Monday, March 26, 2012

Of the tribe of Barack

Obama's statement on Trayvon Martin was an appeal to the better angels of our nature -- complicated but far from compromised by Obama's reference to his own blackness. For some, no doubt, that note was discordant with his universal appeal to parents to put themselves in the Martins' shoes, which came first:
And I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this, and that everybody pulls together — federal, state and local — to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened.
The way in which his personal note chimes or clashes with that appeal is complex:
But my main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon. And I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and that we're going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.
That declaration, "if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," is literally addressed to the Martins -- and by extension, to all black Americans. That segues into a challenge to all Americans to acknowledge that the burdens still imposed on African Americans are a problem and responsibility for us all. That's where the risk comes in. It's a glimmer of the Jeremiah Wright speech: America's drive toward a 'more perfect union' is in some way centered on our continuing struggle with the legacy of slavery. That's implicit. And I imagine a lot of people still don't like it one bit. 

My personal reaction set me thinking -- not for the first time -- about Obama's hold on me. The clip teared me up. As is often the case when his speech strikes a chord, I recalled  the mildly self-mocking words of an academic friend. This time, I pulled them from her email of August 2009:

I love Obama...Every time he speaks I emit a small sigh of joy, love and delight.  I know, perhaps my eyes are clouded, but he seems so completely appropriate each time he speaks, that he could be singing the national anthem in Swahili, and I wouldn't care.
Those words often come to mind because I might as well confess I'm similarly susceptible. I try to compensate, and maintain critical distance, and recognize all the often terrible multilevel compromises anyone who reaches the pinnacle of power must make, and all the tactical errors and failures of nerve, power and will that a presidency -- and in some cases Obama's character -- extract. I know now, too, that presidential rhetoric does not move the ball much with regard to specific policy battles  -- though I think the political scientists would go too far if they suggest that certain presidents' rhetoric does not alter national consciousness over time.  Obama has certainly altered mine. Or at least tapped into it.

The hold is in part tribal. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, writing about the roots of our political impulses in the Times last week, cited a paradigm that in 2007-08 Obama mainlined into the base:
The Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith once summarized the moral narrative told by the American left like this: “Once upon a time, the vast majority” of people suffered in societies that were “unjust, unhealthy, repressive and oppressive.” These societies were “reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation and irrational traditionalism — all of which made life very unfair, unpleasant and short. But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies.” Despite our progress, “there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation and repression.” This struggle, as Smith put it, “is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving.”

This is a heroic liberation narrative. For the American left, African-Americans, women and other victimized groups are the sacred objects at the center of the story. As liberals circle around these groups, they bond together and gain a sense of righteous common purpose.
Yup, Mr. Smith's got me pegged. And Obama too.  Look at his defining speech on race in the wake of the Jeremiah Wright blowup, A More Perfect Union. That signature Obama trope -- never perfected, always perfecting -- is defined as ever expanding equality of opportunity.

There's a different tribal pull in Obama's deliberative style. One thing that hooked me on Obama early (by Jan. 5 '08, anyway) is his think-your-way-through manner of responding to questions, on extended display in the Democratic primary debates (and very much in the Trayvon Martin statement).  The long pauses, the uhs, the quasi-stammers, the intermittent burst of can see the gears turning, in a good way.  At first I worried that the style signaled weakness, but I think opposite is true. I've noticed this with a couple of other slow speakers: they have the confidence to make people wait while they work it out.  Maybe because they know they can work it out: they are capable of thinking a new thought -- or, in the case of a politician who must repeat himself ad infinitum, a new variant on an established thought.  It's actually the opposite of teleprompter dependency.

Of course, there's more to the bond Obama has forged with his base than a generic myth and a slow delivery. I've tried to get at it many times. Here is a look at his signature rhetorical tropes and cadences. Here, his signature historical narrative. Here, a look at how he presents policy.

I'm pretty sure that, succeed or fail, Obama's will be the presidency of my lifetime, the one that defines most sharply what this country is, where it's headed, and for me, how my own identity and hopes in life are bound up with the nation's.


  1. I got a little teary reading this. It seems to be something we feel, but try real hard to keep in check. Of course that makes me wonder why.

  2. Ok, you got me too. I admit that sometimes when faced with obstacles to progress at work in local government, into my head pops the phrase "we are the ones we've been waiting for" and I think of moments like the speech after Iowa and get the goosebumps again and am steeled not to give in to the forces of the status quo. Political scientists can't measure the effect but added up its consequential.