Four Curious Errors in Obama’s "Dreams"

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©Jack Cashill - Jun 9, 2011


n the retelling of his life in the acclaimed 1995 memoir “Dreams from My Father,” Barack Obama embellishes and fabricates at will. He is particularly cavalier with dates. He gets these wrong as often as he does right.

Obama does not, however, make an unusual number of errors in regards to general knowledge. Let me cite the four such errors I found and explain why they deserve our attention.

Obama misquotes the Carl Sandburg poem “Chicago.” Instead of writing “Hog Butcher for the World,” he writes, “hog butcher to the world.”

In discussing radical anti-colonialist Frantz Fanon, Obama misspells his first name as “Franz.”

Obama refers to the South African city of Sharpeville, the site of a notorious massacre, as “Sharpsville.”

On another occasion, Obama misspells the name of rebel slave leader Denmark Vesey as “Denmark Vescey.”

Those few critics on the left who have bothered to look at my book, “Deconstructing Obama,” instinctively scoff at my thesis, namely that domestic terrorist Bill Ayers took over the book from a floundering Obama and put his own stamp on it.

One minor clue to Ayers’s involvement is that in his book “A Kind and Just Parent” Ayers misquotes the Sandburg poem in exactly the same way as Obama does, “hog butcher to the world.”

To be sure, there is much stronger evidence than this: the comprehensive postmodern patois that Obama and Ayers share, the matching 55 nautical metaphors, the identical educational philosophies, the shared use of the Conrad-like triple parallels, the nearly fetishistic eye and eyebrow metaphors, the three stunning parallel stories, the same weary 60’s worldview, the borrowed Ayers girlfriend in “Dreams,” the inarguably similar Homeric openings, the dramatically inferior writings of Obama before and after “Dreams,” and more.

Leftist critics routinely ignore most of this and fix on the seemingly trivial, like the Chicago poem. “Not an uncommon slip-up,” Washington Post book editor Steven Levingston assured his readers when I first posted this on line in 2009.

In his review of my book in 2011 for the same Washington Post, Craig Fehrman made the same point. Among the “flimsy examples of stylistic overlap,” Fehrman cites the fact that “Obama and Ayers both misquote a line from Carl Sandburg’s famous poem ‘Chicago.’”

When I first read this, I had to wonder whether graduate student Fehrman had actually read the book or was merely trying to suck up to book editor Levingston. I say this because I had included an explanatory note about Levingston’s criticism in “Deconstructing Obama.”

“To slip up in the same way,” I wrote in the book, “Obama and Ayers must make a series of identical choices.” For starters, they both have to refer to the poem, a natural for Ayers who grew up in Chicago in an era when students memorized poems, but not for Obama, who misquotes the poem even before he moves to Chicago.

Obama could have adapted any number of noted phrases from the poem, “City of the Big Shoulders” for instance, or “Player with Railroads.”

In Livin’ the Blues, Obama mentor Frank Marshall Davis, whose favorite poet was Sandburg, paraphrases the former, referring to Chicago as that “broad-shouldered brute of a burgh.”

Instead, both use the same five words in isolation and no others. Both must get the third word wrong and no other, and both choose not to use capital letters the way Sandburg does. It was most likely that Ayers misquoted Sandburg from memory.

In a similar vein, both authors misspell Frantz Fanon’s first name as “Franz” and incorrectly refer to the South African city of Sharpeville in the possessive as Sharpsville (Obama) and Sharpesville (Ayers).

It is not that these mistakes are uncommon, but rather that both Ayers and Obama have to make multiple choices to make the same mistake. Before writing this book, I had not heard of Sharpeville.

Perhaps more telling, almost every time Obama makes a mistake, Ayers makes the same mistake. Yet, even when Ayers later corrects the error, he leaves clues as to his handiwork.

“They did fight. Nat Turner, Denmark Vescey,” an irate Obama says of America’s slaves in “Dreams.” In “Fugitive Days,” published six years later and three years into the Google era, Ayers gets the spelling right.

Here, Ayers cites “Nat Turner's uprising, Denmark Vesey's revolt” as positive examples of democratic action. What intrigues in this case is the use of the same two names in the same order, the latter name obscure save in radical circles.

In any number of cases like this one, Obama seems to mimic Ayers’s insider radical jargon. When the young Obama pontificates about “angry young men in Soweto or Detroit or the Mekong Delta,” the voice of someone edgier and more aware works its way into print.

In fact, Ayers and his radical friends were obsessed with Vietnam. The war there defined them and still does. To reflect their superior insight into that country, they have shown a tendency to use "Mekong Delta" as synecdoche, the part that indicates the whole.

In Fugitive Days, for instance, when conjuring up an image of Vietnam, Ayers envisions "a patrol in the Mekong Delta."

In a 1998 interview Ayers’s weatherwoman wife, Bernardine Dohrn, lectured about "a hamlet called My Lai,” but to show her radical savvy, she located it "in the middle of the Mekong Delta," which is in reality several hundred miles from My Lai.

Similarly, Ayers would have had a much deeper connection than Obama to "Detroit," whose historic riot took place shortly before Obama's sixth birthday.

Ayers was posted to Detroit the year after the riot and experienced its meltdown first hand. In 2007, on his blog, he chose to "commemorate" the 40th anniversary of what he predictably calls the "Detroit Rebellion."

Both Ayers and Obama have scenes in which clueless “State Department” officials—plural--link Indonesia with the march of communism through the archaic, colonial-sounding "Indochina.”

Both talk of the West’s “imperial culture” and see themselves “behind enemy lines” in corporate America. Isolate any one of these matches, and it means nothing.

Add them up, and the case is closed.

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Editor's note: For a more complete account of this phenomenon, read Jack Cashill's amazing book, "Hoodwinked: How Intellectual Hucksters Have Hijacked American Culture.


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