Obama

Amplified: Obama and Uncomfortable Progress on Who We Are

It’s not surprising that it was Obama’s take on Trump that made the headlines from a much more extensive interview with NPR’s Steve Innskeep. There’s a question that appears to be stuck on repeat today, a question of “national identity, who we are.” That was Innskeep’s proposition but Obama’s answer suggests this question has nagged us since the beginning.

Recognizing these persistent questions and the moments when we start changing our answers is an important act of citizenship.

The “Amplified Treatment” of the text below is intended to focus on the most substantive and timeless pieces of Obama’s response to Innskeep’s question about who we are and why that question keeps coming up as we all look for something to hold onto, bracing ourselves for Election 2016.

You can watch the interview or review the whole transcript here.

Obama We the People

Inauguration 2013: The Bridge between Words and Realities

This bridge between our words and the “realities of our time” is how Barack Obama described our “never-ending journey” in the United States. There is much to think about in the words the President chose for his 2nd Inaugural speech yesterday and the various snapshots the media has provided us of Americans who either made the trek to the nation’s capital or their local coffee shop to watch the event as a community of people. This post is a glancing blow, a first shot at sharing some of the ideas in the air this week.

Many of our alumni are welcoming students back to school today and one in particular is leading a group of students back home from Washington, D.C. I hope they’ll consider sharing their reflections and those of their students. I hope you will also consider sharing your ideas or those you find in the media that are meaningful. Until then, check out some of these stories…

Saying he was inspired by Walt Whimtan’s idea that America contains multitudes, Richard Blanco read his poem, “One Today,” during the ceremony. Blanco also represents a uniquely American story that enabled his words to convey a certain kind of heft. It’s impossible to choose one verse as the most moving. Perhaps what is the most interesting is how the ONE and the MANY reverberate through each and every stanza. So, you must read the whole thing but here’s one moment in the poem that was especially meaningful to me:

All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.

 

Commentary on the meaning of the moment flooded Facebook and Twitter where the White House’s graphics to accompany the text appeared alongside tributes to Martin Luther King. Too often in this era of 24/7 cable news, commentary is cheap, meaningless and whatever the opposite of thought provoking is (maybe mind-numbing?).

I was grateful for two pieces where the authors aimed to reflect on the moment and the context. James Fallows wrote about “The Two Most Powerful Allusions in Obama’s Speech” for The Atlantic. The two themes he discusses briefly are the “lash and the sword,” which he shows connects to the closing passage of Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address, and “Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall.” After sharing an excerpt from Obama’s speech, the very first sentence which he claims summarizes the entire thing, Fallows demonstrated how Lincoln, Jefferson, Madison, Adams and George Washington lined up with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Martin Luther King and Congressman John Lewis:

As in the one-sentence summary at the start of the speech, Obama wants to claim not just Lincoln but also Jefferson, Madison, Adams, George Washington, and the rest as guiding spirits for his kind of progressivism. In this passage he works toward that end by numbering among “our forebears” — those honored ancestors who fought to perfect our concepts of liberty and of union — the likes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Martin Luther King and other veterans of Selma including still-living Rep. John Lewis, and the protestors 44 years ago at the Stonewall.

After reading much (maybe too much) about the rhetoric and watching a video of Conrell West ranting against Obama’s decision to use MLK’s bible for the swearing in, I went looking for what Ta-Nehisi Coates writing. Also posted on The Atlantic, his reflection on the President’s remarks made an essential point. This is the reason why we should always be careful about dismissing something as “nothing but rhetoric.” Coates writes:

As surely as it has always mattered to homophobes, white supremacists, and chauvinists what was and wasn’t said in the public, it should matter to those of who seek to repel them. What ideas do and don’t get exposed in the public square has to matter to any activist, because movements begin by exposing people to ideas. “I Have a Dream” is not simply important because of whatever civil-rights legislation followed, but because it put on the big American public stage a notion that was long held as anathema — integration. The idea extends beyond legislation.

The moment wasn’t lost on a Chicago high schooler who attended the inaugural event and shared her thoughts with NPR, “I think this is the first time he bluntly said everything he believed in outright to the public and I thought that was phenomenal.” The NPR piece that focuses on this group of Chicago teens and their ideas about Obama was short but invaluable.  That might be what I appreciated most yesterday… hearing the voices of the future consonant with the voices of the past and taking to task the voices of now.

***I very much want to “color code” both texts, Obama’s speech and Blanco’s poem, to bring out each of these groups of people, the past, the future, the now and the people of all times. Expect a future post. If you have ideas for different ways to present these words or to put them into conversation with other familiar forms, please do it and share it with us.

UPDATE: Todd Heuston is trying to escape D.C. with his group of students from South Anchorage High School but shared a sound clip from Alaska Public Radio. Now we can add his voice and those of his students to this collection of reflections on the inauguration. Listen to Todd’s thoughts about Obama’s “broad strokes” and the issues that interested his students this most here.

It’s America and We are One

Did you see the We are One celebration yesterday? It was a powerful combination of our best words, music, and ideas. From the MLK and JFK quotes you’d expect to Reagan quotes you wouldn’t. I wouldn’t call myself a fan of Mary J. Blige or Jon Bon Jovi but they provided a moving performance with a gritty civil rights classic “A Change is Gonna Come.”

Most know me as a U2 fan and it’s Bono’s words that provoked this post. Brian Williams from NBC’s Nightly News interviewed Bono after rehearsals Saturday night. Bono was overheard to say it felt like the band had somehow trespassed on the American dream. His emotional understanding of the moment guided Bono’s responses to Brian’s questions.

I’m going to save his answer just long enough to set the stage…

Aerial views of the thousands of people crowding the mall brought back personal memories for some and a sense of living history for others. We’ve seen crowds on the mall like this before. Is it one of our most public spaces? U2 performed two songs. Where they started is where many worried our march for civil rights had ended. They sang “Pride (In the Name of Love),” their tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King.

The song begins…

One man come in the name of love
One man come and go
One come he to justify
One man to overthrow…

The conclusion makes the song  personal…

Early morning, April 4
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride

In the name of love
What more in the name of love…

If time hadn’t already found itself in a crazy loop with MLK’s pride and passion present again on those famous steps, Obama then took center stage. His speech spoke to this moment while heeding the voices of moments past. This moment, with the past and future present at once, is where Bono’s remarks found their fuel.We now we return to Brian Williams and Bono.

Brian asks Bono what it means to the band to be a part of the inaugural celebration. Bono expresses his hope that it internationalizes it somehow adding, with a friendly jab to the ribs, “You might own the country but you don’t own the idea.”

Bono imagines people around the globe watching the ceremony on Tuesday and adds:

When this man swears in on Lincoln’s Bible, he proves that America exists. It’s an astonishing thing because in a way people had ruled out Amerca. They counted you out. They think… oh yeah, America is just for America. It strangely changes everything.

And with that assertion, that this moment on Tuesday provides proof that America exists, I thought of the question of who we are or, as Matthew added, who we is.  The words we use this week and the moments we create resonate with answers to these questions. Do some words carry the weight of our past while others herald the promise of our future? Are those the same words or are they different? Are some words and moments more substantive than others? What makes the difference?

Campaign 2008 in the Box

Sparking curiosity and provoking puzzled stares, Professor Harris proposed his model of Federalist and Antifederalist thinking provides a useful lens for understanding this year’s presidential candidates. Those of us who want to draw a straight line to match today’s political parties to the Federalist and Antifederalist perspectives were baffled. How in the world did Hillary end up in the same set of boxes as McCain and Bush?

The categories proposed for each candidate include…

Barack Obama is a red box Federalist driven by his understanding of us as a people committed to particular principles and one another.

Hillary Clinton is a blue box Antifederalist driven by a commitment to government and the solutions it should provide the people.

John McCain is a red box Antifederalist driven by a belief in who we are as one people of a particular nation.

And, another note of interest, George W. Bush is a green box Antifederalist driven by a firm faith in natural order, what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil.

Each of these explanations could benefit from additional elaboration. What I’ve provided is simple and most definitely incomplete.

For example, it isn’t that Hillary only sees government or the blue box but that her campaign was largely a matter of policy proposals. When she needed support for her proposals, she appealed to an understanding of who we are as a people or what we should understand about natural rights. The American people are fighters who believe health care is a universal right. The category distinction a matter of where each candidate is most likely to stake out their first position and then where they look for support.

When I saw this video of John McCain’s new ad, I thought it spoke directly to the assertion that he is a red box Antifderealist. The conclusion and his purported slogan for the general election is the best: John McCain, putting country first.

If McCain is putting country first, he has red written all over him! Watch the video and consider what it says about who we are as a people and what we will do through government as a result.

If you find similar links to support or challenge the categories proposed for Clinton, Bush, and Obama, please post them in the comments!