s world,” and consequently the left is “confused by moral order.” (154-155) And here, despite identifying that theology is an important place to start a thoughtful analysis or discussion, McCullough goes immediately off track, arguing that the left is without moral compass, and in desperate need of parents (especially a father-figure) and Jesus to get back on track. (No, that’s not an exaggeration, McCullough repeatedly says that Obama needs God and a dad: “It should not be surprising that his own radar of right versus wrong is confused, misaligned, and sometimes malfunctioning. It’s how he was raised—pg 155). So technically, I’m counting this as both strength number 5 and weakness number 1, since it takes a great deal of intentional blindness to think that people on the left do not believe in morality or God. Different convictions is not the same thing as no convictions.

Weaknesses

1. See above.

2. This book is scattered. McCullough is certainly aware of a large number of issues and news stories from across the country and around the world, but he doesn’t always necessarily weave them tightly enough together in a single narrative. It’s a little unclear, for example, exactly why the “fact’ that Obama is worse than Tiger Woods is really relevant to the book, or why so many pages are spent discussing Tiger Woods at all. Moreover, McCullough regularly will tell some kind of right-wing horror story, and then try to loosely connect it to Obama by arguing that the story reflects where the nation is going under Obama.

3. Frankly, McCullough claims to be a Christian (and I certainly am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on that one, “judge not” and all that…), but he has far too low a view of sin. This comes through in two especially clear ways.

a) His economic policy suggestions are about as libertarian as you can get. I’d cite something, but frankly, pretty much every suggestion he makes fits the description. I’ve never really understood how someone could believe the doctrine of original sin and believe at the same time that the best thing to do is to strip off all restraints, even if only in the economic realm, that sounds like the groundwork for a brutal nightmare of Hobbesean proportions.

b) His view of America is, well, na├»ve at best. He says “This would in time turn into one of the most grating realities for me to deal with personally. I don’t like wondering if the man who runs my nation doubts her goodness, regardless of what he has to say about her greatness.” (114) Then, later in the same chapter
America is, in large part, I believe, materially blessed because she has been spiritually blessed. God has prospered her for the good things she has done, and He has done so far longer than perhaps anyone thought He would have. No superpower has ever dared to use its might for greater good than America. No nation has brought more economic, spiritual, and legal freedoms to people on earth than America. No one has liberated people from more oppression than America. An no nation stands ready to help when others are in need the way America does… America defines its legal liberties as being from God Himself. I believe that this simple recognition of God’s authority has ultimately been an umbrella of blessing to those of us fortunate enough to call ourselves America. May this ever be! (116-117)
This seems to be at odds with McCullough’s explicit declaration of belief in pervasive human sin (169-170). Either people are sinners, and therefore a nation governed by the people is a sinful one, or the nation is a good nation and its citizens are virtuous. You can be an Augustinian and put the nation in the sinful city of man, or you can be a modern idealist and put the state up on a pedestal, but you cannot do both.

(Of course America has done good things, and I certainly am grateful to be an American; I do think it’s the best shot at a nation that’s been made in history so far, but that’s not the same thing as saying that we’re God’s chosen people.)

4. At the end of the day, it’s unclear as to what exactly McCullough’s presentation of Obama is supposed to be. At times, Obama is a leftist ideologue, disconnected from the world and trying to impose (in a bumbling, inept way, given his lack of experience) the ideas in his head upon reality. Other times, Obama is ruthlessly pragmatic, steamrolling everyone and everything in the way on his endless quest for power. Of course, these are exactly the same criticisms that the Left had of Bush during his terms in office, so it’s only fair to hold the Right to the same standard: is he a Machiavellian manipulator of mankind? Or is he a disconnected dreamer? You don’t get to have it both ways.

So, with all these criticism, why does the book still get three stars? Because I have a rock solid rule: if a book is easy to read and somewhat enjoyable, it gets a minimum of three stars. And while I do not necessarily agree with everything McCullough says, his book was easy to read and not unpleasant to get through. Therefore, if I were to set that up as my standard and then not live up to it, why, I’d be no better than Obama.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.




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