Interlude—What’s in a word: We’d be inclined to question one word in President Obama’s remarks.
Some will think we’re picking nits. We think they are wrong.
Yesterday, Obama began by describing the people who marched in 1963. We’d be inclined to challenge one word late in this passage:
OBAMA (8/28/13): On a hot summer day, they assembled here, in our nation's capital, under the shadow of the great emancipator, to offer testimony of injustice, to petition their government for redress and to awaken America's long-slumbering conscience.Did the day belong to “ordinary people” too? We’d rethink that first word!
We rightly and best remember Dr. King's soaring oratory that day, how he gave mighty voice to the quiet hopes of millions, how he offered a salvation path for oppressed and oppressors alike. His words belong to the ages, possessing a power and prophecy unmatched in our time.
But we would do well to recall that day itself also belonged to those ordinary people whose names never appeared in the history books, never got on TV.
It’s certainly true that Dr. King’s army was full of regular people—individuals “whose names never appeared in the history books, never got on TV.”
But they were among the least ordinary people we’ve ever seen described. This is the way Obama continued:
“Many had gone to segregated schools and sat at segregated lunch counters, had lived in towns where they couldn't vote, in cities where their votes didn't matter. There were couples in love who couldn't marry, soldiers who fought for freedom abroad that they found denied to them at home. They had seen loved ones beaten and children fire-hosed.”
It’s true! Some of the people at the march had gone to (legally) segregated schools. They had been denied the chance to buy lunch, even the right to vote.
Some of them had in fact “seen loved ones beaten and children fire-hosed.” This might include children they knew, children from their own families.
Within the American context, people subjected to these experiences can’t really be said to be “ordinary.” And as we noted yesterday, the evidence suggests that Dr. King’s army contained some of the most extraordinary people in this nation’s long, varied history.
As he continued, Obama described what we mean. Thanks in part to their strong leadership, the people Obama is describing were highly advanced and evolved:
OBAMA: They had seen loved ones beaten and children fire-hosed. And they had every reason to lash out in anger or resign themselves to a bitter fate.The contrast is clear when we compare those people to the peacocks of today. To the people who “get on TV.”
And yet they chose a different path. In the face of hatred, they prayed for their tormentors. In the face of violence, they stood up and sat in with the moral force of nonviolence. Willingly, they went to jail to protest unjust laws, their cells swelling with the sound of freedom songs. A lifetime of indignities had taught them that no man can take away the dignity and grace that God grants us.
Again and again, the people who supported Dr. King were light-years beyond extraordinary. Nothing like that can be said of the people who “get on TV” today, where they are paid to be fatuous.
In our view, progressives shouldn’t obscure this important distinction. Of course, we also think progressives should identify and applaud the improved values found in regular people of the other tribe, improved values which are all around us, if we are willing to see them.
(It’s also true that those people are often quite foolish. Our tribe is catching up fast!)
Before we cite a very good point Obama made in yesterday’s speech, let’s complain about one other framework he offered. He described the way those “ordinary” people persevered through horrendous events. But gack!
In our view, progressives should possibly bristle a bit at this sort of presentation:
OBAMA: And because they kept marching, America changed. Because they marched, the civil rights law was passed. Because they marched, the voting rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else's laundry or shining somebody else's shoes.“Washing somebody else's laundry” is real work too. So is tending someone’s yard or cleaning someone’s house.
Such work is being done by many people today. We don’t know why a progressive would dismiss such work in the way Obama did, occasioning the inevitable (Applause).
Obama, who is a good decent person, speaks from within the cocoon of modern wealth, a land where condescension and incomprehension can grow. We thought we heard that condescension at times yesterday, right from the somewhat condescending start of his address.
Dr. King didn’t get rich; he tended to give his money away. As part of that package, he may have had a wider understanding of the people who stood before him whenever he spoke:
KING (2/4/68): Everybody can be great. Because everybody can serve.If we might apply Dr. King’s insight, people who wash somebody else's laundry can be great.
You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve.
You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.
In our view, people like Obama should start with the assumption that those “ordinary people” knew and understood as much, or more, in various ways than he and his advisers do today. Having said that, we thought the president made a very good point early on:
OBAMA: Because they marched, America became more free and more fair.In the past month or so, we’ve seen quite a few people “suggesting that little has changed.” We've seen it in comment threads. We've seen it from the peacocks.
To dismiss the magnitude of this progress—to suggest, as some sometimes do, that little has changed—that dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years.
Some of the peacocks may do that to get you riled, thus improving their ratings and paydays.
Back in 1963, the leadership was quite strong. But the movement was full of extraordinary people—people who had been forced to develop unusual moral understanding. Given the way our modern world works, it’s galling to see multimillionaires slip-sliding around that fact.
You might file this under “pet peeve.” Except a great deal turns on that first slip-step, in which we assume that the people with the wealth and the fame, the ones on TV, must be the ones with the good ideas.
It’s very hard to shake that idea. It’s lodged in the things we all hear.
Tomorrow: Our horrible leaders
Strongly recommended: We’ve only read six chapters so far. But with each chapter, we’re more surprised by the point of view advanced in Mark Leibovich’s book, This Town.
We expect to review it after back-to-school week. But the darn thing just keeps getting stronger.
Did the mainstream reviews understate this book’s bite? We’ll have to go back and reread them!