Tuesday, March 10, 2015

President Obama's Exceptional Speech

"What greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?" -- -- President Obama, March 8, 2015
After President Obama got walloped for having the audacity to observe, in the course of cautioning us not to condemn Islam because of the barbaric acts done in its name, that here at home "slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ," I wrote:
The American psyche is not so fragile that it can't stand a bit of reflection and self-criticism.  We really aren't such a simpleminded people that we can't hold two conflicting concepts at the same time -- we can love our country and the many great things about it while recognizing its deep flaws. 
Instead, almost on cue, we had the spectacle of Rudy Giuliani, proclaiming that the President doesn't love America. 

The President's speech on Sunday commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Selma was, among many things, an eloquent retort to the Giulianis and Huckabees and Fox News pundits who have no clue about what patriotism really is.

Obama made the case that "loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths.  It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo.  That’s America."

The President made an appeal to our exceptionalism, as James Fallows summarized, by "embracing our capacity for renewal, self-criticism, and inclusiveness."
We are Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea – pioneers who braved the unfamiliar, followed by a stampede of farmers and miners, entrepreneurs and hucksters. That’s our spirit.

We are Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, women who could do as much as any man and then some; and we’re Susan B. Anthony, who shook the system until the law reflected that truth. That’s our character.

We’re the immigrants who stowed away on ships to reach these shores, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free – Holocaust survivors, Soviet defectors, the Lost Boys of Sudan. We are the hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande because they want their kids to know a better life. That’s how we came to be.

We’re the slaves who built the White House and the economy of the South. We’re the ranch hands and cowboys who opened the West, and countless laborers who laid rail, and raised skyscrapers, and organized for workers’ rights.

We’re the fresh-faced GIs who fought to liberate a continent, and we’re the Tuskeegee Airmen, Navajo code-talkers, and Japanese-Americans who fought for this country even as their own liberty had been denied. We’re the firefighters who rushed into those buildings on 9/11, and the volunteers who signed up to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We are the gay Americans whose blood ran on the streets of San Francisco and New York, just as blood ran down this bridge.

We are storytellers, writers, poets, and artists who abhor unfairness, and despise hypocrisy, and give voice to the voiceless, and tell truths that need to be told.

We are the inventors of gospel and jazz and the blues, bluegrass and country, hip-hop and rock and roll, our very own sounds with all the sweet sorrow and reckless joy of freedom.

We are Jackie Robinson, enduring scorn and spiked cleats and pitches coming straight to his head, and stealing home in the World Series anyway.

We are the people Langston Hughes wrote of, who “build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how.”

We are the people Emerson wrote of, “who for truth and honor’s sake stand fast and suffer long;” who are “never tired, so long as we can see far enough.”

That’s what America is. Not stock photos or airbrushed history or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American as others. We respect the past, but we don’t pine for it. We don’t fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing; we are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes. We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit. That’s why someone like John Lewis at the ripe age of 25 could lead a mighty march.
This is a far cry from how most Republicans would describe our country.  Conservatives seem to cherish a whitewashed nostalgia for an unapologetic Ozzie and Harriet America that only existed on TV.  They remain resentful because they believe that the hippies, the Democrats and, most of all, Barack Hussein Obama took it all away.

As Paul Waldman says, no conservative would have given a speech like this.
Conservatism is about conserving, so of course the story they tell about America isn't one of constant change in order to improve the country. Their story, particularly in the last few years, is one of a kind of immaculate conception, in which the framers issued forth the nation in a state of perfection. The problems we have now can be solved if we would only revert back and be true to their vision. And the way you express that patriotism is precisely with the "stock photos or airbrushed history"—it's about praising America with the strongest voice you can muster and insisting that it is better than every other country, always has been and always will be.  
I'm all for an America that's inclusive.  But do we have to include them?


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