Thanks Obama

6 Jan

Sometimes I get sad. Uninspired. Lethargic with the weight of the world and my powerlessness at changing one whit of it. This melancholy more often than not has propelled me to the bars where I can drink beer and whiskey and forget. Of course, beer and whiskey does not make one forget. That’s just a myth promulgated by country music. What drink does is make us remember differently. It stirs our imagination to believe that this school shooting was not so bad or that election has silver linings, albeit wispy and more grey than actual silver. Sometimes I will rant on Facebook or go nutty on Twitter, railing against this or that. It’s how many of us cope in a world that is seemingly at our fingertips while simultaneously being so very far away.

When I am really sad and need a pick-me-up I watch an Obama speech. Yeah, I know, just words. Not actions. Not deeds. Just empty words.  

Still, as we’ve learned through every narcissistic, egomaniacal, borderline psychopathic tweet that falls from the thumbs of the soon-to-be President, words matter. As a writer, I’d like to think this to be the case. I’d like to believe the pen truly to be mightier than the sword. I hope that these very words I am typing this morning, Friday, January 6, 2017, will resonate with at least one person, that they will carry weight and linger in someone’s mind. I hope that in some way, through these musings and meanderings, I help to make the world, in my small way, better.

The speech I tend to watch when I am down is what most refer to as “Obama’s Race Speech.” It’s the one that he made after all the Jeremiah Wright hoopla. What most probably don’t realize is that the real title of Obama’s remarks was “A More Perfect Union.” In it, the soon-to-be-President called for a national conversation on race to address so-called black “anger” and white “resentment.” It should have been shocking in its honesty and candor, but for some reason it was not. It was measured, forthright, almost perfectly Professor Obama-esque. It hits almost equally on an emotional and intellectual level. It is a civics lesson mixed with a Sunday sermon. Obama speaks across, not down, to the American people, as if they were, gulp, intelligent.

You almost feel as if this speech alone would heal the racial strife that has plagued our nation for so long and usher in a long era of wise discourse and cross-cultural comity.

Almost.

Instead we got eight years of subtle and not-so-subtle racism directed at the first black President, with the rotten cherry on top being the issue of Barack Obama’s birth certificate led by a man who will trade on the most vile and disgusting of conspiracy theories for a thimbleful of air time, a man who today – two weeks to the day before he will replace Barack Obama – razzed his Celebrity Apprentice successor for poor ratings.

Words clearly did not matter. Obama did not heal America’s racism. But was it even his job in the first place? If we say that racism from whites against blacks is the fault of those very black people, isn’t that just blaming the victim? Isn’t it the responsibility of white Americans to heal themselves and not for the intercession of the wise spiritual black preacher to do it for us? Don’t I, a white non-racist (jeez, I hope so), have more of a responsibility to speak out against racism than the President?

Still, Obama took on the onus of trying to heal this country. He at least tried to start the conversation. And he had to hear from the right wing talking machine the idea that slaves were actually happy (building the White House), that African Americans should be thankful to whites for giving them their freedom (freedom is not a gift, it is a right and can only be taken away, not given), people calling him and his family slurs I will not repeat here. Through it all he was dignified, intelligent, kind, and even a bit self-effacing.

He weathered a storm of vitriol unleashed by a group of people who believe his election somehow made them less. As if one group’s empowerment somehow relegates another group to a lower tier in the societal food chain. This is something so many fail to comprehend. Too often the privileged believe that if others also gain that coveted status, their world will be tarnished, when in fact it would simply be larger and more diverse. Just because I have more does not automatically mean you have less. Same sex marriage does not diminish the sanctity of opposite sex marriage; rather it enlarges the marriage tent. Civil rights, be they mandated by law or simply by social inertia do not take rights from one group and bestow them upon another. Civil rights is the righting of societal injustice, be that injustice intentionally malicious or institutionally accepted. One group’s empowerment does not disenfranchise another group.

Obama’s election, many thought, heralded in a new way in America, one where we could discuss identity openly, where we could let the lost causes of the past die their overdue deaths. I could say that the election of a man who is the polar opposite of Barack Obama in everything from temperament to morality settles the question of whether or not we are more just, more diverse, and more open now than we were (or thought we were) eight years ago. It is easy to abandon hope, that nebulous hocus pocus so many of our leaders campaign on. When one is in the middle of the despair brought on by recent events, the easy way out would be by falling back upon cynicism and bitterness. Cynicism at the world handed to us, bitterness at those who handed it to us.

We are an impatient lot, we Americans. Left or right, it doesn’t matter. Every election seems to be a so-called change election where we dramatically switch from liberal to conservative and then back again to liberal like a shame-faced bigamist who always shows up at one of his wives’ doors with flowers and a beseechment that he will never stray again. It’s the same when a newly elected candidate does not solve all the problems in the first hundred days. We become depressed that once again we were tricked because the President cannot ram through a stubborn Congress a bill that we believe to be the Word of God.

And so we can bemoan all the stuff Obama has done (or not done) that we don’t like. We can call him a disappointment and a failure. I’m not going to list all his failings and mistakes here. We each have our own bones to pick with him. (The White Sox, drones.) Similarly, I’m not going to list a single one of his accomplishments. We know – some of us on a day-to-day basis – what he has achieved.

President Barack Obama has done a great many things, but most importantly, I think he has made many of us better people and better citizens. He has certainly done so with me.

I am a better person because Barack Obama has been leading this country for the past eight years. I am a better person in my social interactions because of him. I am a better person in my creative pursuits because of him. I look at the world with fresher eyes because of him. I understand our country and our world better because of him. It’s not that I suddenly believe everything he believes in, though I think his moral clarity has been a beacon over the last few years. He has tried to guide a nation where many of the people openly despise him simply for the color of his skin. He has been brave, honest, and true to himself. And one truth about Obama is that he is inherently an idealist. He believes things will improve.  

Obama’s greatest strength (and perhaps, during this past election, his great failing) is the belief not in the inherent goodness of people but in the potential goodness of people. It’s not that we are good, but that we can be good. We are not locked into our daily laissez faire amorality. Each of us has the potential to change, to evolve. While this evolution took a step back a couple of months ago, that does not mean progress is doomed.  

Obama’s use of “a more perfect union” is telling. As my high school English teacher once told me, there are three adjectives that cannot be modified: unique, perfect, and pregnant. One is either that thing, or one is not that thing; it is a singular existence. The crafters of the Constitution were not stupid, they understood that nothing could literally be made “more perfect.” But there it sits, right up top in the preamble. Why? Perhaps they understood that any nation is a work in progress, especially one envisioned as being radically different than any that had come before it. We as a people should always strive to be better. To open ourselves to more experiences. To welcome with open arms those who need the safety of our shelter and warmth of our hearth. As the Transcendentalist preacher and abolitionist Theodore Parker said (though the Martin Luther King version is better known):

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

Parker died in 1860 before the end of slavery, though he could see its demise on the horizon.

Similarly, while I cannot honestly say that I am not worried (technically, petrified) by the incoming administration, I am also not disheartened.

Our nation is a work in progress, it always has been and always will be. And so is each and every one of us. Many of us strive to be better, to be more perfect. (Others claim that they are already really great, the greatest actually, and don’t need any upgrades. But enough about them.) Perhaps that is what I have learned from Obama, on a deep personal level. I need to be more patient, not just with my country and my fellow citizens, but also with myself. I cannot get disheartened by every iota of horribleness our new President unleashes. I cannot rage without focus. I cannot fall into despair for despair’s sake. I may not have a platform larger than a rarely-read blog and a smattering of Twitter followers, but my voice is one of many. (As are my contributions to the various organizations that will work their asses off to fight the good fight. Keep donating, people!)

So let me just say this, directly to the President. (I mean, if this finds its way to him, which is as unlikely as…well, let’s not go there.) Thanks, Obama. In the least sarcastic way possible. Thank you for leading with words and deeds. Thank you for setting an example for all of us of what it means to be a good person, under pressure, with the haters turning the hate up to 11. Thank you for showing us how a real man acts around women, not demeaning and proprietary but respectful and encouraging. Thank you for reminding me to slow down and have patience with the arc of the moral universe and the arc of my own existence. Thank you for eight years of civics and sermons, preaching that the social contract is not just ethical but downright moral. Thank you for simply being there, as a role model to a forty-one year old guy, and for the millions of others around the world who will carry your leadership and encouragement in our hearts and minds as long as we live.

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