Before me is a New York Times essay, ominously titled “The mask slips,” in which William Kristol deconstructs Barack Obama’s garbled remarks at a California fundraiser. As Kristol describes Obama’s analysis of religion:
“It is the opium of the people.” Or more succinctly, and in the original German in which Marx somehow always sounds better, “Die Religion – ist das Opium des Volkes.”
Wow — that’s much more succinct.
Barack wanted to deliver the entire speech in German, to capture the nuance of the Hegelian dialectic. I objected. “Harold,” he replied, “I might as well give it in German. If I say it in English, some Republican will quote it in German anyway…”
Based on the reaction of conservative pundits, I’m bummed to have missed that California fundraiser. As luck would have it, I myself took classes at Columbia University in 1981. My parents never knew that I spent most of that year hanging out in a now-defunct basement annex at City College of New York arguing the finer points of Marxism with a young Obama. We would spend hours arguing about how Karl Kautsky or Ira Magaziner would apply the insights of Leon Trotsky to health reform.
Friends would stop by. Sinbad would torment us with impossible trivia questions from Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program. Relations between Barack and Hillary were cordial. Yet even then, we could see the strain. Before launching a long spiel about improving Kibbutz crop yields, she would regale us with stories about storming the ramparts in Catalonia with Orwell and attending bullfights with a drunken Hemingway in Madrid. One day, James Carville stopped by. Emitting a gaseous belly laugh, he said, “Hill — that Lincoln Brigade tale is the biggest bunch of horsecrap since the cleanup after the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” Barack flashed Carville a light-hearted smile. Tight-lipped, Hillary glared at both of them. “I’m not bitter,” she told me. “Anyway, he says I’m crazy.”