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In Conversation With Owen Symes Author of He Was Our Man in Washington: A History of the Obama Years
From:
Norm Goldman --  bookpleasures.com Norm Goldman -- bookpleasures.com
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: Montreal, QC
Wednesday, August 4, 2021

 

Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest Owen Symes. Owen is a social historian, politicalactivist and author of He Was Our Man in Washington: A History ofthe Obama Years.

Good day Owen and thanksfor taking part in our interview.

Norm: Pleasetell our readers a little bit about your personal and professionalbackground. How was it that you decided to become a historian?


Owen: I've been interestedin history for as long as I can remember - my dad named my favoritestuffed animal (an elephant) "Hannibal" after theCarthaginian general who fought Rome, so I suspect his generalinterest in the past transmitted to me as well. I grew upupper-middle-class in northeastern PA, outside Scranton, and spentmost of my youth engrossed in typical nerd stuff: Star Trek, Magic:the Gathering cards, etc.

I received a BA in historyfrom Hillsdale College (in Michigan), but, unsure what to do upongraduating, since typical post-college pursuits like law school orpolitics didn't interest me, I took whatever jobs came my way:psychiatric technician, retail worker, PC repair, call centersupervisor.

I never stopped reading orstudying history, though, and when the 2016 election happened Idecided to devote my time to understanding our recent past, trying tofigure out how the country had gotten to the point of electing areality TV star to our highest office. 

Norm: In terms of yourdevelopment as a historian who would you say your influences were?

Owen: In high school mydad gave me the book Bomber Command by Max Hastings, sayingthat one of the duties of a good historian was to make the readerconsider their subject from a new angle.

In college, I was veryinfluenced by the writing style of Edward Gibbon and WinstonChurchill, the analytical provocation of Rousseau and Foucault, andthe way RG Collingwood wrote about the study of history itself.

Since then, I've beenheavily influenced by historians that break from the more traditionalfocus on politics and war, like Will Durant and WEB DuBois, not tomention the great precursors to modern sociology like Ibn Khaldun andMontesquieu.  

Norm: Why do Kids knowless about history now—and why does it matter?

Owen: "Knowing less"is hard to quantify - I think it's correct to say that most people inthe US are provided a historical education that focuses on aparticular narrative: that the US is a "city on a hill,"conceived in liberty, and carrying that precios fire, maybe with anoccasional stumble, to the four corners of the earth.

I can't fault this forbeing a story - all history, we should remember, is narrative, astory told with facts that are selected from an infinite mass ofinformation; but I do think that this particular story is factuallyinaccurate, it leaves out too much information (about slavery, aboutIndian genocide, about segregation, about capitalism) for it to belegitimate.

This story serves thosealready in power, and so it's the story that gets told more oftenthan not. This matters because our understanding of the pastshapes how we understand the present and plan for the future. If wemisunderstand our own history, that warps our understanding of whohas power in the present, who our political enemies and allies are,and thus leaves us prey to some pretty dangerous ideologicalmovements.

Norm: When did the ideafor He Was Our Man in Washington: A History of the ObamaYears, first emerge? As a follow up, why did you choose thistitle?


Owen: It emerged in thewake of the 2016 election - I was apolitical for most of Obama'syears in office, so I didn't pay much attention to current events;Trump's victory thus confused me and I went looking for answers,figuring the best place to start was in the administration of the guywho came before Trump.

That led me to delvedeeper into US history, as I tried to contextualize the Obama yearsthe fight against ISIS led back to Bush's invasion of Iraq, led backto the Gulf War, to our alliance with Saudi Arabia, etc.).

At the same time, everyonewas talking about Trump, and since no one else seemed to be makingthe effort, I thought I'd try my hand at writing about Obama. Thetitle comes from a quote from a financial executive, thankful that hehad an ally in the White House; I thought it spoke volumes about thetrue nature of the Obama presidency. 

Norm: Whatpurpose do you believe your book serves? What would you say is thebest reason to recommend someone to read your book? What matters toyou about the book?

Owen: The purpose of thisbook is to illuminate recent history so that people will betterunderstand the world around them, why people did what they did, dowhat they do, and how they might act in the future. Without a firmgrounding in history, we get political disasters like the 2003invasion of Iraq or the election of Donald Trump - or the quixoticbelief that a president even has the power to radically remake thecountry.

The best reason I can giveto recommend this book is that it is partisan without being unfair -it has a point of view that the reader can agree/disagree with,while presenting as much information as possible so that the readercan make up their own mind. That's what matters to me most: that thereader is provoked into thinking critically about the world aroundthem. 

Norm: What surprisedyou most as you researched and wrote this book? 

Owen: I was thoroughlysurprised at how similar Obama's policies ended up being whencompared to his (supposedly more conservative) predecessors.

When I started researchinghow he handled the War on Terror, I never imagined that thissupposedly "socialist" Democrat would have ended upexpanding the scope of the War on Terror (most conspicuously, inAfrica); I never would have guessed that he'd champion the same kindof budget cuts and "austerity" measures that the GOP hadbeen wailing about for decades.

I didn't realize that,despite some complaints, the financial sector really considered Obamaa defender of their interests. There was often a difference inemphasis, as with Obama's preference for drone strikes rather thaninvasions, but in many ways his administration had remarkablecontinuity with the conservative political trends in our politicsthat date back to the late 1970s. 

Norm: If you had to doit all over again, would you change anything in your book? 

Owen: Like mosthistorians, there's always more things I wish I'd had time to cover:Obama's immigration policies come immediately to mind, or his "pivot"towards China.

There are also some slightamendments I'd like to make, a detail or clarification here or therethat I'd add to an existing section. On the whole, though, even afterreading Obama's 900 page memoir (the first of two volumes!), I thinkthe book stands up pretty well to scrutiny. 

Norm: What has been thefeedback and reaction to your book?

Owen: So far people who'veactually taken the time to read it have provided overwhelminglypositive feedback. Most negative push back comes from people readingthe title, assuming it's some liberal hagiography of Obama, andscolding me for hero worship.

In this way, I think thetitle serves a useful function as a kind of litmus test. As the bookgains more traction and publicity, I'm sure more legitimate criticismwill come to light, which I very much look forward to. As mortifyingas it can be to be publicly proven wrong, I'll never improve as ahistorian if I never receive actionable criticism. 

Norm:  What do youbelieve is the biggest misconception people have about Barak Obama?

Owen: The biggestmisconception is that he was a "radical" or "socialist."He's not a conservative on the same level as, say, Pat Buchanan, buthis political instincts were to salvage the system we already have inplace, not to build an entirely new structure.

He is a capitalist - hethinks that private ownership of resources, of factories, offinancial institutions is a good thing, just with a few rules inplace to keep the abuses to a minimum. He believes in AmericanExceptionalism - that the US is a unique force for good in the world.These beliefs are typical and I only dwell on them because so manypeople think Obama believed and acted otherwise. 

Norm: Of all theincidents, anecdotes, events and operations you mention in your book,which stands out most in your mind? 

Owen: What stood out to methe most was the fight over "Obamacare," i.e the AffordableCare Act. This was (and is) a fundamentally conservative piece oflegislation: healthcare is treated like a consumer good (like atelevision), to be bought and sold in the marketplace, rather than ahuman right (like education) that needs to be distributed equitablyto all people.

Despite this fact,conservatives spent many an apoplectic hour trying to dismantle thewhole thing, which speaks volumes about the political circumstancesthat have evolved in the US over the last two generations - and howunhinged many Republicans have become. They wouldn’t evenaccept legislation primarily composed of ideas from their own party! 

Norm: Now as president,how is Joe Biden influenced by the vision and policies he supportedas Obama’s faithful VP?

Owen: Biden did nothave many major disagreements with what came to be Obama’s legacy.He championed the use of special operations and drones to fight theWar on Terror under Obama, backed the market-oriented portions of theAffordable Care Act, and proved preternaturally amenable to“compromises” with the GOP under Mitch McConnell – oftennegotiating away far more than most other Democrats thought prudentor necessary.

Perhaps the events ofJanuary 6 have shaken Biden from his Senate-bred habit ofbipartisanship-for-its-own-sake, but in many ways Biden will likelybe a continuation of the Obama years, i.e. a continuation ofneoliberalism (faith in markets to solve problems).

Norm: How did Obama’seight-year reign in the White House open the door for Trump and therise of White Nationalism? 

Owen: Obama’spolicies helped usher in Trump, but so too did the conservativeoverreaction to Obama. Obama abandoned the progressivism of thecampaign trail as soon as the day was won, so the resulting sense ofbetrayal among progressives soured many to the prospect of mainstreampolitical action, making anyone who did not seem “mainstream”that much more appealing, for better or worse.

At the same time, hispolicies ultimately served more to defend and uphold the neoliberalstatus quo rather than shake things up in any fundamental way; thusthe problems of inequality, racism, global warming, etc were notproperly addressed, leaving them to fester and produce more radical,more desperate, or more misguided politics.

Finally, the massiveminority voter turnout in the South and West (and the sight of moreand more minorities in our government) terrified conservatives,galvanizing the “race realists,” who for instance began aconcerted assault on voter rights in the wake of 2008 that hascertainly contributed to the rise of US fascism by removing even theslight power voting had given to minority communities.

Norm: In Canada thereis a limit to the amount of money you can contribute to a politicalcandidate. Should this be implemented in the USA?

Owen: I'm skeptical thatelectoral politics can solve our problems, because the institutionswe have are inherently conservative. Nevertheless, any law thatcurtails the flow of money into our politics is surely to beapplauded. Big business has always had an outsized influence on ourpolitics, whether the power of the slaver aristocracy, the oil baron,or the tech tycoon, but that influence ebbs and flows and right nowcorporate influence flows like the Mississippi throughout DC. 

Norm: Should lobbyingbe abolished?

Owen: I think thatquestion misses the point, which is that as long as we live under acapitalistic system, where the Few are allowed to amass huge fortuneson the backs of the Many's labor, our politics will always bearistocratic. Economic power translates to political power, so ifmost people lack economic power, our politics will reflect that. Itis capitalism we should abolish. 

Norm: Where can ourreaders find out more about you and  He Was Our Man inWashington: A History of the Obama Years?

Owen: My book'swebpage; a playlist of a few of my interviews; my twitter

Norm: What is next forOwen Symes?

Owen: I'm currentlyresearching the history of policing in the US - there are a lot ofbooks on various aspects (how our colonial adventures in thePhilippines created the first state police force in the US, forexample) but not a lot of "overarching" history that tieseverything together into a coherrent narrative, so that's what I'minterested in pursuing. 

Norm: As this interviewcomes to an end, if you could invite three historians to your dinnertable, (living or dead ), who would they be and why?

Owen: Polybius, WEBDuBois, and Will Durant would make for quite the dinner companions.Polybius spent a lot of time criticizing other historians, whilewriting one of the greatest histories we have from antiquity;  DuBoislived and wrote history, with a life spanning from Booker TWashington to MLK; and Will Durant, while writing one of the mostexpansive series of histories ever, just seems like a nice guy,pleasant to be around.  

Thanks again and goodluck with  He Was Our Man in Washington: A History ofthe Obama Years.

Follow Here To Read Norm's Review of  He Was Our Man in Washington: A History ofthe Obama Years.

 Norm Goldman of Bookpleasures.com

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