For a word so laden with meaning, promise is a remarkably slippery term to define. A promise is a guarantee of sorts, but also one that can be broken, as in the child’s frequent retort—“But you promised!”—when the hoped for proves untenable. In a different register, promise is also possibility, potential, a little ray of light in the dark surround. “That sounds promising,” as the expression goes. Far from being compatible, these two deployments of promise pull in contradictory directions, not just semantically, but ethically and politically as well. One denotes entitlement rooted in the past; the other gestures at a hope that resides in a future still undetermined. Can we retain the possibility of promise without regarding anything as promised?
The tension between these different iterations of promise looms large within Barack Obama’s best-selling presidential memoir, A Promised Land. This is not the forum to dwell at length on the book’s 900 pages or to revisit the momentous events that punctuated Obama’s tenure. My questions are of a somewhat different nature. What does it mean to call America a promised land or, alternately—in George Washington’s preferred formulation—a land of promise? What does recourse to this trope indicate about Obama’s much-touted idealism and optimism, and the ways in which contemporary liberals more broadly reconcile the undisputed horrors of the past with the prospect of a better future?
Beyond score settling and narrative making, the presidential memoir reads like an attempt to peddle a particular mode of optimism well beyond its sell-by date. No doubt critics who bill themselves realists will find much here that incriminates not merely the former president or liberalism as a political philosophy, but idealism in any form. Most major outlets have published reviews of A Promised Land, and many of them laud Obama for heroically maintaining his optimism even after gnashing his teeth against the cold, hard realities of “The World as It Is”—the title of part five of the book—daring to assert, four years after the election of Donald J. Trump to the nation’s highest office, that he still believes in “the idea of America.”1
Much as Obama has been characterized as an idealist in generic terms, it is important to note that his idealism remains bounded by the narrow confines of what is deemed possible at the so-called end of history. As Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins notes in the Boston Review, it is the post-Cold War liberalism of the 1990s that lurks behind Obama’s political vision, with the expectation of progress assured through the mechanisms of the free market, leading to a world in which the divisions of class, gender, religion, and ethnicity would no longer manifest in bitter conflict.2 However much the fiction of a post-ideological world informs his optimism and idealism, it is important to note that both are constructs of that particular ideological project known as neoliberalism.
The misalignment between Obama’s “audacity of hope” and the evident paucity of means at his disposal is not at all incidental to this story. Indeed, Obama’s failure to realize many of his policy goals is often cast as an idealist’s inevitable reckoning with the world as it really is—a sort of wizened finger-wagging at youthful dreams—rather than the by-product of an impossible contradiction: the world Obama yearned for could not be built using the tools he cherished.3 The promise that his candidacy represented dimmed not merely on account of external crises and GOP obstructionism, but because faith in the inevitability of human progress makes it more difficult to attain.
The promised land is an old idea, of course, and one that predates the colonization of the Americas by millennia. By all accounts, it originates in the covenant that God makes with Abraham in the book of Genesis: “To your offspring I assign this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”4 It is important to note that Abraham himself was a migrant of sorts, having been previously ordered to “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”5 At this stage, the Hebrew Bible’s promised land is a material reality with demarcated boundaries and known inhabitants. The promised land is also, importantly, one that the Children of Israel never inhabit within the Torah itself, which concludes (in the book of Deuteronomy) with Moses glimpsing it from a summit in the distance: “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, ‘I will assign it to your offspring.’ I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross there.”6 In this moment the two iterations of promise come closest to alignment: here is the land that has been promised, the hope of which has sustained the Israelites through four hundred years of Egyptian bondage. The promised land in this sense signifies far more than mere territory; it is freedom itself. For modern proponents of the Zionist idea, the biblical narrative strengthened their conviction that genuine freedom was impossible without territorial sovereignty, though there is ample room to question this position. The equation of freedom with the form of political organization that prevailed in nineteenth-century Europe was and is a perverse narrowing of the concept, yet this fact has not stopped its ideologues from fetishizing the nation-state in a way that borders on the idolatrous.7
In contrast to this narrowed vision of freedom, the spirituals of enslaved African Americans gave voice to a broader meaning of promise, as evident in the one that appears as an epigraph to Obama’s memoir:
O, fly and never tire,
Fly and never tire,
Fly and never tire,
There’s a great camp-meeting in the Promised Land.
So too the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., famously channeling the figure of Moses, invoked the idea of the promised land as liberation in his final speech in Memphis, Tennessee. “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”8 These references to the “Promised Land” are noteworthy not merely for their metaphorical quality—it is apparent that they refer not to a physical territory but a state of genuine freedom—but also for the suggestion of rupture that they entail. Far from reflecting a sense of assurance or entitlement rooted in the past, King’s promised land was not a place to return to but a radical future that still needed to be built.
Yet renderings of the Americas as a new land of milk and honey have historically played a more insidious role as well. They were central to early colonial settlements and the imperial project better known as westward expansion. “The providential theory of Empire,” the historian Alfred A. Cave once noted, “invoked Old Testament precedents and analogues to cast the English in the role of God’s new Chosen People.”9 Colonists were divided as to whether their mission was to convert the land’s Indigenous peoples or to regard them like the idol-worshippers whom the Israelites, sanctioned by God, exterminated in order to take possession of Canaan. Neither of these options left much room for Native peoples as possessors of agency or human dignity; the entitlement inherent in such constructions of the promised land cares little for present occupants, as the more recent history of Israel attests. And indeed, I found it impossible to read A Promised Land without thinking of Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land, which similarly tries to wrest some idealized Zionism out of the clutches of its actual manifestation as a settler colonial project. This impulse follows the time-honored tradition—made most infamous in the idea of “a land without a people for a people without a land”10 —of imagining that Jewish political sovereignty could be realized without prejudice to the rights of Palestinians, a fiction that Zionists have continuously peddled since the end of the nineteenth century.11 Much like European land claims in the American context, it mobilizes the image of empty, unused, or neglected space, just waiting for redemption. In his testimony to the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry, David Ben Gurion offered the following metaphor to argue that Jewish territorial claims were somehow reconcilable with Palestinian existence:
It is a large building, our building, of say 150 rooms. We were expelled from that house, our family was scattered, somebody else took it away and again it changed hands many times and then we had to come back and we found some five rooms are occupied by other people, the other rooms from neglect are destroyed and uninhabitable. We said to these occupants we do not want to remove you, please stay where you are, we are going back to these uninhabitable rooms, we will repair them, and we did repair some of them and settled there. Then some other members of the family are coming back and they want to repair some other uninhabitable rooms, but then these occupants say “no, we are here, we do not want you; we do not live in them, these rooms are no good for any human beings but we do not want you to repair them, to make them better,” and again we do not say to them “leave, it is ours.” We say “You stay, you are there but from yesterday, you may stay please and we will help you to repair your rooms too if you want; if not you can do it yourself.” In the neighbourhood there are many big buildings half empty, we do not say to them “Please move over to that other big building.” No, we say “Please stay here, we will be good neighbours.” This is the case, this is what I say, it is simple and compelling, but I realise the intellectual difficulty of the case.12
The reality, of course, was more zero-sum game than these conciliatory statements acknowledged. The “problem” of Jewish existence, which reached its gruesome apex during the Holocaust, could only be solved within the nation-state paradigm by expelling approximately 700,000 Palestinians from the newly constituted Jewish polity. This was the reality of Israel as experienced, in Edward Said’s memorable formulation, “from the standpoint of its victims.”13 Shavit knows this history as well as anyone else, yet is still determined to avoid its logical conclusions and to wrest its ideals from the deadweight of actually existing Zionism.
It is precisely from this gap between the idealized version of a country and its material reality that Obama, like Shavit, chooses to launch his defense, to differentiate between “the idea of America” and the lived experience of it:
That America fell perpetually short of its ideals, I readily conceded. The version of American history taught in schools, with slavery glossed over and the slaughter of Native Americans all but omitted—that, I did not defend. The blundering exercise of military power, the rapaciousness of multinationals—yeah, yeah, I got all that. But the idea of America, the promise of America: this I clung to with a stubbornness that surprised even me.14
It is astounding to consider the rhetorical and ethical work being done by the phrase “yeah, yeah, I got all that” in this narration, tasked with nothing less than assuaging the critical reader that he too has read all those accounts of American history written by leftist intellectuals:
I recognize that there are those who believe that it’s time to discard the myth—that an examination of America’s past and an even cursory glance at today’s headlines show that this nation’s ideals have always been secondary to conquest and subjugation, a racial caste system and rapacious capitalism, and that to pretend otherwise is to be complicit in a game that was rigged from the start. And I confess that there have been times during the course of writing this book, as I’ve reflected on my presidency and all that’s happened since, when I’ve had to ask myself whether I was too tempered in speaking the truth as I saw it, too cautious in either word or deed, convinced as I was that by appealing to what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature I stood a greater chance of leading us in the direction of the America we’ve been promised.15
Within this framing, Obama is the hero who bravely soldiers on despite the hardship involved, maintaining his sense of optimism and hope against all odds. In a section that seems modeled after Prime Minister Hugh Grant’s defiant speech in Love Actually—extolling the Britain of Shakespeare and David Beckham’s right foot—Obama longs for “the promise of America” that was enshrined in the Declaration that “all men are created equal.” It is, he continues:
The America Tocqueville wrote about, the countryside of Whitman and Thoreau, with no person my inferior or my better; the America of pioneers heading west in search of a better life or immigrants landing on Ellis Island, propelled by a yearning for freedom. It was the America of Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers, making dreams take flight, and Jackie Robinson stealing home. It was Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday at the Village Vanguard and Johnny Cash at Folsom State Prison—all those misfits who took the scraps that others overlooked or discarded and made beauty no one had seen before. It was the America of Lincoln at Gettysburg, and Jane Addams toiling in a Chicago settlement home, and weary GIs at Normandy, and Dr. King on the National Mall summoning courage in others and in himself… An America that could explain me.16
It is noteworthy how self-centered this narrative remains, such that all of these past figures and momentous occasions culminate in Obama himself as the country’s first Black president. There is an almost messianic quality to this construction, however much, as Steinmetz-Jenkins argues, he eschews the role of savior.17 Yet beyond this fact it is striking just how backward facing this portrayal remains: rooted in ideals that are already present, indeed that have been with us from the outset, even if they remain unrealized. Such ideals found expression in “the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, crafted by flawed but brilliant thinkers who reasoned their way to a system at once sturdy and capable of change.”18 These founding documents act as the divine covenant, pointing the way to “the America we’ve been promised,” with the ever-faithful Obama confident that God will fulfill his promise to the pious forefathers. And indeed, what else besides a certain religious faith could account for the neoliberal vision, in either its perpetual betterment or end-of-history variations? Because a more perfect future has already been promised, both positions suggest that the work of thinking, of creating ideals, has largely been completed. Here we finally can see the theological residue that informs this invocation of a promised land, which involves both a sense of assurance on the one hand and entitlement on the other.
But who, surveying the last century’s horrors while looking wearily at the horizon, can regard anything as promised, whether it be a strip of land to call home, a sense of material well-being and security, or indeed, the idea that justice will eventually triumph? The sort of respite involved in the very notion of the “promised” stands in stark opposition to the realities of a life that many experience as tenuous and precarious. In ethical terms it calls to mind Adorno’s assertion that “it is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.”19 On what basis could such promise exist for Americans but not Brazilians or Egyptians or the Japanese? And why for the land’s present occupants—and truly speaking, only a portion of them—and not for those here centuries before?
The idea of finding meaning and purpose in this “slaughter bench of history” in order to justify the present (“an America that could explain me”) brings to mind Hegel’s theodicy, wherein an eventual state of freedom will redeem past suffering—and therefore also justify God’s plan for humanity.20 But I cannot consider any attempt to impose such “reason” upon history without also thinking of the prisoner named Kuhn, who Primo Levi described as thanking God that he was spared during one of the infamous “selections” in Auschwitz, even as the young Greek in the bunk next to him, Beppo, is marked for extermination. “Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propriety prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again?”21 Even within the theological register, there is something indecent about such exceptionalism, which redeems on the backs of others.
We might do well, in short, to give up on the notion of a promised land. But that does not necessarily entail abandoning promise in the more future-oriented sense, and to assert, in Max Horkheimer’s memorable formulation, that “I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.”22 Yet this iteration of promise entails recognizing the past as flawed, incomplete, and in many instances unjustifiable and irredeemable by human hands. With such recognition, the goal is no longer to close the gap between ideals that are already intact and a reality that falls short, but to generate new ideals altogether. These might be accretive or disruptive, but we must maintain the possibility that they might also be richer than what came before. It is only within the register of that which is yet unthought, unsaid, undetermined that we can still talk of ‘promise’ today.
- 1. Barack Obama, A Promised Land (New York: Crown, 2020), 14. ↩
- 2. Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, “The False Promise of Obama’s ‘Promised Land’,” Boston Review, December 21, 2020. ↩
- 3. In this the president did not heed the poet’s warning. See: Audre Lorde,“The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde (Berkeley: Crossing Press, 1984). ↩
- 4. Gn 15:18 (Hebrew Bible). ↩
- 5. Gn 12:1 (HB). ↩
- 6. Dt 34:4 (HB). ↩
- 7. The most significant contemporary example is Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism (New York: Basic Books, 2018), which attempts to construct a universal political theory around the Zionist example. In a striking review for Commentary, hardly a hotbed of leftist ideas, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik took issue with Hazony’s seeming prioritization of the nation-state form over and above Judaism: “If there is a central political message for Israel throughout the Bible, it is this: For Israel to deserve independence, it must remember that it exists for a calling more important than independence itself.” He later expounds, “For Jews, loyalty to the Torah is above loyalty to the community, and when the two come into conflict, the former supersedes the latter…it is our hope that our children will come to understand that it is ultimately the Torah, not us, to which their most profound loyalty must adhere—and that their dedication to the Jewish nation should ultimately be an extension of their dedication to the Torah, not the reverse.” Meir Soloveichik, “Saving American Nationalism from the Nationalists,” Commentary, October 2018, https://www.commentary.org/articles/meir-soloveichik/saving-american-nationalism-nationalists/. ↩
- 8. Martin Luther King Jr., “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” (April 3, 1968), King Encyclopedia, The Martin Luther King, Jnr. Research Educational Institute, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm. ↩
- 9. Alfred A. Cave, “Canaanites in a Promised Land: The American Indian and the Providential Theory of Empire,” American Indian Quarterly 12, no. 4 (Autumn 1988): 277-297, 277. ↩
- 10. Though often attributed to Israel Zangwill, variations on the phrase (and idea) actually originated among Christian proto-Zionists in nineteenth-century England, most notably Alexander Keith’s 1843 book, The Land of Israel According to the Covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob (Edinburgh: William Whyte and Co., 1843). ↩
- 11. Ahad Ha’am was the most perceptive early critic in this regard, particularly in his 1891 essay, “Emet me-Eretz Yisrael” (“Truth from the Land of Israel”), an English translation of which appears in Alan Dowty, “Much Ado about Little: Ahad Ha’am’s ‘Truth from Eretz Yisrael,’ Zionism, and the Arabs,” in Israel Studies 5, no. 2 (Fall 2000), 154-181; and in his subsequent critique of Theodor Herzl’s Altneuland, published in the Hebrew journal Ha-Shiloach in 1902. Because Jewish settlement had so benefited the Arab residents of Palestine, rich and poor, “there is peace and harmony between them and the Jews, who took nothing from (the Arabs) and gave them much. What a cozy idyll this is! Only it is a bit difficult to understand how the new company found enough land for all the millions of Jews that came from the diaspora, if all the land that Arabs had inhabited before the Jews came, i.e., most of the good land in Eretz Yisrael, remained in their hands and ‘nothing was taken away from them.’” My translation; Hebrew text accessible at: https://benyehuda.org/read/5527. ↩
- 12. Public Hearings Before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry: Hearing in Jerusalem, Palestine, Monday 11th March, 1946 (statement of Ben Gurion, Chairman of the Executive, Jewish Agency), http://cojs.org/wp-content/uploads/Public_Hearings_3.11.46.pdf. ↩
- 13. Edward Said, The Question of Palestine (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 56. ↩
- 14. Obama, 14. ↩
- 15. Obama, xv-xvi. ↩
- 16. Obama, 14. ↩
- 17. Steinmetz-Jenkins, “False Promise.” ↩
- 18. Ibid. ↩
- 19. Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, translated by E. F. N. Jephcott (New York: Verso Books, 2005), 39. ↩
- 20. G. W. F. Hegel, Introduction to the Philosophy of History, translated by Leo Rauch (Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1988), 24. ↩
- 21. Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, translated by Stuart Woolf (New York: Touchstone Books, 1996), 130. ↩
- 22. Max Horkheimer, in Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Towards a New Manifesto (New York: Verso Books, 2019), 31. ↩