Why Read Autobiographies?
If you have not been living under a rock in the past 24 hours, you know that Kamala Harris (pronounced KAH-mala) has just been picked by Joe Biden to be his running mate for the 2020 presidential election.
I knew that I had her autobiography somewhere in my garage. It was only because, in October of last year, one of my previous students (now in 11th grade) had a desire to read her book during her brief run for president.
Buying the book and letting him read through it, the only thing I was able to gleam from her at first was that Kamala ate an entire bag of Doritos after the reveal of Trump winning the presidency in 2016. I’m sure she wasn’t alone in that regard…
Back in 2016, I too had had to deal with the emotional aftermath of that time, as I went the very next evening to my night class in graduate school. We spent the entire three hours discussing what could have happened, why the change, and what that meant for the next four years.
Now here we are, plunged not only into the ramifications of America leaving stage left as the natural leader of the free world, but as a country hemorrhaging on a poor coronavirus response.
With Kamala’s appointment, and with my unemployment continuing for the foreseeable future, it seemed easy enough to investigate her autobiography.
It should come as no surprise to those who read my blog that I love books. For the simple fact that they are produced, it pains me that the tunnel vision the publishing world seems to take for the publication of books means that a great many voices may go unheard for the petty fact that they do not have a smooth style, an emotional register fitting American ears, or the political clout like Harris.
And so I love books for their intimacy. Throw all the politics aside, and when I pick up a book, I know it is just Kamala and me sharing a conversation.
Of course this idea has limitations: for Kamala to write a book and have it published in 2019 could be viewed as a PR stunt to prepare for political office.
But a big reason why I read books is for the idea that people cannot bullshit forever. Kamala’s actions, and turn of phrase, can like anybody now be scrutinized for…well…the truths that she holds.
So far I have read the first half of her book, and I hope to conclude my thoughts in another post as I get to the “back nine” of her book, to quote something that Trump would probably say.
The first part of this review in this post will take a glancing look from a top-down perspective at word choice and basic ideas. The second part is a closer analysis of some of the takeaways I had as I read this morning.
A Bird’s Eye View
Compared to Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope, Harris’s book is slightly shorter, but has almost the exact same vocabulary density. Both the 0.102 of Harris and 0.101 of Obama are relatively average to conversational in the genre of rhetorical argument. What it means is that both of the writers attempt to give you high level ideas about law, justice, and politics, without being pedantic.
In the following two charts, I used Voyant Tools to track similar high frequency words to give you a clear idea of some of her pet topics. Rather than focus on Obama’s pet topics as well, I instead found the same words to give you a sense of comparison for left-leaning political office holders with a background in law.
The Audacity of Hope was written in 2006, while Harris’s book came out in 2019, and from that wide gap we can see how topics in race, education, and justice have become larger issues. Granted, it’s difficult to see from these frequency charts just what that holds in context, which is something that I always try to provide with qualitative analysis as well. Simply listing the words does little to understand their arguments surrounding the words, but it does give you a glancing idea of what content words are on their minds when they set out to write.
Harris’s book sets out to be a “collection of ideas, stories, and viewpoints.” She weaves together anecdote, scenarios in her time in law, as well as brief statistics to back up her claims when she advocates for particular issues.
There are occasions when Harris will take leaps that many readers will find structurally off-putting, like bringing in “characters,” that is to say, brief moments where she encountered people in her life, who had an impact on whatever was happening at the time, very quickly, only to shrug them off later. Such is the life of politics and activism, and it is to be expected. Combine this with the temporal shifts in flashback-within-flashback occasionally in her childhood, and it can be very difficult to create a timeline. But other than that, her style of writing proves that she is capable of higher order literacy and complex thought.
Something that is sorely lacking, it seems, in the highest level of government.
The first thing I will mention as I started her book was that I was very jealous of her upbringing. That might sound strange coming from a white man, but what I could not get over was how artistically and intellectually robust her childhood was.
I spent a great deal of my childhood exploring sports and the use of the body. I did a lot of lawn mowing, threw a bunch of baseballs and footballs, and collected very few rebounds in basketball. Harris on the other hand took piano lessons, dance lessons, French lessons, participated in public programs, and despite the fact her parents eventually divorced, she had the intellectual ferment of sophisticated, articulate, and well-read parents.
This robust upbringing is what allows her to see the “public good” in a way that fosters the ordinary citizen into flourishing, and it is what I believe drives her ideas and policy. For much of the first half of the book, she is committed in a Theodore Roosevelt kind of way, to the “little man” against the Goliaths of our country, whether they be corporate or systemic failures. Her earliest success was providing relief for a mother stuck in prison, and she as a result has advocated against excessive bail (median $10,000) for the poor and for non-violent offenses.
On the note of criminal justice, she takes a balanced “common sense” approach. She wants to legalize marijuana for its disparity in adjudication on minorities. She wants to keep high sentences and enforce those for violent offenses and offenses against children. She recognizes that we imprison more people than any other developed nation, and has explicitly worked against that trend. But she also wants to explore the systemic causes for violence, not just provide consequences for those that go through with it.
Her standing up for the little man is also evident in her reaction to the 2008 financial crisis, where she faced off against central banks for “robo-signing,” a term I did not even know existed until she brought it up. She and her team managed to provide up to 18 billion dollars in settlements for California homeowners as a result. She is outraged by the rolling back of regulations on middle-sized banks post 2008. Much like criminal justice, she has deeply rooted ideas of the reasons for taking a stand on these larger trends.
Much less is the stance on gay marriage, which in the book is recounted in her attack of Proposition 8 in California. But little is given from Harris herself on the reasonings behind why she felt the way she did about marriage equality. It’s a shame considering that the intimacy of books that I find so thrilling would have been a perfect vehicle to express these feelings. Perhaps in my hasty reading I missed it, but all the same she has defended marriage equality as an opportunity for individual liberty.
Her work on childhood truancy in elementary schools was very promising. On multiple occasions in her work as an attorney, Harris is not satisfied with the intuitions made about social situations, and is much more willing to dig deep and find deeply rooted problems. One of those was truancy, where the predominant belief was that parents were poor at their job and could not raise the children. The truth was obviously far more unsettling: many of the households featured single parents working multiple jobs and did not have the time to provide what they needed for their child, like getting them to school. In many of these single parent homes, the fathers did not pay child support, but also did not recognize the situation at hand, and once better communication had been established, many took it upon themselves to make a better attempt at being directly involved in their lives, even going so far as to volunteer at school.
As far as romance is concerned (her personal life as an adult), she did not get married until her late 40s. This is less a critique and more an observation of a side effect: she may have forgotten to get married. One of the takeaways from Kamala Harris early on in the book is her commitment to ideas and to her own hard work. Not only is she a prime example of the power of cognitive behavioral therapy (it exists implicitly in some early remarks, though she may not call it that), but also just how much she works. She is only able to go on a date with Doug (Douglas Emhoff) when she suddenly has a one hour lunchbreak, which only happened because her renovation of her kitchen was…postponed? I think? Whether it was because of all this work, her dedication to her career, or because of her misgivings due to her parents “being too young” as she concluded, it has taken her a while to “settle down.”
All this to say that she is pretty much a vehicle for political ideas and for criminal justice, and it is a sacrifice on par with many who believe in causes enough to leverage the time of their own enjoyment and happiness that I am so impressed with.
Based on her book so far, Kamala Harris is a progressive candidate, through and through. Whereas I thought at first that she was a safe pick for Joe Biden, I now see her as the sort of post-recession candidate who would be ideal for creating a nation based on the rights of all people, not simply those at the top of any totem pole.
Although with any candidate, once they achieve higher office, the words spoken seem to have a hard time translating into actions, and many times in the United States we have been burned by people who say one thing, and then do another. It will be interesting after these two posts to check in (assuming Harris and Biden achieve the office) to see where their policies and ideals match up.
If there is one critique about her book I have so far, I would say it is the same as I would have with any political autobiography, which is that we see far less of the issues and far more of the person. In that sense, it does little good to simply read Harris’s book and leave it at that, but rather when one reads a book like this, we must commit ourselves to also reading the issues they tackle, to see where there is overlap in our beliefs, and where there are deviations. This is really no fault of Harris, but rather the limitations of the genre. This is not a political issues book…it’s a memoir. Consider that before going in.
This is the end of part one. I hope this gives you some insight into her policies, ideals, and practices. Hopefully with part two we see her cement that and finish off with confidence. If nothing else, from this perspective I can see that she is fierce and restrained, tough but fair, and will be a force to reckon with come November.