Reclaiming the Liberal Legacy

Barack being fortified with the laying on of hands.

The Chosen One

Reflections on Obama’s Second Inaugural Address

      Grand occasions of state demand high flown rhetoric, soaring eloquence and optimistic visions for the future from the orators tasked with celebrating the august event.  President Obama satisfied these demands in high style in his second Inaugural address; a speech marked by brutal honesty and impassioned eloquence designed to present the liberal democratic case as millions of his countrymen listened with greedy ears and joyous hearts to his message of hope and progress, as he navigates the ship of state through troubled waters during his next four years at the helm.  It was a stake through the heart of the Darwinian Reaganite clap trap that “government is the problem,” which has become the mantra of the Grand Obstructionist Party.

Jettisoning the ultra-cool demeanor that earned him the moniker “No Drama Obama,” Chilly B. began his speech with a strong declarative statement: “What makes us exceptional — what makes us American — is our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’”  The newly reelected President went on to quickly point out, “While these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on earth.”

While these claims are more or less true, depending upon one’s perspective, his next claim, although it has become conventional wisdom, is a burlesque on history. “The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a Republic, a government of, and by, and for the people, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed.” 

But, in truth, all of these statements are more myth than history.  It is at best special pleading, an attempt to make American history harmonize with the Master Narrative of US civilization, which is spun by the official mythmakers and based on a strong foundation of “American Exceptionalism.”  All successful American politicians, especially those who pretend to the highest office, must pay homage to this bogus self-righteous myth if they are to have a ghost of a chance at success.

For instance while it is true that the Founding fathers gave us a republic, they gave us a slaveholding Republic like Rome.  A patrician democracy where even among the free white population voting was conceived of as a right that should be restricted to straight, property holding, white Christian males!  Hence from the outset their practice contradicted their preachment about the equality of man.  This resulted in an unequal society where the majority of wealth and power in America is still monopolized by a small minority of white males.

To erase the glaring contradiction of African slavery in their newly minted “democracy” it became necessary to deny the humanity of black people. Frederick Douglass described what that did to the promise of America and the character of white Americans in his 4th of July speech in 1852. I wish Barack had quoted from Douglass, especially since we are still suffering the consequences of America’s racist legacy – most notably in the distribution of wealth by race and gender.

However the President is a constitutional scholar who knows a lot of American history – in striking contrast to most of the Republicans who run around invoking the Constitution as if they are quoting scripture, and are equally ignorant of both the Bible and the Constitution – hence he knows that he is fudging the facts, but he also recognizes that he is cast in the role of politician not professor. Hence political propaganda designed to inspire the electorate and win them to his position in the policy debates, not fastidious professorial pontification which could alienate them with his facts, was Mr. Obama’s  objective.  In reading the speech I have taken the President’s objectives into account.

Yet, even so, I believe the President would have actually strengthened his argument had he donned his professor’s cap for a brief interval and told the tawdry tale of how men who created a radical document that celebrated a universal humanism, and appointed the people as the ultimate arbiters of who shall rule them,  declaring that those who would govern must first gain the consent of those to be governed, was betrayed by greed and racism.  It is quite enough to say that this was a new idea in the world, and it has changed the world for the better, then quote Frederick Douglass on the realities of life for African Americans in the slaveholding republic they created.

On the Fourth of July 1852, Douglass, an escaped Afro-American slave who became a brilliant writer/editor/publisher and the foremost spokesman for freedom and justice in the nation, was invited by his fellow citizens of Rochester New York to present the keynote speech at their annual celebration.  He said in part:

Fellow citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?   Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions!”

Douglass went to say what he thought of American democracy 65 years after the ratification of the US Constitution.

What to the American slave is your Fourth of July?” asked Douglass. “I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.  To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds your of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity,  are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States at this very hour.”

Never, to my knowledge, has anyone spoken more courageously and candidly about the shameless hypocrisy of white Americans who passionately professed their love for freedom while practicing an absolute tyranny against millions of their countrymen on the basis of something as superficial as skin color, a biological characteristic that has nothing to do with the content of one’s character.  It is both hypocritical and pathological….a species of collective madness.

This historic hypocrisy on race has caused white Americans to routinely corrupt their most cherished ideals; which make racism a very touchy subject. Virtually all Euro-Americans would prefer to avoid the issue because discussing the race question inevitably brings up the subject of benefit, injury and blame.  Who benefitted from the American racial caste system that spans over three quarters of our history all told?  Who was injured by it?  Who has the liability of compensation to the victims of the monstrous crimes against humanity represented by chattel slavery and the legal caste system that followed for a hundred years after the fall of the slaveocracy?  And, most touchy of all, there is the question of who should be compensated and for how much?

Alas, it is understandable that the President skirted these issues and it is unreasonable to expect him to have addressed them.  After all, it was a political speech designed to inspire a sense of unity in the American people and lift the spirits of the nation.  Hence it should surprise no thoughtful observer of the art of politics that the President may have found hyperbole more useful than history. I have already conceded that on this occasion Mr. Obama was a politician not a professor.   And politics is the art of the possible.

Hence if unity was his goal, a candid review of the myriad sins that stain the nation’s character was not the best strategy for achieving the president’s political objectives.  And since I believe that achieving these objectives must be the president’s paramount concern I defer to his judgment, since he is, after all, the most successful politician in American history.

To expect the President to speak with the unbridled candor of Frederick Douglass, who was an independent minded commentator/editor that was responsible only to his supporters – like yours truly – is as unrealistic as comparing him to Martin Luther King in the way that Cornel West is inclined to do.

For while Dr. King and Frederick Douglass were protest leaders, discontented agitators intent upon shaking things up, President Obama is responsible for the fate of the nation and is trying to calm things down after a very acrimonious election. Hence he must proceed with caution because what he says has serious consequences. Nevertheless, if the President had included even a carefully worded statement that succinctly capsulized the points made by Douglass it would have given more zest to his next statement.

“For more than 200 years, we have, through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together.” 

The mention of slavery and Civil War is so opaque it sounds more like a poetic allusion whose meaning is clear only to the tutored ear well-tuned to nuances of American history.  However it is my view that it is the job of intellectuals, who are unburdened by the heavy responsibilities that weight on the President, many of whom have lifetime tenure in their jobs in great universities, or independent commentators like the present writer, to clarify these issues.

From this point on in the speech the President transitions beautifully to the present, showing how venerable American ideals persist over time and what they look like at the dawning years of the 21st century.  With a strong sense of I and thou, as espoused by the philosopher Martin Buber, Mr. Obama’s policy prescriptions are presented as a collective effort of the American people to elevate the public good over private greed. “Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.” He said.

Skillfully employing the rhythmic cadences that echo the refrains of an Afro-American sermon, he reiterates “Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.  Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.” In this artfully rendered passage the President pointed out the critical role of government in regulating the activities of the private business sector, and reaffirmed the virtues of the liberal welfare state.

Then Chilly B threw a mean left hook that nullified the arguments of his critics on the right, who hysterically charge that he envisions himself as an American Caeser, a law unto himself; an unrepentant fascist communist liberal who wants the government to take everybody’s guns and money.  He treated the charges as the absurdities that they are and coolly dismissed them.  “Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone. Our celebration of initiative and enterprise; our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, are constants in our character.”

 The President went on to reemphasize the role of public policy in meeting the varied needs of the American people.  It was an unmistakable repudiation of the “go it alone” philosophy of the “Free Market” ideologues in the Republican Party who are screaming bloody murder as I write.  But their cries are in vain, destined to fall on deaf ears because that ship has sailed…it was settled in the election, where the choice between President Obama’s liberal communitarian views were chosen over the Darwinian dog eat dog, survival of the fittest dogma of the GOP.

Then President Obama turned cheer leader, extolling the virtues of the American people in soaring rhetoric that expressed his undaunted confidence that together we can master any challenge. “This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience. A decade of war is now ending. An economic recovery has begun. America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention. My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it — so long as we seize it together.”

President Obama also acknowledged that social mobility is becoming rare in the present economy, in which corporations are making greater profits from a cybernated production process that is rapidly replacing human labor with robots and other machines, creating the mass “technological unemployment” that the prescient British economist, John Maynard Keynes warned during the Great Depression of the 1930’s would be a growing problem in the future. Well that future is here.

The President has begun to address this impending tragedy for the working class by the way he invested the stimulus money in projects that could yield new technologies which will generate new jobs to address the growing structural unemployment crisis, a crisis the Republicans continue to confuse with the cyclical crisis of the boom and bust of the capitalist business cycle.  But the President knows better.

Mr. Obama understands that it will require serious government intervention in order to solve the tragic phenomenon of chronic unemployment that millions of Americans are suffering through – even as the business sector enjoys record profits as a result of the American taxpayer bailout yet, refuse to invest in America because they can get quasi slave labor overseas while enjoying the protections provided by our government.

Hence President Obama reminded the American people that “We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”  And he left little doubt about the responsibility of our government in making this equality a reality.

We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time. We must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, and reach higher. But while the means will change, our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American. That is what this moment requires. That is what will give real meaning to our creed.”

The President also signaled the direction of his foreign policy which, in contrast with the American Exceptionalists neo-con ideologues that beguiled the Bush Administration into launching a war of choice against and unoffending nation – is a policy that seeks peace and cooperation with other nations.  We should thank the Gods of politics that Mitt Romney didn’t become President, for he was surrounded by these crazy characters and they are trying their best to prod America into a war with Iran, at the behest of the Israeli government.  The President will be far harder to persuade than Mitt.

Mr. Obama summed up his views on foreign relations thusly.

“We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law. We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully — not because we are naive about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear. America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe; and we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation.” 

Predictably, neo-con hacks like William Kristol Jr., who, as the Director of the far right think tank Project for a New American Century, was a major architect of the catastrophic Bush Iraq war policy, attacking the President’s quest for peace and glorifying war.  He is just the sort of petulant little Republican chicken hawk who loves to start wars for others to fight.  But he doesn’t get it.  Americans have had more than their fill of foreign military adventures: hence his day is done!  He is just one more hysterical Republican chatter box cutting the fool in public.

It is clear that President Obama fully realized the importance of his inauguration taking place on the holiday of Dr. Martin Luther King, and he left no doubt that he considers it an ancestral imperative to continue Dr. Kings legacy of expanding human freedom and fighting to elevate the least of us.  Symbolically he declared himself by using Dr. King’s personal Bible to swear his oath of office, an unprecedented honor no black American has ever received, and he declared himself rhetorically with this unambiguous statement.

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on earth.”

The Spirit of Dr. King was Omnipresent

Barack and Dt. King 

Invoked by President Obama

Barack Obama has done Dr. King, and the rest of us, proud despite the hysterical blather of Corny West, the clown prince of Obama bashers.  I will have no more to say about this shameless charlatan and self-aggrandizing mountebank, who seizes every opportunity to interject himself into the Obama saga, to rush from the wings like a minstrel figure with bulging eyes and bushy hair and Bogart the stage upon which the magnificent drama of American politics is being played.  But he is only succeeding in disgracing himself, as more people see him as the envious, avaricious, fraud that he is.

As with all great orators, the President left the audience with a transcendent message of hope, delivered with all the passion and eloquence of a black Baptist preacher, and embodying the fundamental tenants of Christian charity that form the foundation of the “Beloved  Community” envisioned by Dr. King.

You and I, as citizens,” he said, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time — not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals. Let each of us now embrace, with solemn duty and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright. With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.”

Senator Mitch McConnell, an unreconstructed southern neo-Confederate redneck, says the era of liberalism is back.  He says that President Obama intends to bring the old Democratic Party back.  I say hell yeah!  You got it exactly right; President Obama has reclaimed the liberal legacy.  You can tell from the way the Republicans are squealing like pigs.  And some of us like it like that….the majority of Americans who voted Barack Obama into the Oval Office for the second time on the promise that he would restore and defend the liberal agenda.  I say Bravo!!!

  The President Speaking to the Nation

Barack obama-ks-t1larg 

 A New Beginning a New Vision

 

 

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 Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

January 25, 2013

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