A Take on ‘A More Perfect Union’

Barack Obama’s speech yesterday on race in America was remarkable in many ways. Andrew Sullivan’s blog offers a great summation of the various reactions–the good and the bad of the speech. I’d like to point to an aspect of the speech that made me particularly proud to be an Obama supporter–his striking and compelling display and demand of Maturity. Here are 5 ways that Obama is both showing and asking for this Maturity from America.

1) Don’t be distracted by insignificant issues. In November of ’04, my response to Bush’s victory was: this time it wasn’t stolen, it was just that everyone in American was fundamentally at odds with my belief system. People were distracted by things and voting on things that didn’t matter. The best example is Dean’s rally cry that destroyed his campaign. I still don’t understand what was wrong with that. Maybe it’s cause I’m still a weird theatre kid at heart and I feed off the passion of others, but I just thought it was a striking testament to the conformity and desire for apathy of the American people. In any case, the “not this time” section of Barack’s speech feels like he’s picking the American people up by their ears and saying, “Do not be this way. Grow up! You’re going to ruin our country if you behave like this again.” I love that.2) Standing up for what you believe. On more than one occasion, Barack has taken the hard, unpolitical road towards winning the election. The most obvious manifestation of this is that he gave yesterday’s speech and confronted the issues. “The easy thing to do would’ve been to hope this faded away in the media coverage…” There was also a moment in the LA debate that I didn’t think got enough attention. It was in response to a question from a Minnesotan about immigrants taking American jobs. Hillary said something useless, then Barack came in and said, “This is exactly the kind of scapegoating we need to stop if we’re going to solve anything. People like this were struggling with unemployment long before the current wave of Mexican immigrants. Let’s stop blaming them and solve the problem where it starts.” This is amazing. We’ve grown so used to politicians not really confronting the hard issues head on. Barack is doing it, and he’s standing by and explaining why he’s doing it.

3) Security in self manifesting in an Embrace Diversity of opinion. Remember when we all got labeled as un-American for being critical? Reverend Wright is surely critical but not once did Barack call his ideas un-American. More than anyone and perhaps above all else, Barack understands that the freedom to share these opinions and the ability of our leaders to learn from these opinions is the backbone of our country. Remember when Cornell West told him he wasn’t black enough. He didn’t denounce those comments because he didn’t like them. Sure he didn’t like them, but he called up Cornell West and said, “Hey, why do you think that? Why don’t you come work for me if you feel so strongly about this.” That takes incredible confidence.

4) Loyalty. Denounce the words not the man. What kind of man would Barack be if he just turned his back on someone who has done so much? He did a great job of making this point. It’s easy for a president to stand by his advisers and his constituents when they’re agreeable. But show me a leader who explains his disagreement and helps his dissenters understand what they should do better, and then I’m impressed, and then we might actually see progress.

5) Taking responsibility. Nobody was left off the hook in that speech. Yes he’s empathetic towards anger and resentment and strife, but notice that he’s never said, “i will save you.” “yes we can” is more than just a clever slogan. He’s putting the responsibility on all of us. At best he’s saying, “I’m going to try and create the conditions under which you can save yourselves.” This power of “we” is crucial. See Henry Jenkins’ article The We Generation for more on this subject.

All of this adds up to a fantastic role model for the American people. This is something we have not had in a president in a long time. And speaking of race, imagine what having a black president as a role model who’s values are as strong as Barack’s will do for black children.


~ by jaredran on March 19, 2008.

3 Responses to “A Take on ‘A More Perfect Union’”

  1. Any thoughts on these?

  2. Krauthammer offers some pretty serious hyperbole here. Saying that Obama is “dumping on Grandma” is totally erroneous. The entire point is that in spite of her disparaging remarks he still loved her. I don’t understand what’s wrong with that. Do you?
    There’s a secondary point here too, which is that we have to own up to the fact that people feel this way and ask ourselves why they do, and then try to address whatever is causing these feelings. Nobody is applauding these sentiments, but what progress would we make if we labeled everyone who said them as outrageous outcasts? Perhaps it’s better to learn where these remarks are coming from and help improve the understanding of the sources.
    This might be related to our conversation of Ahmadinejad at Columbia. Whether or not we turn a deaf ear to people when they say things we don’t like is an important question. Obama is saying we shouldn’t do that. We should listen to them and deal with the problem because the problem isn’t going to go away just because we don’t listen to it.
    I can feel your counter-argument coming…”we should listen to every ridiculous thing that people say? What a waste of time! If I know I don’t agree with it, why do I have to listen to it? And if we let him talk he might persuade more people.” You have to listen to it so that you know best how to convince the speaker of these ideas to believe otherwise. If you don’t fully understand their points-of-view then how can you make them come around to what’s correct? Maybe you think that changing the minds of crazy people is hopeless. But what’s the alternative? I’m sure we both agree that you need to somehow stop the enunciations of crazy people so that we decrease the number of their followers. Either we try to change their minds civilly or violently. The latter is certain to cause violence and in international situations has the potential to lead to war, which can both rid of us dissenters and create more (as we’re seeing now in Iraq). No doubt that war sometimes leads to positive outcomes (i.e. no more Nazis), but there’s also no doubt that on the way you have some very negative side effects. The former (trying to change minds with soft tactics) also may or may not succeed in changing the mind of the target, but in the process you’re much more likely to win over the followers. The most significant (and perhaps the only) negative side effect is it MIGHT take longer.

    So I think I like Barack’s ways.

    And is Krauthammer really saying that admitting to the existence of racism is destructive or that it’s false to say that racism still exists?

  3. An interesting response that raises some difficult questions. But you seem, not unlike Obama in his speech on race, to have glossed over the specific points of criticism leveled at Obama in these videos. I’m sure Obama loves his grandmother, but the point of his speech was that he believes both she and Jeremiah Wright are classic examples of the problems we still have with race relations today. What Krauthammer deplores is the nerve of Obama to equate an old white lady who grew up in a pre-civil rights movement generation, and who let slip an epithet here and there in the privacy of her own home, to a raving, racist loon who preaches hateful poison in public and in his crowded church. Have you actually watched his sermons? The U.S. gov’t invented the HIV virus as a means of genocide for black people? The U.S. gov’t supplies blacks with drugs to keep them in the slums of society? C’mon, this stuff is sick. And it is this tactic of false moral equivalence, this notion that “Wright-may-be-prejudiced-but-so-is-my-grandmother-so-they-just-cancel-each-other-out” that is so unfair (and insulting to his grandmother, if you ask me).

    But what is truly comical about all this, what truly takes the cake, and what is the entire point of the other of these videos, is the irony of Obama taking Wright and his grandmother to task for their racial stereotyping, and only 2 days later doing the exact same thing himself! It’s sort of like the irony of Spitzer getting busted for frequenting a prostitution ring when he made a career out of bringing them down and of decrying the corruption of politicians. Seriously, can you imagine the furor that would ensue if Hillary gave a speech bemoaning racists everywhere, and two days later called somebody a “typical black person”?

    Of course Krauthammer doesn’t mean to suggest that racism doesn’t exist. But he does mean to say that it is ludicrous to suggest that excusing, in any form, the propagation of what are clearly pernicious and hateful ideas will bring us closer to a society free of racism.

    “You have to listen to it so that you know best how to convince the speaker of these ideas to believe otherwise. If you don’t fully understand their points-of-view then how can you make them come around to what’s correct?”

    Is that what Obama has been doing bringing his children to Wright’s church for the last 20 years? All this time, has he been listening to Wright’s conspiracy theories about Pearl Harbor so he can (one day, presumably) help him see the light?

    I hear your point about talking to and trying to reason with people with whom we have problems, and I suppose the decision of whether to engage or isolate comes down to where individuals decide to draw the line. But how many times can we reasonably be expected to listen to Ahmadinejad (to take up your example) deny the holocaust and call for the annihilation of our biggest ally in the Middle East? One of the negatives consequences of trying to change minds with Obama’s “soft tactics” that you forgot to mention is, ironically, war. If Chamberlain had had the balls to refuse the Munich Agreement, things would’ve turned out much better. (I love Churchill’s response to Chamberlain on learning of the Munich Agreement: “You were given a choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war.”)

    There comes a time when a willingness to engage and reason with our enemies crosses over from confidence to cowardice, i.e., appeasement. And when you’re dealing with theocracies, with people who will kill themselves if it means they can take you with them, or with any other “undeterrables,” understanding the difference between the two is more important than ever.

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