Roots’ Fraud Set Standard For Obama’s

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© Jack Cashill

 October 9, 2008

Writing has something in common with golf: to succeed at either requires a God-given talent and a great deal of hard work.

And yet America is asked to believe that Barack Obama, having written only some self-described “bad poetry” and one unsigned case note, turned around and wrote what Time Magazine has called “the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician.”

It would have been just as likely that, having played a few rounds of golf in the high 90s, Obama turned around and qualified for the PGA Tour.

The question has to be asked then: why is it that no reviewer of note has so much as questioned Obama’s role in the writing of Dreams From My Father?

One obvious reason is that Obama is saying what the folks who man the New York-Hollywood axis want to hear. To advance its causes, this class has been aiding and abetting intellectual fraud for a century.

Take the case of intellectual superstar and Obama buddy, Edward Said. In 1947, when he was twelve, the Said family was allegedly driven from Palestine.

Said made this expulsion the central, compelling metaphor for his significant life work. His identity as a Palestinian and a refugee informed every tragic, morally outraged thing he wrote.

Unfortunately for Said, a hard-working Israeli reporter discovered that Said had grown up wealthy in Egypt, not poor in Palestine, that he was a Christian as well as an American citizen from birth, that he attended the best British schools in Cairo, and, when of age, headed off for a pricey American prep school.

The New York Times followed up and conceded that the reporter had gotten his facts straight. From that point on, however, the Times continued to lionize Said as if nothing had changed. By the time Said died four years later, the controversy had died as well.

In 1992, the Nobel Prize Committee took the occasion of the five-hundredth anniversary of Colombus’s “discovery” to award the Nobel Peace Prize to a Guatemalan woman, an “indigena” by the name of Rigoberta Menchu.

Her memoir, I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, a cornerstone of the multicultural canon, had made her reputation and secured the award.

In the book’s most dramatic scene, the inevitable right wing death squads haul a crew of suspected dissidents to the town square, Rigoberta’s brother among them. There, she and her parents must watch in horror as the soldiers pour gasoline on each of the prisoners and set them ablaze one by one.

Unfortunately for Rigoberta, an anthropologist stumbled across the town and quickly discovered that the public burning, like most of the memoir, had been cooked up in left wing Paris salons.

Although a Menchu fan, the anthropologist felt compelled to report his findings. In its follow up response, the Chronicle of Higher Education came to a bizarrely predictable conclusion about those who taught the book:

“They say it doesn't matter if the facts in the book are wrong, because they believe Ms. Menchu’s story speaks to a greater truth about the oppression of poor people in Central America.” The Nobel Prize committee did not reconsider either.

The literary fraud that sheds the most light on what Obama can expect, if ever busted, was the brainchild of another black icon, the late Alex Haley.

When Roots: The Saga of an American Family was first published in 1976, it generated extraordinary reviews and spectacular sales, here and abroad.

The mini-series based on the book captured more viewers than any series before it. 130 million Americans watched the final episode alone. And Haley won a special Pulitzer Prize for telling the true story of a black family from its origins in Africa through seven generations to the present day in America.

As a popular entertainment, Roots gave progressives a perfect “pedagogical tool” with which to instruct their less enlightened brethren in the quiet horrors of American culture. In fact, it quickly became the dominant narrative, a curriculum standard, a veritable sacred text.

Interestingly, Haley makes his protagonist, the young enslaved Kunta Kinte, a Muslim. Kinte, predictably, sees Christianity as crude and hypocritical. Coming of age during the revolutionary period in Virginia, he sees the revolution as inherently fraudulent as well.

The real fraud, however, was Haley’s. Approaching seventy when Roots debuted, Harold Courlander was shocked to read it. In 1967, he had written a novel titled The African. He had earned fourteen thousand dollars for it.

In 1978, Courlander sued Haley in a U.S. District Court in New York for copyright infringement. The suit cited eighty-one passages that had been lifted from Courlander’s The African as well as the plot and certain characters.

Not wanting to undermine a newly ascendant black hero, the judge counseled Haley and his attorneys midway through the trial that he would have to contemplate a perjury charge unless they settled with Courlander.

They did just that to the tune of $650,000, or more than $2 million by 2008 standards. In return, Courlander agreed to keep quiet about the suit, which he did until he died in 1996.

The settlement got precious little media attention. In the press, only the Washington Post gave the case any ink of note, and even then it used a local hook—“Bethesda Author Settles ‘Roots’ Suit for $500,000”—to justify its coverage.

Like the other media who bothered to report on the settlement, the Post neglected to explore the real gist of the scandal: namely that the author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning “nonfiction” book plagiarized from a fictional one.

In 1993 literary detective Philip Nobile would seem to have busted the fraud wide open in a deeply researched Village Voice expose. “There was no Kunta Kinte,” says Nobile bluntly, and he proved as much in compelling detail.

Still, neither the lawsuit nor the Nobile expose has dimmed Haley’s star. The Coast Guard named a cutter for Haley. His hometown erected a ten-foot bronze statue in his honor. The book and video remained a staple in history classes across America. And the Pulitzer remains in his trophy case.

In a quirky historical footnote, John F. Kennedy Jr. helped with the Post article. His father had also been accused, and with good reason, of winning a Pulitzer Prize for a book that he himself did not actually write, Profiles In Courage.

Years later, the real author Ted Sorensen would admit that he "did a first draft of most chapters." In an even quirkier footnote, Ted Sorenson is now helping Obama with his speeches.

Oh, how they keep scratching each other’s backs!

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