Saturday, July 16, 2016

In Dallas, Obama returns to Gettysburg

Is suffering redemptive? Obama thinks it is.

Do violent upheavals lead Americans to recommit to and advance the nation's founding ideals? Obama professes faith that they do, and will.

The ideas, as Obama has absorbed them, come from Lincoln above all others. At moments of crisis, he reverts to Lincoln's rhetoric. And so, in Dallas this week, he closed his funeral oration for the five murdered police officers by reprising (not for the first time) the Gettysburg Address:
And that’s what I take away from the lives of these outstanding men.  The pain we feel may not soon pass, but my faith tells me that they did not die in vain.  I believe our sorrow can make us a better country.  I believe our righteous anger can be transformed into more justice and more peace.  Weeping may endure for a night, but I’m convinced joy comes in the morning.   We cannot match the sacrifices made by Officers Zamarripa and Ahrens, Krol, Smith, and Thompson, but surely we can try to match their sense of service.  We cannot match their courage, but we can strive to match their devotion.
That's this, in a minor key:
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Garry Wills, in his memorable Lincoln at Gettysburg, argues that Lincoln  here framed the bottomless suffering of the Civil War in specific ways, which (I'd add) Obama constantly channels. Lincoln, Wills argues, cast the war as a struggle for the nation to rededicate itself to its founding ideals, and he redefined those ideals by linking "the proposition that all men are created equal" to the survival of government of the people, by the people, for the people.  At the same time, while bidding to give meaning to the unfathomable carnage that reached an apogee on the ground on which he stood, he abstracted out the suffering by "dedicating" it to its alleged historic purpose:
His speech hovers far above the carnage. He lifts the battle to a level of abstraction that purges it of grosser matter--even "earth" is mentioned as the thing from which the tested form of government shall not perish...Lincoln has aligned the dead in ranks of an ideal order. Thenightmare realities have been etherealized in the crucible of his language  (p. 37). 
Obama generally does not limit his speeches to 272 words, and he often fills them with historical and individual particulars. In the Dallas speech, he offered snapshots of the lives of the five officers, as well as of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.  He also spoke some hard truths about the continuing ravages of systemic discrimination and acknowledged the danger of violently anti-police rhetoric.

But in his telling, as in Lincoln's, suffering ultimately serves the process of forming "a more perfect union" -- ever more perfect, never perfected -- because the country has the institutional capacity to resolve political differences:
America does not ask us to be perfect.  Precisely because of our individual imperfections, our founders gave us institutions to guard against tyranny and ensure no one is above the law; a democracy that gives us the space to work through our differences and debate them peacefully, to make things better, even if it doesn’t always happen as fast as we’d like.  America gives us the capacity to change.
Many are now questioning whether that 'capacity to change' for the better is still functional, whether political polarization -- or more specifically, the growing extremism of Republicans -- hasn't rendered our government dysfunctional.  Obama sees that degeneration -- like its twin, galloping inequality -- as cyclical rather permanent, as he asserted in a Feb. 19 speech:
My point is not that politicians are worse, it's not that issues are tougher, and so it's important for us to understand that the situation we find ourselves in today is not somehow unique or hopeless. We've always gone through periods when our democracy seems stuck, and when that happens we have to find a new way of doing business. We're in one of those moments. We've got to build a better politics, One that's less of a spectacle and more of a battle of ideas....one that understands the success of the American experiment rests on our willingness to engage all our citizens in this work. 
Obama's highly idealized portrayal of American history always includes this sense of punctuated rhythm -- that progress comes in surges, periodic breakthrough moments, and that the country's institutions and institutional memory, as it were, give it the capacity to overcome periods of stagnation or backsliding. He does also warn, though, that continued progress is not guaranteed -- that we also have the collective capacity to choose oligarchy or polarization or authoritarianism.

There is for many of us a false note in assertions that suffering is redemptive -- that, as Obama posited in Dallas, "Scripture tells us that in our sufferings there is glory, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope." There is nothing redemptive in the suffering of those whose lives are crushed from the beginning or snuffed out by random or institutionalized violence, or for that matter by random accident. Not for the victims, anyway. But there is something to the notion that a democracy has the capacity to ameliorate, redress, and sometimes remove systemic causes of suffering (and some have done it better than our own). A leader who constantly reminds us of that capacity, and expresses faith in it, and acts on it, is a gift. As we will soon realize in retrospect.

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