Thursday, December 10, 2015

Once more, slowly: Obama sends a signal through the noise

There was conceptually nothing new in the interpretation of American history that Obama voiced in his speech yesterday commemorating the passage of the 13th Amendment. Yet what an intense, somber, formal, meditative distillation it was.

As in his speech in the eye of the Reverend Wright storm in March 2008, and his speech celebrating the Selma march early this year, this speech reiterated the core Obama narrative:
  • American history is a long quest to live up the principles articulated in the country's founding documents -- and to shake off the "original sin" of slavery.

  • Heroes of American history have at critical junctures advanced that quest, widening the circle of those encompassed by the promise of equal rights and opportunity.

  • It's incumbent on us today to write the next chapter in that history of bumpy, incremental progress.
What was different yesterday: There was more emphasis on the original sin, and less on the moments of glory. Three of the four "warriors of justice Obama cited were black, (Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King as well as Lincoln), keeping the focus on the "original sin" with less zooming out to other causes (women's rights, gay rights) than in other recent speeches.* Most of all, Obama was pushing back, obliquely but unmistakably, against the rising tide of nascent fascism in the current campaign:

We would do a disservice to those warriors of justice -- Tubman, and Douglass, and Lincoln, and King -- were we to deny that the scars of our nation’s original sin are still with us today.  (Applause.)  We condemn ourselves to shackles once more if we fail to answer those who wonder if they’re truly equals in their communities, or in their justice systems, or in a job interview.  We betray the efforts of the past if we fail to push back against bigotry in all its forms.

But we betray our most noble past as well if we were to deny the possibility of movement, the possibility of progress; if we were to let cynicism consume us and fear overwhelm us.  If we lost hope.  For however slow, however incomplete, however harshly, loudly, rudely challenged at each point along our journey, in America, we can create the change that we seek.  (Applause.)  All it requires is that our generation be willing to do what those who came before us have done:  To rise above the cynicism and rise above the fear, to hold fast to our values, to see ourselves in each other, to cherish dignity and opportunity not just for our own children but for somebody else’s child. To remember that our freedom is bound up with the freedom of others -– regardless of what they look like or where they come from or what their last name is or what faith they practice.  To be honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve.  To nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of Earth.  To nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of Earth.  That is our choice.  Today, we affirm hope.
Obama spoke slowly, with intensity, and his diction was formal, leaning on Lincoln's, as if to draw strength from the narrative arc he was describing. It was as if he was fighting off the miasma of Trump and the xenophobic frenzy he's unleashed -- not to say the dark cloud of ISIS giving oxygen to that phobia. As if he was reaching for a deep, low signal in the noise of the current campaign.

Related: Obama's seductive love for America

* The focus on the struggle against slavery and Jim Crow was in large part dictated by the occasion -- commemoration of the post-Civil War amendments abolishing slavery and guaranteeing the right to vote and equal protection. But the same might be said about the speech at Selma,and many other speeches in which Obama set the equal rights struggles of women, immigrants and gays on a string with those of African Americans. Here he zoomed out only briefly and obliquely.

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