Saturday, March 14, 2015

Obama at Selma: ‘Faith in the American Experiment’--And Who Really Questions It

“As we commemorate their achievement, we are well-served to remember that at the time of the [Selma] marches, many in power condemned rather than praised them. Back then, they were called Communists, half-breeds, outside agitators, sexual and moral degenerates, and worse – everything but the name their parents gave them. Their faith was questioned. Their lives were threatened. Their patriotism was challenged.

“And yet, what could be more American than what happened in this place?...

“What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this; what greater form of patriotism is there; than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?”—President Barack Obama, Address on the 50th Anniversary of the Selma, Ala., March for Voting Rights, March 7, 2015

Somehow, a sense of the majesty of the occasion—a commemoration of “Bloody Sunday,” when 600 non-violent activists were set on by state troopers in marching from Selma to Montgomery in support of voting rights—seems to have stirred Barack Obama to deliver one of the few memorable speeches of his Presidency.

Or maybe, a sense of righteous anger seized him as well: the realization that, a half-century later, another black—not even a protestor this time, but the highest-ranking member of the government—was having his faith questioned, his life threatened, and his patriotism challenged, for no good reason. 

Though this has been happening, of and on, even before he became President, it has been given new resonance now. It is, at heart, "birtherism" all over again in another guise, a virulent controversy about origins with dark roots in many Americans' longtime suspicions of "the other," except this time in far more insidious form, given cover by a man once hailed for leading his city through its greatest crisis. 

If former New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani hoped to take Obama down a peg, he failed miserably. Rather than making people wonder about the President, he only made them reconsider why they ever thought so well of himself in the first place.

A Disengaged President Revivified
One of my friends wrote on Facebook that she cried as she listened to Obama’s address on her car radio. Too bad that for much of his time in office, the President didn't speak with this kind of passion, the same rafter-raising rhetoric used in the address at the 2004 Democratic Convention that put him on the national stage. God knows there have been plenty more times since then when he’s terribly disappointed his most ardent supporters and even dismayed those who, like me, while expecting little from a comparative neophyte in Washington, still hoped for the best. And it wasn't simply because the old eloquence--needed so desperately in the last six years to explain the need to redress the rising economic inequality faced by all Americans, black and white--went missing in action.

Rather than running a “passionless Presidency,” as former speechwriter James Fallows charged his old boss, Jimmy Carter, with conducting, Obama could credibly be charged with lapsing into a disengaged one. He didn’t want to prep for campaign debates, make nice with recalcitrant but influential Congressmen—in short, take the time to learn which levers of government needed to be pressed. He looked like he would rather be on a basketball court, a golf course, schmoozing at parties with Hollywood celebrities or picking the brains of academics at conferences—anywhere else but in the Oval Office.

I certainly wish that, instead of going into a defensive crouch when Wall Street and its GOP minions brayed, he had gone after them with hammer and tongs, the same way that Franklin Roosevelt denounced the “economic royalists” who had brought on the Great Depression, throwing down the bold challenge, “I welcome their hatred.”  

Who Really Is "Us"?
No, it took a ceaseless, senseless chorus—joined shamelessly late last month by Mayor Guiliani—to call Obama back to first principles. The marchers at Selma, in demanding that this country simply accord them their rights due as native-born citizens, were, as the President said, engaged in a struggle to “determine the meaning of America”—a struggle that a limited but loud group in this country now seek to negate not just by limiting voting rights, but by restricting the range and rights of citizenship itself.

On the other hand, in a manner that called to mind Richard Nixon at his divisive worst, Guiliani used coded language to this cohort when he addressed a luncheon at New York’s Club 21 for GOP Presidential hopeful Scott Walker. Obama, the former mayor said, wasn’t “brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.”

You and I. He’s not one of us. He’s—wink, wink—one of them.

But who is “us”? The strength of America derives from the extent to which it has been revitalized by outsiders—immigrants whose labor proved essential in creating new industries. Unfortunately, many of its most shameful moments have occurred when established social groups have practiced exclusion against newcomers or their descendants (or, in the case of African-Americans, people here for centuries, but excluded by law and custom for too long in participating in or benefiting from this country).

Guiliani could look to the experience of his own ethnic group if he wanted to realize at a gut level the unfairness of such exclusion. Throughout much of the 20th century, bigots could not associate Italian-Americans with anything besides organized crime.

The Perils of Speaking Loosely
What probably happened at that New York luncheon was this: Guiliani was stewing over how Obama was twisting himself into a pretzel over how to refer to the particular strain of religious-motivated terrorism that has bedeviled the world so far in this millennium.

The ex-“America’s Mayor” might be annoyed by what he sees as Obama’s occasional criticism toward the United States. But he has hardly been the first President to do so: In his Personal Memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant called the Mexican War, which resulted in additional slave states in the Union, “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.”

Obama has been  tiptoeing around calling out a radical minority element of one of the world’s largest religions that is fomenting danger, but Presidents speak loosely about their nation’s opponents at their peril.

In June 1940, before he was set to deliver a commencement address at the University of Virginia, Franklin Roosevelt debated with his wife and aides a last-minute, handwritten insertion into his prepared text. The President’s denunciation of Benito Mussolini for invading France, just when Axis ally Adolf Hitler had put it on the verge of surrender, was as vivid in its way as another last-minute addition in a later, more famous address: “a date which will live in infamy.” 

This time, FDR brushed aside concerns that his words would offend loyal Italian-Americans sensitive about imputations of criminal associations. For better or worse, he would live with the consequences of  “On this tenth day of June, 1940, the hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbor.” I would not be entirely surprised if Guiliani’s parents, their relatives and friends were among those who cringed.

Saying whatever you want, diplomatic niceties be damned, does have consequences for a President. Right after 9/11, George W. Bush’s loose use of “this crusade” in the immediate context of “this war on terrorism” sent aides into full spin mode as they rushed to dash anger on the Middle East "street" over invoking an event  they abominated. For the rest of his tenure in office, he floundered just as much as Obama on how to character the existential threat now faced by the world.

Comparing How "I Was Brought Up" Can Boomerang
In politics and interpersonal relations as well as in diplomacy, speaking loosely can boomerang—and perhaps nowhere so much recently as in Guiliani’s allusion to “the way you were brought up and I was brought up.” More than a few commentators have—ahem—brought up everything in comparing his parentage with that of the man who sparked his criticism. Little if any of it is to Guiliani’s advantage.

Who passed on this alleged lack of patriotism to Obama? His father? But the President spent only one, unsatisfying month with him, at age 10. His mother? Like many young Americans of her generation, Ann Dunham believed in the promise of her country to the world enough to spend years abroad helping developing nations, in her case as a specialist in economic anthropology and rural development.

Guiliani himself dismissed any thought that his allusion to the President’s background was racist by noting that among those who brought him up was a white grandfather. As it happens, that grandparent, Stanley Dunham, served in WWII in Europe as a soldier.

In contrast, the ex-mayor's father, Harold Guiliani, didn’t. He couldn’t: as a felon, convicted seven years before Pearl Harbor of robbing a milkman at gunpoint, he was ineligible to serve. Nor did his son serve in the armed forces during the Vietnam War: when others of his generation were taking a hill, Rudy Guiliani was taking a deferment.

"Socialism" and "Anti-Colonial"--The GOP Phantom Menaces
When questions began to be raised about his remarks, Guiliani only kept digging his hole deeper. He ascribed the sources of the President’s belief to “socialism or possibly anti-colonialism."

One could begin to point out that, during the Cold War, a number of governments allied with the West against the U.S.S.R. were headed by socialists, such as Great Britain under Clement Attlee and France under Francois Mitterrand. But really, the GOP doesn’t object to the the fact of redistribution of wealth inherent in socialism so much as its direction. Since the Reagan Revolution, that redistribution, in the form of tax policy, has been unrelentingly upward.

As for Obama being influenced by “anti-colonialism”—what, really, is so wrong with that? Did Guiliani ever stop to think that the signers of the Declaration of Independence were anti-colonial? If his education doesn’t extend much further than his own experience in politics, he might recall that for a significant part of his former constituency in New York City—Irish-Americans—“anti-colonialism” aimed at longtime British occupiers in their ancestral homeland has been practically part of their DNA. (Take a closer look at those banners at the next New York St. Patrick's Day Parade, Mr. Mayor!)

Going Beyond the Pale: What Guiliani and the GOP Have Wrought
Subsequently, Guiliani disclaimed any intent to question the President’s patriotism, but this was too clever by half.  As a former prosecutor and officeholder, Guiliani is intimately familiar with the meanings and shadings of words. Patriotism is, by definition, love of country. 

Given this, if Guiliani was not saying the President was unpatriotic, his entire statement at the luncheon was nonsense. If he was saying so, the statement was despicable. Choose your poison, sir. You can question another politician's policies, his personality, even his brainpower, but once you question his patriotism--his basic good faith--there is no reasonable expectation that he will ever listen to you again on any conceivable subject.

For a long time, Obama was given credit more for what he represented than for what he had actually achieved, as when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize a mere few months into his Presidency. Now, the Republicans blame him more than he deserves for what he represents.

They would be unwise to pursue this line of thought and action. Their criticism of this President’s policies has gone beyond what he does to what he is. If they had ever hoped to peel even a few percentage points out of the long-time Democratic advantage in Presidential elections, they can pretty much abandon it for criticism that is personality-based as opposed to policy-driven. And, by implicitly raising questions about what constitutes a real American, they raise anew  many Hispanic-Americans' suspicions about whether they have any sort of interest in their welfare.

But most of all, the confusion of the Republicans—including Guiliani’s—of criticism of our government with criticism of our country leaves them no justification to operate in honorable dissent in Washington. Throughout his protests, including at Selma, Martin Luther King Jr. simply asked America to live up to its deepest traditions of freedom. The crushing of his dissenting voice, like those of others through the years, would have endangered the U.S. profoundly—leaving its most marginalized group with no means of reform but the most violent action, and exposing this country at the height of the Cold War as a deeply hypocritical clarion of freedom to the world.

The GOP cannot deny the right of dissent to others without limiting their own future freedom of action. Nobody said it better than Harry S. Truman, as McCarthyism—loyalty suspicions run amok—began to take hold in 1950: “Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear."

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