Jack Cashill, who received a Ph.D. in American Studies in 1982 then promptly forget everything he learned earning it, has returned with more evidence that my assessment of him (“an idiot of long-standing“) was correct. He accuses 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 in Fugitive 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.
UPDATE. It turns out I was wrong—Cashill’s claim that William Ayers wrote Dreams From My Father has been independently confirmed. Should you desire to see a man eat his hat, here is a link to my formal apology.