Saturday, February 21, 2015

Obama's seductive love for America

The irony in this "Obama doesn't love America" crap is that Obama got himself elected by holding up  to Americans a flattering mirror that was suited to the moment.

The national narrative that Obama put forward in 2007/8 had two salient points (okay, may it had three or four or five, but two come to mind here). It was, first, a bid to move the political center to the left -- to cast American history as a progression in which Americans at various crux points demanded and obtained new common investments in shared shared prosperity and new extensions of equal opportunity to an ever-widening and more inclusive circle -- African Americans, women, gays. In Obama's telling, the nation had veered off-course for eight or thirty years, but democratic self-correction was also part of the long historical pattern and would come with him.

That's a kind of "whig history" for America, and it resonated in the wake of a disastrous conservative presidency.  It was also a message essentially common to all Democrats and would have worked for almost any Democrat.

The real contest in 2008 was in the Democratic primary, and perhaps Obama beat Hillary by making this whig history sing, tapping a deep American mysticism previously tapped by Lincoln and -- somewhat more caustically -- by Martin Luther King. This second element was captured by Obama's "more perfect union" trope.  That is: America's founding documents expressed principles for the best ordering of human society, and while the nation has never lived up to these ideals, its democratic engine draws it ever closer -- ever more perfect, never perfected. Those ever-widening circles of inclusive opportunity are bending the arc of history toward justice. Martin Luther's famous "check" of equal opportunity, returned for insufficient funds, is being paid on a very long mortgage schedule.

In Lincoln at Gettysburg Garry Wills posits that Lincoln reimagined American history in these terms -- as "continual approximation" of the ideals embedded in the Declaration of Independence.  Here's Lincoln in debate with Stephen Douglas:
They [the fathers who issued the Declaration] meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attain, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere [SW 1,398] (Lincoln at Gettysburg, 102).
Compare Obama, implicitly folding the Declaration into a Constitution he called "stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery," in his monumental  speech addressing the Jeremiah Wright controversy, titled "A More Perfect Union" :
Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution – a Constitution that had at is very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.

And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part – through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk – to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time...

This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.
The Declaration and Constitution as secular scripture; American history as eternal progress; historical inflection points as bottom-up expressions of the will of the people; democracy as the mechanism for self-correction, renewal and progress: This narrative, with its deep roots and thrilling echoes, was the conceptual underpinning of the Obama '08 taglines dismissed by many as fluff: yes we can, the audacity of hope, the fierce urgency of now, It infuses his stylized quick-marches through American history, rapid series of iconic moments -- as in his acceptance speech on election night 2008, which rolls up all these elements:
For that is the true genius of America - that America can change. Our union can be perfected. And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that's on my mind tonight is about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She's a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing - Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.

She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn't vote for two reasons - because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.

And tonight, I think about all that she's seen throughout her century in America - the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can't, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.

At a time when women's voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes we can.

When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs and a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can.

When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes we can.

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that "We Shall Overcome." Yes we can.

A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes we can.

America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves - if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?

This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. This is our time - to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth - that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people:

Yes We Can. Thank you, God bless you, and may God Bless the United States of America.
This is a deeply flattering view of our history -- one that provides license and safe space for the criticism of past errors that sends Obama-haters round the bend. Like a saved sinner's sins,  the cruelties and injustice and wrong turns (as in the Reagan-Bush era) in American history are bumps and switchbacks on the road to salvation, affording the crooked straightness of a good walking stick.

Update: How Obama widened the circles of inclusion (and deepened the criticism) at Selma

Related (past posts that I've self-plagiarized a bit here)
Obama on kinks in the arc of history
Our liberal history: Obama's oldest trope
Also related
The credo of a community organizer
What Will.i.am had to work with
How Obama frames our history

UPDATE: Will Wilkinson has a good take on the patriotism question:
...where Mr Giuliani sees a half-hearted allegiance to the fatherland, some of us see instead evidence of education, intelligence, emotional complexity and a basic moral decency—evidence of a man not actually in the grip of myths about his country. A politician capable of projecting an earnest, simple, unstinting love of a spotless and superior America is either a treacherous rabble-rouser or so out of touch that he is not qualified to govern. So Barack Obama doesn't love America like a conservative. So what? His realism and restraint are among his greatest strengths.
UPDATE 2, 3/8/15: At Selma yesterday Obama took his embrace of "America the self-critical" to a new level, with his most expansive and inclusive vision to date of who built America and who America is for and who America is. My take here

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