By Tom Robotham
We have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division and conflict and cynicism… . But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change. ~ Barack Obama.
In March, 2008, presidential-candidate Barack Obama was in trouble. Earlier that month, ABC News had revealed that Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, had delivered a controversial sermon in the wake of 9/11. Obama’s opponents argued that the candidate was guilty by association.
Under such circumstances, many politicians would have distanced themselves from the offender as best they could. But in speech on March 18, at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Obama confronted the issue head on. The speech was titled, “A More Perfect Union,” a reference to a phrase in our Constitution’s preamble. Obama noted that he had already condemned Wright’s controversial statements in “unequivocal terms.” But he went on to say that he could no more “disown” Wright than he could the black community itself. For Wright, he said, embodied all the contradictions of the nation as a whole. After noting many of Wright’s good qualities and accomplishments in an effort to distinguish the man from the media’s caricature, Obama got to the heart of the matter.
“The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons,” Obama said, “simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour of American life occurs on Sunday morning. That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity within the African-American community in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful. And to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.”
In the days leading up to the Fourth of July I thought a lot about that speech. It is worth 37 minutes of your time on YouTube, not only because of Obama’s eloquent statements about the persistent problem of racial tensions in America but because of a more fundamental idea at the speech’s core—that we, as a nation, must never accept the status quo.
The good news, Obama asserted, is that the country has demonstrated time and again a refusal to do so. And he was right, of course. James Madison and other framers of the Constitution knew full well that the union they were forming wasn’t “perfect,” but rather that they were laying a foundation on which future generations could strive for perfection. And so those future generations did, from the abolition of slavery through the labor movement, the fight for civil rights, and the battle to protect the environment, to name just a few progressive causes.
Succeeding generations did so, of course, not in unity but through conflict between those with a progressive vision and those who would wanted to take us backwards.
The backward-looking mindset is summed up these days in Trump’s favorite slogan: “Make American Great Again.”
It doesn’t take a great deal of reflection to realize how problematic the slogan is. The word “again,” after all, implies that our nation was once greater than it is today.
But how so?
In the realm of economic prosperity, perhaps—for the white middle class. But was America truly “great” back in the 1950s and ‘60s? Anyone with the courage to open his or her eyes must acknowledge that the answer is no. While that white middle-class was thriving, after all, black children still went to schools that were dramatically inferior to those of white children; their parents in many cases were barred from good employment based on the color of their skin; women were expected to remain obedient to their husbands or live as “old maids”; gays and lesbians had to keep their core identities secret or risk their very lives, and American Indians were ignored entirely by the mainstream, except as foils for Hollywood cowboys. Meanwhile, American industries were poisoning the environment with reckless abandon.
Is this the “greatness” to which we long to return?
Few Americans today, other than members of the KKK, would overtly embrace the racism and sexism of that era. Credit those few for honesty, at least. It is my belief that most of the people who responded positively to Trump’s slogan were doing so out of vague nostalgia for some imagined golden age without consideration of the dark realities of mid-Century America.
They were also voting inadvertently against their own interests. This, indeed, was one of the most important points Obama made in that speech.
“Just as black anger often proved counterproductive,” he said, “so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze — a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns — this too widens the racial divide and blocks the path to understanding.”
It’s worth taking stock of how far we’ve come, as evidence of the still-great promise of the American Experiment. At the same time, it’s worth taking stock of the huge gap that remains between our ideals and our present circumstances.
In particular, consider the epigraph with which I opened this essay. It was perhaps the most prophetic remark in Obama’s entire speech—and the key word there is “distraction.” We are now a nation consumed by distractions of two kinds. In the first category are the distractions of politics, most notably in the form of Trump’s outrageous Tweets. Critics on both sides of the aisle often attribute them to the president’s childishness, boorishness or both. “He’s hurting himself,” remarked on commentator on CNN the other night.
This is possible, I suppose. Perhaps, like a troubled teen, he is simply unable to control is self-destructive impulses. Then again, he may know precisely what he’s doing. He may realize that if he can suck all the oxygen out of the room with Twitter tantrums, he will distract us—and the news media—from the more important issues at hand, all while sharpening the divide between his die-hard supporters and his die-hard opponents, and driving millions of others to seek distractions of a non-political nature because they’ve given up on politics.
Like any good three-card-monte player, in other words, Trump may be engaged in calculated distractions, knowing that they afford him the opportunity to perform sleights-of-hand in the form of nefarious business deals while the nation is preoccupied with his Tweets.
This, it seems to me, is the greatest challenge we face: To stay focused—for there is so much work to be done. As evidence of this, I go back to the Constitution’s preamble, which is worth quoting in full:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Clearly we are falling short at the moment, on nearly every count. Every day, after all, we see evidence of injustice, domestic unrest, threats to the common defense, a failure to promote the general welfare, the endangering of our civil liberties, and—in efforts to roll back environmental protections and label global warming as a hoax—an utter rejection of posterity.
It’s enough to send any sensitive and thoughtful person to the brink of despair. But as we stare into that abyss, it’s worth remembering that we’ve been through worse in our nation’s history. With that in mind, I believe we will pass through these dark times as well, into another age of Enlightenment—just so long as we remain vigilant.