Sunday, June 07, 2015

"Strong enough to be self-critical": Obama's handwritten additions to Selma speech

As I noted at the time of Obama's Selma speech,, the idea he expressed there that riveted respondents -- that America's greatest strength is its capacity to self-correct, in a never-finished drive to fulfill the promise embedded in its founding documents --  -- was not only not new, but was the same story that Obama's been telling continually since he first appeared on the national stage, and probably before. He did take that message to a new level of clarity at Selma, while expanding the circle of those he credited with fighting that fight and advancing the "always perfecting, never perfected" narrative.

Today the Washington Post is out with a hand-edited draft of the speech. It turns out that Obama handwrote-in the most direct expression of its core idea. And he pointed it directly at his most recent critics -- e.g., Giuliani, who had recently charged that Obama doesn't love America -- contrasting his brand of patriotism with a cardboard boosterism "based stock photos or airbrushed history."

Here is that passage with the handwritten addition bolded, an omitted portion in strike-through, and a later addition in red type:
...Selma is not some outlier in the American experience. Even today, we continue have debate about what it means to love this country, to be a true patriot. But what greater expression of faith in the American idea, what greater form of patriotism is there, than to believe that America is not yet finished, that it is strong enough to be self-critical, that each generation can look upon its imperfection and say we can do better.  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."
It's interesting that the reference to current debate was ultimately cut. Perhaps Obama decided that Giuliani and his ilk were not worth even implicitly name-checking. Better to suggest, via rhetorical question, that no one can really deny his premise -- that the ability to self-correct is a strength.

There are two other extended additions in the Post's typescript, and both develop the concept of a nation capable of continual progress and self-correction.  The first emphasizes that while .many of the moments in which the "more perfect...never perfected" process advanced were in time of war, many were not -- and in fact, the capacity to self-correct means the capacity to address injustice peacefully (and to do so is the highest patriotism). Relatedly, the process is continuous: flashpoints are not isolated tableaux but the partial culmination of longrunning efforts.

Here is the first, at the speech's formal outset. Again, bolded sections were handwritten in; red type shows a later addition.
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.

And because of men and women like John Lewis, Joseph Lowery, Hosea Williams, Amelia Boynton, Diane Nash, Ralph Abernathy, C.T. Vivian, Andrew Young, Fred Shuttlesworth, Dr. King, and so many more, the idea of a just America, a fair America, an inclusive America, a generous America – that idea ultimately triumphed.
In addition to setting moments of peaceful protest (peaceful on the protestors' part, that is) beside those of war, this passage also expands the national pantheon while itemizing how that work of peace advanced the national project.

Finally, there was this, setting the notion of continuous struggle and progress against isolated moments of glory:
As is true across the landscape of American history, we cannot examine this moment in isolation. The march on Selma was part of a broader campaign that spanned generations; the leaders that day part of a long line of heroes.
That's as opposed to "stock photos or airbrushed history." There's a bit of an irony here, in that one of Obama's favorite rhetorical devices is a quick verbal slideshow of iconic moments in which the circle of rights and opportunity was expanded to include the previously excluded. There are several in this speech, e.g.:
The American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge is the same instinct that moved patriots to choose revolution over tyranny. It’s the same instinct that drew immigrants from across oceans and the Rio Grande; the same instinct that led women to reach for the ballot and workers to organize against an unjust status quo; the same instinct that led us to plant a flag at Iwo Jima and on the surface of the Moon.
As does every president, Obama idealizes and romanticizes American history. But he leavens that idealism with acknowledgement of national fault, and he alchemizes acknowledgement of fault into the very basis of his own exceptionalism: America can change, as he asserted simply in his "More Perfect Union" speech in response to the Reverend Wright firestorm in March 2008. In Selma, he cited American ability to confront its own injustices as the source of inspiration abroad:
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.
Thus his own willingness to acknowledge past American misconduct in speeches abroad  -- the source of all the "apology tour" ridicule -- is an expression of confidence.

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