Wednesday, January 12, 2011

With malice toward none...

To perhaps the greatest extent to date, the extraordinary subtlety and yes, moral clarity of Obama's mind was on full display tonight, as he spoke at the memorial service for the victims of last Saturday's shooting at the University of Arizona tonight.

The President employed two shifts of perspective to address the rancor of the post-shooting debate  - and the question of whether our politics are poisoned by vitriol -- without getting mired in the rancor.

The first, and perhaps more obvious, was to ask us all to face the question looking forward, not backward.
But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized – at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do – it's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.
The second, more profound, was a version of "let he who is without blame cast the first stone" -- an exhortation to each of us to look inward -- as humans naturally do when they lose a loved one:

 But what we can't do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.

After all, that's what most of us do when we lose someone in our family – especially if the loss is unexpected. We're shaken from our routines, and forced to look inward. We reflect on the past. Did we spend enough time with an aging parent, we wonder. Did we express our gratitude for all the sacrifices they made for us? Did we tell a spouse just how desperately we loved them, not just once in awhile but every single day? 
And then again, in the context of that reflection, the plea to focus forward:

So sudden loss causes us to look backward – but it also forces us to look forward, to reflect on the present and the future, on the manner in which we live our lives and nurture our relationships with those who are still with us. We may ask ourselves if we've shown enough kindness and generosity and compassion to the people in our lives. Perhaps we question whether we are doing right by our children, or our community, and whether our priorities are in order. We recognize our own mortality, and are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame – but rather, how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in bettering the lives of others. 
The poison thus drawn from that ferocious argument over why our politics are so rancorous or whether the verbal aggression is even a bad thing, Obama moved on to two broader concepts -- prepared earlier in the speech, (and indeed by the architecture of the event, which celebrated the heroism of ordinary citizens) --  about national identity.

First, having suggested that our reaction to the tragedy should follow the natural course of our reaction to the loss of a personal loved one -- and having earlier made that seem plausible by describing each victim and each heroic actor in the drama -- came the assertion of a national family. Immediately following was Obama's treasured notion of the American body politic: always at work on the paradoxical task of forming a "more perfect" (never perfect) union:
That process of reflection, of making sure we align our values with our actions – that, I believe, is what a tragedy like this requires. For those who were harmed, those who were killed – they are part of our family, an American family 300 million strong. We may not have known them personally, but we surely see ourselves in them. In George and Dot, in Dorwan and Mavy, we sense the abiding love we have for our own husbands, our own wives, our own life partners. Phyllis – she's our mom or grandma; Gabe our brother or son. In Judge Roll, we recognize not only a man who prized his family and doing his job well, but also a man who embodied America's fidelity to the law. In Gabby, we see a reflection of our public spiritedness, that desire to participate in that sometimes frustrating, sometimes contentious, but always necessary and never-ending process to form a more perfect union.
Finally, without undue sentimentality, he made the martyred child the measure of how well we live up to our ideals:.
Imagine: here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation's future. She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.

I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations.
It's important to note that Obama did not evade the question of whether the vitriol of our public discourse is endangering, or at least hobbling, our democracy.  While asserting, rightly, that none of us know the causes of the violent turn in Jared Loughner's mind, he took it for granted that the polarization is poisonous. He did not need to address whether the venom and demonization were more intense from his opponents' side. He simply asked every one of us to consider whether we had contributed, and to resolve to do better.  

And in building his image of a national family, embodied in the people whose lives he sketched, Obama moved miles behind his "no red state/blue state --> United States credo of 2004. In evoking the reactions of the bereaved, he spoke as husband, father and son.  He made me proud to be part of his family.

UPDATE:  Joe Klein is pitch perfect on this speech (of course I think that; he sees it in terms very similar to those above...):

Barack Obama spoke to the city of Tucson, and to the United States of America, not so much as our President tonight, but as a member of our family. He spoke as a son--I couldn't help but think of his personal regret over not being by his mother's side when she passed as he said, "Did we spend enough time with an aging parent, we wonder." You could see the devastation insinuate itself onto, and then be quietly willed away from, his face. He spoke as a brother to his fellow public servants, killed and wounded in the events--an eager brother bringing the glad tidings the Gabrielle Giffords had opened her eyes. He repeated it, joyously, three times. But most of all, he spoke as a father--rising to a glorious peak describing the departed 9-year-old, Christine Taylor Green, a girl near the age of his daughters, whose own deaths, perhaps in the line of fire, he had so clearly been thinking about. And he spoke, more broadly, as the head of our national family, comforting, uplifting, scolding a little, nudging us toward our better angels.
I also thought of Obama's mother (and grandmother) when he evoked the internal question, "Did we spend enough time with an aging parent."  I had meant to add that. I'm sure many who know Obama's bio had the same thought.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with everything here. It was a tremendous speech. It seems so elevated. If only we could rise up to this.

    I can only imagine, but it seems to me this would have been very comforting to the family members of those killed. Nothing could make up for the pain of losing a young daughter (I have two), but man, what a powerful eulogy for Christine's family to hear, to draw from in the future when they're remembering and mourning her loss.