Saturday, March 07, 2015

How to love America, by Barack Obama

Obama gave another great speech on race today, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on the 50th Anniversary of "Bloody Sunday. He told a story of America that he's always told, but he expanded its range and spoke with a steely urgency that bespoke battles fought and still to come.

He echoed Lincoln, as he likes to do, and he answered his stupidest critics as he defined in his own way what it means to love America, and he sought to recommit his fellow citizens to fulfill the promise of the nation's founding documents, reiterating his favorite theme: faith in the power of democracy to continuously create a more perfect, never perfected union. He laid out his most inclusive vision ever of who built America and who America is for and who America is.

He echoed and updated Lincoln in (at least) three ways. He borrowed Lincoln's diction of dedication at Gettysburg while explicitly extending the concept of devotion to heroes of peace -- and in particular, of nonviolent resistance -- as well as to heroes of war. And as he always does, channeling Lincoln, he cast that heroism as a devotion to fulfilling the ideals expressed in the nation's founding documents. And as Lincoln did at Gettysburg, he sought to inspire those listening to emulate those commemorated in their devotion to extending the promise of freedom and opportunity to all.

Here is the expanded concept of heroism:
There are places, and moments in America where this nation’s destiny has been decided. Many are sites of war – Concord and Lexington, Appomattox and Gettysburg. Others are sites that symbolize the daring of America’s character – Independence Hall and Seneca Falls, Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral.

Selma is such a place.

In one afternoon fifty years ago, so much of our turbulent history – the stain of slavery and anguish of civil war; the yoke of segregation and tyranny of Jim Crow; the death of four little girls in Birmingham, and the dream of a Baptist preacher – met on this bridge.

It was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills; a contest to determine the meaning of America.
Here is the echo of Lincoln's "The world...can never forget what they did here" (and again, the "re-dedication" of heroism to nonviolence):
What they did here will reverberate through the ages. Not because the change they won was preordained; not because their victory was complete; but because they proved that nonviolent change is possible; that love and hope can conquer hate.
And here, the commitment to a never-finished process of realizing the promises embedded in the Declaration and Constitution:
That’s why Selma is not some outlier in the American experience. That’s why it’s not a museum or static monument to behold from a distance. It is instead the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents:

“We the People…in order to form a more perfect union.”

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

These are not just words. They are a living thing, a call to action, a roadmap for citizenship and an insistence in the capacity of free men and women to shape our own destiny. For founders like Franklin and Jefferson, for leaders like Lincoln and FDR, the success of our experiment in self-government rested on engaging all our citizens in this work. That’s what we celebrate here in Selma. That’s what this movement was all about, one leg in our long journey toward freedom.
Obama cast that long journey, more clearly than ever, as a drive to extend freedom and opportunity to ever-widening circles of the previously excluded:
Because of what they did, the doors of opportunity swung open not just for African-Americans, but for every American. Women marched through those doors. Latinos marched through those doors. Asian-Americans, gay Americans, and Americans with disabilities came through those doors. Their endeavors gave the entire South the chance to rise again, not by reasserting the past, but by transcending the past.
In the same vein, retrospectively, he widened the circle of those deserving places of honor in the national narrative:
We are Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea – pioneers who braved the unfamiliar, followed by a stampede of farmers and miners, entrepreneurs and hucksters. That’s our spirit.

We are Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, women who could do as much as any man and then some; and we’re Susan B. Anthony, who shook the system until the law reflected that truth. That’s our character.

We’re the immigrants who stowed away on ships to reach these shores, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free – Holocaust survivors, Soviet defectors, the Lost Boys of Sudan. We are the hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande because they want their kids to know a better life. That’s how we came to be.

We’re the slaves who built the White House and the economy of the South. We’re the ranch hands and cowboys who opened the West, and countless laborers who laid rail, and raised skyscrapers, and organized for workers’ rights.

We’re the fresh-faced GIs who fought to liberate a continent, and we’re the Tuskeegee Airmen, Navajo code-talkers, and Japanese-Americans who fought for this country even as their own liberty had been denied. We’re the firefighters who rushed into those buildings on 9/11, and the volunteers who signed up to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We are the gay Americans whose blood ran on the streets of San Francisco and New York, just as blood ran down this bridge.
This national self-image is a highly idealized image -- as Obama always presents, as every successful national politician has to. But part of that flattering national self-image, for Obama, is the capacity for self-criticism, the ability to acknowledge past and present injustice and cruelty in the nation's deeds and institutions, and faith in the nation's ability to self-correct, to change, to prove.  Answering the idiots who claim he doesn't love America, Obama was explicit about that adult love today:
What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this; what greater form of patriotism is there; than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?...

It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what’s right and shake up the status quo.

That’s what makes us unique, and cements our reputation as a beacon of opportunity. Young people behind the Iron Curtain would see Selma and eventually tear down a wall. Young people in Soweto would hear Bobby Kennedy talk about ripples of hope and eventually banish the scourge of apartheid. Young people in Burma went to prison rather than submit to military rule. From the streets of Tunis to the Maidan in Ukraine, this generation of young people can draw strength from this place, where the powerless could change the world’s greatest superpower, and push their leaders to expand the boundaries of freedom.
In seeking to dedicate those listening to "shake up the status quo," Obama enumerated current ills: mass incarceration, the continued shadow of racism, persistent poverty, unequal education, stagnant wages. In his habitual golden mean framing, he rebutted those who deny that racial progress has been made since Selma and those who den that racism is still persistent, expressing faith in progress while acknowledging that the nation has a long way to go. He decried a new rash of voter suppression and called out those who fail to exercise the right to vote that the Selma marchers risked their lives for (another signature two-sides-of-the-coin-the-other-side-has-a-point trope).

It was not an "I" speech. Obama left his personal narrative out almost completely, excepting a depersonalized reference to the change catalyzed by Selma placing African Americans in seats of power including the Oval Office.   At the same time, there was an edge to his definition of what it means to love America, and an echo of personal experience in his tribute to those (most notably including Martin Luther King) who endured opprobrium to bring change:
As we commemorate their achievement, we are well-served to remember that at the time of the marches, many in power condemned rather than praised them. Back then, they were called Communists, half-breeds, outside agitators, sexual and moral degenerates, and worse – everything but the name their parents gave them. Their faith was questioned. Their lives were threatened. Their patriotism was challenged.
Obama has been called it all, And yet, it's his seductive love for America that got him elected in the first place, and that continues to inspire.

P.S. I just want to recall that one note jarred a bit: when Obama said that the problems in Ferguson are "no longer endemic." He meant by way of contrast with the systematic and sanctioned racism exemplified in Selma in 1965, but, as the New York Times stresses today, policing for town profit is all too endemic. And so is not-sanctioned but all-too-embedded racism -- as he asserted in a different part of the speech.

Obama's seductive love for America
Obama on kinks in the arc of history
Our liberal history: Obama's oldest trope

1 comment:

  1. Dear Andrew,

    I want to thank you once again for a fascinating exploration of President Obama's rhetoric. I have learned so much from your wonderful critiques over the last eight years and hope that you will give some thought to publishing them in longer/collected form after 2107. What you grasped so well from the very start of his presidency is how central to his presidency and public persona is essentially a literary sensibility and it is exceptionally rare that such a trait has led to such political advantage and as you rightly argue the success of his political career.