Tuesday, June 02, 2020

"In the mourning we find hope": Biden's somber recast of Obama's story of America

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In his remarks on this week's civil unrest and Trump's authoritarian response today, Biden hit some vitally right notes.  He committed himself as president to obtaining equal justice for all. He spotlighted the depravity of Trump's words and actions in response to this week's demonstrations, accurately recalling their echoes of the vicious police chiefs who assaulted the civil rights demonstrators of the 60s. He spoke of his own crushing personal losses and, with humility and obvious sincerity, modeled the empathy that Trump lacks for suffering triggered by economic inequality and racism. 

Most strikingly to me, he recast Obama's heroic narrative of American history in somber tones even as he echoed Obama's signature tropes -- the pursuit of a more perfect union, the arc of history that bends toward justice.

Obama's seductive story of America was a perpetual pilgrim's progress, acknowledging setbacks but promising continued progress toward a more perfect union. In Obama's telling, Americans at various crux points demanded and obtained new common investments in shared prosperity and new extensions of equal opportunity to an ever-widening and more inclusive circle -- African Americans, women, gays. For example, when compelled to counter his former pastor Jeremiah Wright's fiery criticism of America in the 2008 campaign, Obama cast the ideal of equal citizenship embedded in the Constitution as a kind of national DNA:
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.
Well, maybe not always, according to Biden today. And maybe not finally:
The American story is about action and reaction. That's the way history works. We can't be naïve about that.

I wish I could say this hate began with Donald Trump and will end with him. It didn't and it won't. American history isn't a fairy tale with a guaranteed happy ending.

The battle for the soul of this nation has been a constant push-and-pull for more than 240 years.

A tug of war between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh reality that racism has long torn us apart. The honest truth is both elements are part of the American character.

At our best, the American ideal wins out.It's never a rout. It's always a fight. And the battle is never finally won.
That's real talk, from a pol I've always considered rather given to, um, malarkey. It's amazing, from a man who a few months ago was promising a renewed era of comity shared with Republicans who would experience an epiphany when Trump is gone.

In Obama's telling, U.S. history was a victory march. In his acceptance speech on election night in 2008, it becomes a quick-march as he invited Americans to view it through the eyes of a 106 year-old African American voter:
When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs and a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can.

When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes we can.

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that "We Shall Overcome." Yes we can.

A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes we can.
Biden, now, calls us not to a quick march but to a long trudge:
The history of this nation teaches us that it's in some of our darkest moments of despair that we've made some of our greatest progress.

The 13th and 14th and 15th Amendments followed the Civil War. The greatest economy in the history of the world grew out of the Great Depression. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting  Rights Act of 1965 came in the tracks of Bull Connor's vicious dogs.

To paraphrase Reverend Barber — it's in the mourning we find hope.

It will take more than talk. We've had talk before. We've had protests before.

Let us vow to make this, at last, an era of action to reverse systemic racism with long overdue and concrete changes.

That action will not be completed in the first 100 days of my Presidency — or even an entire term.  It is the work of a generation.
"In the mourning we find hope" -- Biden actually flubbed that a bit, and then repeated it twice. In delivery, it went like this: "To paraphrase Reverend Barber, 'It's the mourning we find hope.' It's in the mourning we find hope when we mourn." Mourn -- a loaded word, worthy of the accidental repetition. As a keynote, this is less abstract than "the arc of history is long but it bends toward justice: --  Obama's credo, borrowed from Martin Luther King. 

Of course, Obama also made a watchword -- and book title -- of "the audacity of hope," a phrase borrowed from the pastor he was driven to reject, who spoke of an audacity required by a suffering that makes hope something of a miracle. As recounted in his autobiography, the suffering underlying the hope Wright spoke of is at the heart of Obama's conversion to Christian belief. At various times Obama too cast progress toward a more perfect union as a choice that might or might not be made rather than an inevitability.  And just a couple of weeks ago, Obama's speeches to this year's graduates also reflected the darkness of the fourth year of the Trump era.

All that said, the gravity, and the pain, and the mourning, and the realism in Biden's speech today was something to behold. May he continue to rise to the moment.

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