Friday, October 03, 2008

Audacity of The New Yorker: Comparing Obama and Lincoln

The editors of the New Yorker, in the best retrospective of this endless campaign and the Bush Administration that I've read anywhere, have expressed in a couple of sentences what I've been trying to get across about Obama for the better part of a year (e..g., here and here):
Obama has returned eloquence to its essential place in American politics. The choice between experience and eloquence is a false one––something that Lincoln, out of office after a single term in Congress, proved in his own campaign of political and national renewal. Obama’s “mere” speeches on everything from the economy and foreign affairs to race have been at the center of his campaign and its success; if he wins, his eloquence will be central to his ability to govern.
As Obama himself put it in the January 5 ABC debate:
And, you know, so the truth is actually words do inspire. Words do help people get involved. Words do help members of Congress get into power so that they can be part of a coalition to deliver health care reform, to deliver a bold energy policy. Don't discount that power, because when the American people are determined that something is going to happen, then it happens. And if they are disaffected and cynical and fearful and told that it can't be done, then it doesn't. I'm running for president because I want to tell them, yes, we can. And that's why I think they're responding in such large numbers.
Do we still have that democratic capacity to sell-correct? Arguably, people always do.In his inaugural address to the (then) Czechoslovakian nation on Jan. 1, 1990, Vaclav Havel told his people that after 40-plus years of Communism
we live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore one another, to care only about ourselves.
Later in the same speech, though, he acknowledged the miracle of the velvet revolution:
Where did the young people who never knew another system get their desire for truth, their love of free thought, their political ideas, their civic courage and civic prudence? How did it happen that their parents -- the very generation that had been considered lost -- joined them?
The U.S. moral environment has been tainted by an eight-year binge of preemptive war, relentless lying on the part of leaders, the shredding of civil liberties, the institutionalization of torture, not say by a binge of deregulation, tax cutting and credit run wild. Just 53% of Americans now think that torture is never justified -- the lowest percentage among developed nations, lower than that of the Chinese, who live under an authoritarian regime. A people can be corrupted from above, by their leaders and by media controlled by their leaders, e.g. Fox and its beloved torture-glorifying "24."

But democracy in America ain't dead yet. It may seem ridiculously starry-eyed to hope that Obama, like Lincoln before him, can win over the electorate by sheer force of ideas, by articulation of American ideals and of policies designed to give them new life -- and to hope further that he can execute those policies with some success if elected. Maybe those of us who buy in are Charlie Brown running for another kick of the football. But that's -- oh, the fear of looking foolish by quoting a politician's keynote! -- the audacity of hope.

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