The reaction to Barack Obama's speech from conservative pundits was puzzling to me at first, but then I realized it was supreme (and almost assuredly unintended) praise for his rhetorical skill: he made them think that his values were their values, that Obama was "conservative"!
Andrew Sullivan, the conflicted gay Republican blogger, said: "Obama struck many conservative notes: of self-reliance, of opportunity, of hard work, of an immigrant's dream, of the same standards for all of us."
Choking back our laughter at the notion that conservatives support immigrants, let's see if we can figure out how Obama fooled Sullivan.
When conservatives like Andrew Sullivan invoke "the same standards for all of us", they mean keeping things the way they are now. That's why we call them "conservatives". They oppose programs intended to change things, such as "affirmative action". They think, despite all evidence to the contrary, that we have equal opportunity now. When you tell them you want to give blacks the "same" opportunities that whites now have, what they hear is that you want to take what whites now have. Conservatives always think in terms of a zero-sum game. You can see this especially when they talk about money. In the conservative mind, there's only so much wealth to go around, new wealth cannot be created, and expansion and growth never happen: cutting taxes is "giving back" to people "their" money, taxing capital gains is "double taxation".
When progressives invoke "standards", they are not talking about the way things are now. To progressives, the way things are now is bad. Of course, it goes over better in politics if you don't stress so much how bad things are now: people get defensive and their little egos are so easily bruised, if you even hint at the fact that it's their fault. It works better, and resonates better with the American self-image, to accentuate the positive: how much better things could be. Listen to they way Barack Obama says it:
No, people don't expect government to solve all their problems. But (emphasis supplied) they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life, and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all. They know we can do better. And they want that choice.
Obama creates word pictures that different listeners will "see" differently. He talks about a young man he met named "Shamus", who is going off to Iraq with the Marines, about whom Obama says: "this young man was all any of us might hope for in a child." Is "Shamus" white or black? He's from East Moline so I'm guessing white, but maybe he meant East St. Louis, in which case "Shamus" would be black? Barack Obama invites us to imagine him however we want, to think he could be anyone's child. It's the same with all the people he conjures up:
If there's a senior citizen somewhere who can't pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it's not my grandmother.
's mother was white. When he sees an old white couple, he says, he could be looking at his grandparents. Barack Obama doesn't automatically categorize people into "us" and "them" (like I know I do) and somehow his color-blindness carries forward into his words and this speech.
He also manages to invoke God in a way that I'm not sure anyone has since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Oh sure, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton can talk about their "faith", but coming from them it just sounds like they're saying, "I go to church just like you." When Barack Obama invokes God, he makes it sound like God is a liberal:
In the end, that is God's greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation; the belief in things not seen; the belief that there are better days ahead.
Yes: "things not seen" is an echo of something from the Bible. It's not exact: "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen". Hebrews 11
:1. But the inexact reference, "belief in things not seen", can evoke many Biblical images, like Moses' belief in a promised land he never actually got to, the Prophets' belief in a new Jerusalem after the old one had been sacked and the people carried into captivity, Jesus' belief in a Kingdom of Heaven which is all around you, if you have eyes to see and ears to hear.
It's about time that this God, the God of Moses, the God of the Prophets, and the God of Jesus, re-appeared in American political speech once again. I'm getting pretty sick of the God who hates gays and medical research.
What conservatives obviously don't realize is that "things not seen" also evokes a certain book of essays by James Baldwin. The Evidence of Things Not Seen was published in 1986 and was the last work by Baldwin, the expatriate black writer who also gave us the civil rights masterpiece, The Fire Next Time in 1963, and many other works. The essays take as their starting point a series of murders of black children in Atlanta in the 1980s, but rapidly go from there to race relations, and the self-image of persons of color, at that time.
Another example: Yes, the phrase, "my brother's keeper" evokes the story of Cain and Abel. It's also the title of the memoirs of Amitai Etzioni, university professor, former Carter administration advisor and founder of the communitarian social movement. This is no accident. The speech asserts communitarian principles of shared responsibility—our shared responsibility for the child who can't read or the senior citizen who can't afford drugs—rather than the traditional "liberal" values of individual rights.
I would suggest to you that for those with ears to hear, the speech is full of stuff like that, which remains hidden to the mainstream and the semi-educated pundits of the right wing.
It's like Kerry's campaign theme: "Let America be America Again". Langston Hughes' poem is socialism, pure and simple, but this seems to go right over the heads of pundits. TIME Magazine columnist,
Mitch Frank, guessed it was an attempt to co-opt a Ronald Reagan theme: "Maybe it’s Massachusetts-speak for, 'Are you better off today than you were four years ago?'" Uh, no, Mitch, it's not. Not even close, bucko.
I'm especially fond of the closing, asserting that the people will "rise up" in November, elect Kerry and Edwards, and:
... this country will reclaim its promise, and out of this long political darkness a brighter day will come.
..because it reminds me of this:
Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville
Junction will no longer be so damned relevant, and
women will not care if Dick finally gets down with
Jane on Search for Tomorrow because Black people
will be in the street looking for a brighter day.
The revolution will not be televised.
– Gil Scott-Heron "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised"
If I'm hearing him right (and I think I am) there's really some audacity in Obama's "audacity of hope". If the wingnuts could figure out what Barack Obama is really saying, they would realize he's not Ronald Reagan reincarnated as a black man but an outrageously progressive skinny kid with a funny name.