Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Obama's Mandela: man of interior action

Some time ago, after James Fallows wrote that Obama's speeches are often memorable at the ideas level, but rarely at the phrase level, I responded:
Re that strange absence of memorable phrases: it's not just balanced by one strength, it's book-ended between two: conceptual complexity/coherence on the macro side, and cadence on the sub-micro. At least in 2007/2008, less so now, Obama's speeches were musical, hinging on repeat phrases (yes we can) and on the simplest of rhetorical devices, various forms of parallel structure, e.g. anaphora, the repetition of beginning words (also a lot of parallel phrasings in series -- "A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin" etc.).  It was no accident that Will.i.am was able to set one of his speeches to music to some effect.
I heard this kind of music in Obama's eulogy for Mandela. It was a speech of strong cadences that gave shape to the speaker's thought. At his best, Obama is a prose poet, and today he was Mandela's poet.

Poet, not novelist. At the outset, Obama set himself a problem:

It is hard to eulogize any man - to capture in words not just the facts and the dates that make a life, but the essential truth of a person - their private joys and sorrows; the quiet moments and unique qualities that illuminate someone’s soul.  How much harder to do so for a giant of history, who moved a nation toward justice, and in the process moved billions around the world.
He took up half the task set out here. There was not much in his speech about private joys and sorrows or quiet moments, but there was indeed a bid to evoke -- wince away, postmodernists - "the essential truth" of the person and his "unique qualities." Whereas Bill Clinton might have offered a rich set of anecdotes, Obama portrayed Mandela more abstractly as a kind of spiritual spirit level, balancing unyielding principles and flexibility in negotiation, "channeled" anger and forgiveness, ideas and action. 

"Man of action" was Obama's governing concept -- action governed by complex thought, in its turn shaped by empathy. The concept was hammered home, as it were, by a kind of active-verb anaphora in which every verb denotes an interior action:
But like other early giants of the ANC - the Sisulus and Tambos - Madiba disciplined his anger; and channeled his desire to fight into organization, and platforms, and strategies for action, so men and women could stand-up for their dignity.  Moreover, he accepted the consequences of his actions, knowing that standing up to powerful interests and injustice carries a price.  “I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination,” he said at his 1964 trial.  “I’ve cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.  It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve.  But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Mandela taught us the power of action, but also ideas; the importance of reason and arguments; the need to study not only those you agree with, but those who you don’t.  He understood that ideas cannot be contained by prison walls, or extinguished by a sniper’s bullet.  He turned his trial into an indictment of apartheid because of his eloquence and passion, but also his training as an advocate. He used decades in prison to sharpen his arguments, but also to spread his thirst for knowledge to others in the movement.  And he learned the language and customs of his oppressor so that one day he might better convey to them how their own freedom depended upon his.

Mandela demonstrated that action and ideas are not enough; no matter how right, they must be chiseled into laws and institutions.
 What was chiseled into South Africa's future life, in Obama's telling, was the balance in Mandela's soul:
And because he was not only a leader of a movement, but a skillful politician, the Constitution that emerged was worthy of this multiracial democracy; true to his vision of laws that protect minority as well as majority rights, and the precious freedoms of every South African.
 Ultimately, the chiseling goes into the interior of Obama himself, and millions more:
We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again.  But let me say to the young people of Africa, and young people around the world - you can make his life’s work your own.  Over thirty years ago, while still a student, I learned of Mandela and the struggles in this land.  It stirred something in me.  It woke me up to my responsibilities - to others, and to myself - and set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today.  And while I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be better.  He speaks to what is best inside us.  After this great liberator is laid to rest; when we have returned to our cities and villages, and rejoined our daily routines, let us search then for his strength - for his largeness of spirit - somewhere inside ourselves.  And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, or our best laid plans seem beyond our reach - think of Madiba, and the words that brought him comfort within the four walls of a cell:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
In a different anaphoric riff, Obama commended Mandela to the ages, situated him in history. He did so by means of a favorite devices in his speeches, the historical tableau. Usually this entails a quick march through U.S. history in which various individuals or the people as a whole meet various challenges, widening the circle of opportunity and forming new bases for shared prosperity.   Just a few days ago, Obama painted such a tableau with an economic palette:
It was Abraham Lincoln, a self-described poor-man’s son who started a system of land-grant colleges all over this country so that any poor-man’s son could go learn something new. When farms gave way to factories, a rich-man’s son named Teddy Roosevelt fought for an eight-hour work day, protections for workers and busted monopolies that kept prices high and wages low.

When millions lived in poverty, FDR fought for Social Security and insurance for the unemployment and a minimum wage. When millions died without health insurance, LBJ fought for Medicare and Medicaid. Together we forged a new deal, declared a war on poverty and a great society, we built a ladder of opportunity to climb and stretched out a safety net beneath so that if we fell, it wouldn’t be too far and we could bounce back.
To take Mandela's measure, Obama had to move somewhat outside the national frame (though barely -- Obama's 'history of freedom' remains America-centric). The anaphoric glue is a series of similes:
Born during World War I, far from the corridors of power, a boy raised herding cattle and tutored by elders of his Thembu tribe - Madiba would emerge as the last great liberator of the 20th century.  Like Gandhi, he would lead a resistance movement - a movement that at its start held little prospect of success.  Like King, he would give potent voice to the claims of the oppressed, and the moral necessity of racial justice.  He would endure a brutal imprisonment that began in the time of Kennedy and Khrushchev, and reached the final days of the Cold War.  Emerging from prison, without force of arms, he would - like Lincoln - hold his country together when it threatened to break apart.  Like America’s founding fathers, he would erect a constitutional order to preserve freedom for future generations - a commitment to democracy and rule of law ratified not only by his election, but by his willingness to step down from power.
To use the retrospective conditional -- "he would" do x, "he would" do y, when "he" has already done x and y -- is to freight those actions with historical portentousness.  Each choice and deed was significant, and each followed in the footsteps of giants.  It's an elevated third-person narrative -- call it third person historical.

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