Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Obama doesn't have a dream

Though I was unavailable to attend the 50th anniversary commemoration of the 1963 march on Washington D.C. and Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, I did make the point of listening to President Obama's speech delivered at the event, a transcript of which can be found HERE. What follows are my thoughts on the speech and reactions to some of the topics raised. 

In the opening, Obama acknowledges that progress has been achieved in civil rights. He names several important historical figures who contributed to that progress and reminds us that to say otherwise would be to say their work was in vain. That's more acknowledgement of progress than we are generally accustomed to. Of course, being black and president forces a few admissions. Still, it puts the lie to the perennial detractors who claim the President speaks as though we are still in the days of dogs and fire hoses.

Next, Obama spends some time giving a history lesson on the march of 50 years ago. It's an appropriate mode given the occasion, but to me it seemed too long. Certainly everyone in the audience had some knowledge of the event they were commemorating. It felt a little condescending to spend so much time on it.

Following that, he harps a great deal on income inequality--nothing unusual there--and subtly altering King's vision from one about legal and civil justice to one about income equality. An oblique reference to "our economic system" would seem to allude, given the politics of the speaker, to a failure of the private sector, as if welfare programs, corporate bailouts, and government subsidies were not as much a part of our economy.

As an aside: Does anybody know what a lunch counter even is anymore? I've only ever heard the term in connection with segregation. I've certainly never sat at one. Just a funny artifact that we'd have all forgotten if it weren't for the issues connected to it.

Now, something that I found surprising, Obama next takes aim at technology and globalism as contributors to "an unjust status quo." He folds this into an idea encompassing the very cronyism he so willingly engages in, but I'm more fascinated by the former ideas. If conservatives were effectual, they'd jump all over that line because most Americans believe technology is always good. It's hard to say where protectionism falls on the political spectrum, it crops up everywhere, but it could still be spun as anti-progress. It's lucky for Obama that the right is so ineffectual, because those items could be made into serious gaffes.

Obama's next attack is on "those elected officials who found it useful to practice the old politics of division." I'm not even sure why he used that phrase where he did, because he goes on to repudiate what was essentially the core belief of Reaganism: that government is the problem. The way he says it rather insinuates that blacks cannot make it without the government.

It's an ironic way to segue into the the next part of the speech where Obama chastens the black community for turning the march for equal opportunity into a call for government welfare -- "as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child, and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself." Those could be powerful words if I thought they would be given any consideration. As it is, it seems more like it was a concession to those who say the black community needs to look within. He certainly could have elaborated on that part of the speech--as he did with his economic points--but he chose not to. 

Still, that was the speech's high-note. Obama immediately turns to the uninspired. He trots out the usual platitudes about jobs and wages, health care, education, feed the hungry, house the homeless, the road is long but we'll get there, blah, blah, blah. It's a weak, ill-defined set of remedies to follow the string of admonishments that just comprised the bulk of his comments.

Obama concludes by making his speech--really the whole anniversary--pathetically small. He says we're still marching, and the examples of that march are depressingly bland: the dedicated teacher, the businessman who pays a generous wage, the mothers and fathers who--gasp!--raise their children. These illustrations are incredibly uninspiring and none of the implications are good. Either 1) these things are exceptions to the rule and we are in a really sorry state, or 2) these things are as common as they sound and the whole preceding speech is negated, or 3) because Obama is addressing a primarily black crowd, we might infer that what sounds commonplace to white folk is not so common to his audience.