Friday, January 14, 2011

The Speech

I finally got around to watching President Obama's speech at the memorial service in Tucson.  If you have only heard excerpts or read a transcript, I urge you to sit down and watch it.  I was prepared to be annoyed at Obama's predictable calls for unity and civility, but I was quite moved.  The President gave a poignant tribute to those who were killed or wounded, and an eloquent and heartfelt plea for "a more civil and honest public discourse [that] can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud."  Obama was passionate in expressing that "we can question each others ideas without questioning each others love of country, and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations."

As the historian Gary Wills wrote:
Obama had to rise above the acrimonious debate about what caused the gunman in Tucson to kill and injure so many people.  He side-stepped that issue by celebrating the fallen and the wounded and those who rushed to their assistance. He has been criticized by some for holding a “pep rally” rather than a mourning service. But he was speaking to those who knew and loved and had rallied around the people attacked. He was praising them and those who assisted them, and the cheers were deserved. He said that the proper tribute to them was to live up to their own high expectations of our nation. It was in that context, and not one of recrimination, that he called for civility, service—and, yes, heroism—in the country.   
Wills actually compared this speech to Lincoln's speech at Gettysburg.  He explained that Lincoln took a lesson from the fallen at Gettysburg—“that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”  Instead of defending the North and blaming the South, much of Lincoln's speech "was given to praising the dead and urging others to learn from them."  Obama similarly sidestepped placing blame and urged that “the loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better.”

As extraordinary and moving as Obama's speech was, the question remains what lasting impact it will have on the body politic.  I tend to agree with Paul Krugman that we are a divided nation and that if we truly listen to each other we will learn how far apart the two sides truly are:  "For the great divide in our politics isn’t really about pragmatic issues, about which policies work best; it’s about differences in those very moral imaginations Mr. Obama urges us to expand, about divergent beliefs over what constitutes justice."

Krugman lays out the two opposing world views:
One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state — a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net — morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate. 
The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.
This "deep divide in political morality" leaves no middle ground.  It is a fundamental disagreement about the role of government.  And when the Republican Party no longer accepts "the legitimacy of the welfare state [much less] willing to contemplate expanding it," calls for bipartisanship are not realistic.  Nevertheless, we should at least be able to agree that the "kind of violence and eliminationist rhetoric encouraging violence that has become all too common these past two years" is unacceptable."  As Krugman concludes, "We need to have leaders of both parties — or Mr. Obama alone if necessary — declare that both violence and any language hinting at the acceptability of violence are out of bounds. We all want reconciliation, but the road to that goal begins with an agreement that our differences will be settled by the rule of law."


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