Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Obama on kinks in the arc of history

One passage in Peter Beinart's stirring ode to Obama's gun control efforts set me thinking again about how Obama views (and frames) U.S. history:
Republicans often describe America as a country that was once pure—at its founding, before the New Deal, or before the 1960s—was sullied and now must now be redeemed. Obama, by contrast, describes America as a protracted struggle to honor our best ideals by overcoming our evil past, a struggle in which heroes often die without ever seeing their labors bear fruit. It’s no coincidence that a month after Newtown, he swore his inaugural oath on the bibles of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, and spoke of “the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall.” It’s no coincidence that he so often quotes King (who was himself quoting the abolitionist Theodore Parker) as saying, “Even though the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice.”
I would slightly edit this acute observation, altering "overcoming our evil past" to "overcoming the evils in our past" or "overcoming our more limited past."  Due in part perhaps to political necessity, Obama puts a relentlessly positive spin on the national historical saga, casting it as a tale of continual progress toward a more perfect union.  The circle of those included in the "all are created equal" widens in concentric historical ripples, "through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall." It's a presentation of American history modeled on Lincoln's concept of what Garry Wills tagged in Lincoln at Gettysburg as "continual approximation" of the ideals embedded in the Declaration of Independence.  Wills cites Lincoln setting forth that concept in the Lincoln-Douglas debates:

They [the fathers who issued the Declaration] meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attain, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere [SW 1,398] (Lincoln at Gettysburg, 102).
Compare Obama, implicitly folding the Declaration into a Constitution he called "stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery," in his monumental  speech addressing the Jeremiah Wright controversy, titled "A More Perfect Union" :
Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution – a Constitution that had at is very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.

And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part – through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk – to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time...

This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected. 
Of course, Lincoln later came to cast the nation's "new birth of freedom" as a passage through a blood-soaked canal, ultimately wondering, six weeks before his own death, whether God might require that "every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword." At a distance of 145 years, at his first inaugural, Obama evoked the nation's bloodiest passage in stylized terms while suggesting that with regard to the "all are created equal" ideal we remain in mid-steam:

And because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.
With regard to evils presently to be overcome, Obama in the fourth and fifth years of his presidency has grown more caustic -- never more so than last week, after gun control opponents successfully blocked a Senate vote on the Manchin-Toomey bill extending background checks to gun shows and internet sales
those who care deeply about preventing more and more gun violence will have to be as passionate, and as organized, and as vocal as those who blocked these common-sense steps to help keep our kids safe. Ultimately, you outnumber those who argued the other way. But they're better organized. They're better financed. They’ve been at it longer. And they make sure to stay focused on this one issue during election time. And that’s the reason why you can have something that 90 percent of Americans support and you can’t get it through the Senate or the House of Representatives.

So to change Washington, you, the American people, are going to have to sustain some passion about this. And when necessary, you’ve got to send the right people to Washington. And that requires strength, and it requires persistence...

And I’m assuming that the emotions that we’ve all felt since Newtown, the emotions that we’ve all felt since Tucson and Aurora and Chicago -- the pain we share with these families and families all across the country who’ve lost a loved one to gun violence -- I’m assuming that’s not a temporary thing. I’m assuming our expressions of grief and our commitment to do something different to prevent these things from happening are not empty words. 

I believe we’re going to be able to get this done. Sooner or later, we are going to get this right. The memories of these children demand it. And so do the American people.
This form of leadership from behind -- exhorting the electorate to demand what he thinks we should demand -- was also a feature of Obama's address to the DNC this past September:
If you turn away now – if you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn’t possible…well, change will not happen. If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void: lobbyists and special interests; the people with the $10 million checks who are trying to buy this election and those who are making it harder for you to vote; Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry, or control health care choices that women should make for themselves.
Only you can make sure that doesn’t happen. Only you have the power to move us forward.
Obama has always insisted, as Beinart emphasizes above, that the arc of history is long, that change is hard and slow and frustrating, and that it comes from the bottom up.  But in the last year, he's sharpened his rhetorical focus on the forces arrayed against it.

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