Sunday, May 17, 2020

Obama's bid to bend the arc back toward justice

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In 2013, I marveled as pundits expressed surprise when Obama said what he'd always said about the economic case for a fairer distribution of wealth. It seemed that the connection Obama constantly asserted between fairness and prosperity hadn't registered. I wondered, Will we hear Obama in retrospect?

The answer now appears to be yes, evident in the outpouring of love and longing in reaction to his virtual commencement speeches for graduates of historical black colleges and universities and all high school graduates. But not in the way I'd anticipated.

Obama's core pitch, as candidate and president, was for a recommitment to shared prosperity -- public investment, income redistribution -- after decades of steadily encroaching plutocracy. He encased this pitch in a seductive narrative of American history in which this commitment to the common good was renewed and extended at intervals: the nation might err, but its long-term course was to approach ever nearer to fulfilling its founding principles of equal rights and shared opportunity. Democracy, embodied in bottom-up demand for justice, enabled periodic course correction: American history followed the arc that bends toward justice.

Another core Obama tenet was that the expressed will of the people would generate consensus: the political center, knocked rightward by Reagan, would shift leftward as Republicans were forced to recognize Obama's own exquisite reasonableness. He would enable this in part by reaching out to them, recognizing publicly that "the other side may sometimes have a point." That meant, in large part, recognizing budget constraints, which Obama cared about on the merits: he said during the 2008 transition that the then-ballooning deficit was thing the that kept him up at night. In his 2010 State of the Union address, with unemployment at 9.7%, he called for a bipartisan commission to reduce the deficit and a 3-year freeze on government spending. Surely those measures would reduce Republican opposition to the pending Affordable Care Act, which, according to Congressional Budget Office decree, would also reduce the deficit over time?

The election of Trump and the swift conversion of the Republican party into a fascist rubber stamp have shown key elements of Obama's core pitch to have been, if not wrong, at best very, very early. The arc of American history is bending toward plutocracy and fascism; whether we retain the democratic capacity for course correction that Obama loved to cite, as Trump demands criminalization on trumped-up charges of Biden and Obama himself, remains very much in doubt. As for the Republican "fever break" that Obama promised if he were reelected... the fever's now 105°. And it's hard to see how democracy can survive when one of two parties in a two-party system echoes a nonstop stream of lies and smears from its leader while countenancing and abetting naked corruption and outright treason. Perhaps a cycle of serial electoral defeat will bring about peaceful party reform. But will Republicans, holding the reins now, countenance electoral defeat?

So, with democracy and the rule of law hanging in the balance, Obama delivered two addresses to the next generation. He reprised old themes:

1) The world will get better, the country will get better, and it's up to you. To the high school grads:
First, don’t be afraid. America’s gone through tough times before — slavery, civil war, famine, disease, the Great Depression and 9/11. And each time we came out stronger, usually because a new generation, young people like you, learned from past mistakes and figured out how to make things better.  
2)  The only true prosperity is shared prosperity. To the HBCU grads:
it doesn’t matter how much money you make if everyone around you is hungry and sick;  that our society and democracy only works when we think not just about ourselves, but about each other.
To run that last golden oldie, I cheated a little. Here's the beginning of the same paragraph:
Injustice like this isn’t new. What is new is that so much of your generation has woken up to the fact that the status quo needs fixing; that the old ways of doing things don’t work.
In these speeches, Obama divided his the "we" he has always invoked, as in "we the people who will demand and make change," by generation. Those in power now have fucked up, he told the younguns, in a mini-version of Chris Hayes' Twilight of the Elites. To the HBCU grads:
More than anything, this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing. A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge.
And so:
If the world’s going to get better, it’s going to be up to you. 
Note the "if."  That's a new note for Obama. To the nation's high school students, meanwhile, he was even more pointed about the corruption of those currently in power:
Second, do what you think is right. Doing what feels good, what’s convenient, what’s easy — that’s how little kids think. Unfortunately, a lot of so-called grown-ups, including some with fancy titles and important jobs, still think that way — which is why things are so screwed up.
This was probably the most quoted passage in my Twitter feed, celebrated as the ultimate subtweet of He Who Shall Not Be Named. But the omission was not just politesse: arguably the key term here is "a lot." The power structure, embodied in "a lot" of powerful people, is corrupted.  "Things are so screwed up"-- is that a high school translation of  "things fall apart"? -- Obama subtweeting Yeats, or Achebe?

Obama's choice to address black graduates specifically is also significant. It would be wrong to say it's a departure for him to acknowledge racial inequality -- or to shine his sun on HBCUs, as he did in a commencement address at Howard in 2016. He always cited slavery as America's original sin and repeatedly highlighted its effects, though usually in the context of also affirming the country's periodic extension of rights and opportunity to other out-groups. But with much of the nation tuned in and thirsting for his voice, he chose this specific audience. And he put racial injustice at the core of this speech:
And let’s be honest — a disease like this just spotlights the underlying inequalities and extra burdens that black communities have historically had to deal with in this country. We see it in the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on our communities, just as we see it when a black man goes for a jog, and some folks feel like they can stop and question and shoot him if he doesn’t submit to their questioning.
Indeed, in choosing this audience, one might say Obama was anointing an alternative elite:
Many of you could have attended any school in this country. But you chose an H.B.CU. — specifically because it would help you sow seeds of change. You chose to follow in the fearless footsteps of people who shook the system to its core — civil rights icons like Thurgood Marshall and Dr. King, storytellers like Toni Morrison and Spike Lee. You chose to study medicine at Meharry, and engineering at NC A&T, because you want to lead and serve.

And I’m here to tell you, you made a great choice. Whether you realize it or not, you’ve got more road maps, more role models, more resources than the civil rights generation did. You’ve got more tools, technology, and talents than my generation did. No generation has been better positioned to be warriors for justice and remake the world.
Perhaps the second most quoted passage in the two speeches was the most anodyne. To the high school grads:
I hope that instead, you decide to ground yourself in values that last, like honesty, hard work, responsibility, fairness, generosity, respect for others. You won’t get it right every time, you’ll make mistakes like we all do. But if you listen to the truth that’s inside yourself, even when it’s hard, even when its inconvenient, people will notice. They’ll gravitate towards you. And you’ll be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. 
It wasn't anodyne, though, against the background of the corruption in power Obama had sketched just previously. And it led on to the pitch for shared prosperity that is perhaps Obama's lasting legacy -- if it's not swallowed in oligarchic fascism cased in alternative reality:
And finally, build a community. No one does big things by themselves. Right now, when people are scared, it’s easy to be cynical and say let me just look out for myself, or my family, or people who look or think or pray like me. But if we’re going to get through these difficult times; if we’re going to create a world where everybody has the opportunity to find a job, and afford college; if we’re going to save the environment and defeat future pandemics, then we’re going to have to do it together. So be alive to one another’s struggles. Stand up for one another’s rights. Leave behind all the old ways of thinking that divide us — sexism, racial prejudice, status, greed — and set the world on a different path. 
That's the Obama people hunger for. Events, and the Democratic party, and his own vice president have moved beyond his centrist liberalism, his effort to shift government commitments more than expand them. Regardless, he always appealed to the better angels of our nature. May he conjure them once again. 

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