The Times makes a poor attempt to contrast Kennedy’s and Obama’s speeches last night:
If Mr. Obama reached for the middle with his promise of a new kind of politics under Mr. Kerry, Mr. Kennedy spoke to the most fervent and frustrated Democratic voters, weary after four years out of power.
This unfortunate sentence echoes some of the false synechdoches I find most frustrating in the way we discuss politics in this country: Eliding a positive vision with moderation and a negative critique with extremism, partisanship with ideology, open-mindedness with moderation, and the disengaged or disenfranchised with the moderates. Kennedy’s speech touted the historic accomplishments of the Democratic party and condemned the crimes of the Bush Administration. Obama’s drew on his narrative and those of his neighbors to craft a vision of the urgency and potential of democratic politics. There’s no cause to identify the former as a more radical project than the latter, and strong ground on which to argue the reverse.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, given the tremendous success of Obama’s speech and the lack of Black leaders with popularity and credibility articulating the right’s view of the path to Black uplift, that some conservatives would try to claim the speech as their own. Witness Roger Clegg’s flat attempt over at the National Review‘s Corner:
Barack Obama gave a fine speech, but it was not a speech that reflects the current Democratic Party. It celebrated America as “a magical place”; it did not bemoan our racism and imperialism. It professed that this black man “owe[d] a debt to those who came before” him; it did not call for reparations. It spoke of an “awesome God”; it did not banish Him from public discourse. It admitted that black parents, and black culture, need to change the way black children are raised; it did not blame or even mention racism. It quoted “E pluribus unum” and translated it correctly as “Out of many, one”; it did not misquote it, as Al Gore infamously did, as “Many out of one.” Most of all, the speech celebrated one America, “one people,” and rejected the notion of a black America, a white America, a Latino America, and an Asian America–a notion completely foreign to the multiculturalism that now dominates the Democratic Party.
Give me a break. It’s always been the work of the left to recognize and reclaim what is great about the reality of this country, what is greater about its ideals, and what broken promises maintain the gap between the reality and the ideal. Hence the appropriateness of Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again” as a centerpiece of the Kerry campaign: The poem calls out and decries the myriad ways in which America falls short of the American ideal, makes appeal to an inherited vision of America, and yet recognizes that the dream of a just America past is itself a construct, that America never was fully America, but rather might just someday be through a struggle which begins with recognizing what is broken. As Obama says:
I’m not talking about blind optimism here – the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don’t think about it, or the health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about something more substantial. It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs. The hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores.
It’s only by falling back on the tired and baseless image of Democrats as visceral America-haters that Clegg can pretend that Obama’s patriotism leaves him out of place at the Convention. And it’s only by falling back on a similarly tired and baseless image of Democrats as deniers of the agency of the disenfranchised that Clegg can label his claim of individual and collective responsibility as conservative. While I and others might question Obama’s choice to compare waste in the Pentagon and welfare budgets, or his implication that stigma is attached to Black success based simply on choices made by Blacks, they show up in the speech to clarify his central assertion about the urgency of collective action. The idea that human beings bear no agency or responsibility is not a Democratic one, and it’s not a leftist one either, unless Rush Limbaugh is granted the authority to define the left. What is a leftist idea – and sometimes a Democratic one – is that human responsibility extends beyond the individual, or the family, to a broader community, that problems faced by collectives can be faced and defeated through collective action, that government in its purest and most justified form represents a vehichle for the achievement of individual strivings and collective aspirations through collective solutions – and that when a community, and its government, abdicate its responsibility to those wronged, they erodes, not protect, the conditions for the flourishing of the human liberty to which they are each individually born. As Obama says:
If there is a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for their prescription drugs, and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandparent. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It is that fundamental belief, it is that fundamental belief, I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams and yet still come together as one American family. E pluribus unum.
And to argue that Obama’s celebration of that unum, and his assertion that there’s “one America,” make him an anti-multiculturalist depends on an assumption that that one America is defined on the terms of its white constituents. Clegg would be right to argue that Obama’s no separatist – but neither are the Democrats, and neither are many on the left either. But the narrative he tells of his Kenyan and Kansan parents isn’t a melting pot that forges homogeneity either – he even uses the d-word which has become anathema in National Review circles:
My parents shared not only an improbable love, they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation. They would give me an African name, Barack, or ”blessed,” believing that in a tolerant America your name is no barrier to success. They imagined me going to the best schools in the land, even though they weren’t rich, because in a generous America you don’t have to be rich to achieve your potential…I stand here today, grateful for the diversity of my heritage, aware that my parents’ dreams live on in my two precious daughters. I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible.
I’d like to know more about Obama’s family and his struggle for and forging of a personal identity. Fortunately, he’s written a meditation on the topic, “Dreams of My Father,” which I hope to read soon. Maybe Roger Clegg should too.
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