Oxford Don Trips Badly On “Dreams” Analysis

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November 3, 2008

Oxford obviously ain’t what it used to be.

Oxford philosophy don Peter Millican has posted a report on Bill Ayers’ likely involvement in the writing of Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father so shabby and slapdash that it had me checking Britain’s famous libel laws before I was halfway through.

Millican seems to be a man on a mission. He tells readers that they “will be pleased to discover that the probable next leader of the free world did not get his impressive first book written by Bill Ayers.”

His gratuitous leaks to the London Times about his work have netted him glowing headlines as a bloke bold enough to blow the whistle on Republican chicanery.

“How they tried to tarnish Barack Obama,” reads one laughable headline. “Peter Millican reveals how he was drawn into a plot to link the Democrat to a former radical.”

In fact, Millican was recruited to the task by one well meaning American citizen, Bob Fox, an associate of Utah congressman Chris Cannon. Cannon had little involvement with the “plot,” and the Republican Party and its affiliates had none.

Although I have not met Fox, he contacted me two weeks before the election and nearly three months after I had begun my inquiry into the authorship of Dreams.

Fox wanted to get public attention for my research, and I was relieved that someone finally stepped up to help. No one was paying me for what I was doing, and I had few contacts or resources of my own.

Although I was wary of Millican’s field, “stylometrics”--think polygraph, not DNA--media people of Fox’s acquaintance insisted on confirmation from this borderline science, however imprecise.

Four sets of independent American researchers stepped up, two prompted, two spontaneous. All confirmed Ayers’ hand in Obama’s Dreams, but none of them had name or credentials enough to grab media attention, nor did they have the time to do the kind of study that might have inarguable merit.

Fox insisted on pursuing Millican. He liked the Oxford cachet and felt that there would be a better chance of getting an objective result from someone outside the American university system. He miscalculated.

The fact that Fox could not come up with the promised $10,000 to pay for the report may have prompted Millican to pay Fox back in his own unique way.

After an admittedly cursory analysis, Millican said of my hypothesis, “I feel totally confident that it is false.” The evidence that he advances to support his assertion, however, would not pass muster in freshman comp.

Millican begins by trivializing the undeniable evidence that three nearly identical stories appear in Obama’s Dreams that also appear in Ayers’ works. (Please see cashill.com for more details).

“Even if parallel passages were to be found between Obama's [1995] book and Ayers's Fugitive Days of 2001, the charge of plagiarism could only be directed at Ayers . . . “ writes Millican.

Let me repeat: I have found not just parallel passages but detailed and distinctive parallel stories, at least three of them, all of them embarrassingly obvious.

Millican tries to explain them away by suggesting Ayers possibly plagiarized Dreams, given that Fugitive Days was written six years later.

If Millican had bothered to read what I had written, however, he would have known that two of the parallel stories appear in Ayers’ 1993 book, To Teach.

The third parallel story is cited in Ayers’ 1997 book, A Kind And Just Parent, but has its origins in a 1992 book by black author Reginald McKnight. Ayers obviously knew enough about this story by 1995 to adapt it to Obama’s life.

Millican then proceeds to show the very real limits of the two least developed of the four American stylometric studies, but this was not news to anyone. I had long been skeptical of the best of these studies.

A few weeks earlier, I had consulted with Patrick Juola of Duquesne, one of America’s leading authorities on literary forensics, and he cautioned that “the accuracy simply isn't there.”

As he explained, the best-performing methods were only between 50 and 90 percent reliable. And for high stakes issues like this one, he added, “The repercussions of a technical error could be a disaster (in either direction).” Millican, alas, has proved him right.

Juola added, “A better approach is simply to do what you're already doing . . . good old-fashioned literary detective work.” About my detective work Millican is perversely evasive.

Millican fails to explain how landlubber Obama managed to mimic at least twenty nautical metaphors—some very sophisticated—used by the former merchant seaman Ayers.

Consider the following passage from “Obama’s” New York period:

“Like a tourist, I watched the range of human possibility on display, trying to trace out my future in the lives of the people I saw, looking for some opening through which I could re-enter.”

These are the thoughts of a fugitive, not a Columbia undergrad.

Millican fails to say how or why Obama absorbed Ayers’ postmodern patois and his weary sixties weltanschauung, almost to the very word.

Indeed, there are some parts of Dreams in which the author seems to be writing Ayers’ autobiography. Consider the following passage from “Obama’s” New York period:

“Like a tourist, I watched the range of human possibility on display, trying to trace out my future in the lives of the people I saw, looking for some opening through which I could re-enter.”

These are the thoughts of a fugitive, not a Columbia undergrad.

Bizarrely, Millican analyzes only one word that I talk about—“memory.” Here is what I write on the subject:

“’Memory sails out upon a murky sea,’ Ayers writes at one point. Indeed, both he and Obama are obsessed with memory and its instability. The latter writes of its breaks, its blurs, its edges, its lapses.”

Millican takes me to task on two points, both dubious. One is that Ayers uses word “memory” four times as often as Obama does and the second that he uses it more abstractly.

But what Millican does not acknowledge is my repeated assertion that Ayers seems to have written only parts of Dreams.

Ayers apparently edited others, and all but ignored long sections. One would expect a higher raw count of any repetitive Ayers’ word in Fugitive Days.

When I compared Obama’s use of “memory” to my own in my semi-memoir on race, Sucker Punch, I found that Obama uses it five times as often as I do, and, unlike Obama, I never use it in reference to myself.

If not as frequently as Ayers, Obama does write about memory in the abstract. Consider the following passage from Dreams:

“I heard all our voices begin to run together, the sound of three generations tumbling over each other like the currents of a slow-moving stream, my questions like rocks roiling the water, the breaks in memory separating the currents, but always the voices returning to that single course, a single story....” Now consider the following passage from Fugitive Days:

“The debates swam above and around and through us . . . . The confrontation in the [Student Union] flowed like a swollen river in to the teach-in, carrying me along the cascading waters from room to room, hall to hall, bouncing off boulders.”

I would bet my house against Millican’s mailbox that the gifted writer Ayers wrote both these passages. Note their rhythm, cadence, and layered structure as well as Ayers’ obvious affection for the flow of water and language. I could identify twenty parallel passages just as compelling.

The fact is that Obama is not a writer. In his hasty analysis, Millican chooses to overlook the most powerful fact of all, namely that prior to Dreams, Obama had written only two pedestrian articles, one unnamed, and some seriously unpromising poetry.

There is no precedent for an overnight transformation from hack to literary genius. What is more, Obama’s literary skills seem to have vanished after the 1995 debut of his book, the same year by the way that Ayers launched Obama’s career with a fundraiser at his home.

To read what Obama has written since or to listen to his spontaneous speech is to sense an ongoing charade. What is scandalous is that academics like Millican and his enablers in the media have averted their gaze lest they see through it.

Who is Jack Cashill?


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


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