The world sometimes envelops us in a strange mist. It has streams of the sublime, of the ridiculous and the grotesque. Viewed under too much light, perhaps, the mist recedes and marvelous things suddenly seem mundane. The mist, however, is an important part of our world.
Most of us live plodding lives, walking down well-worn tracks, often filled with cynicism and disdain for the world around us. And appropriately enough, we usually reserve the strongest cynicism for the world of politics, which in most societies quickly emerges as a theater for the ridiculous and the grotesque. But the sublime also crosses this stage, however fleetingly, and it is a test for each of us and for the society that we constitute: can we recognize it when it appears?
Yesterday was the day for such a test. Barack Obama was to give a speech responding to concerns raised about the rhetoric of his former pastor. I was doing some research on developments in Tibet as the speech came on, and I found myself halfway listening to it in the background. It was, I thought, just another of the speeches which cover the landscape of the presidential campaign, sure to be filled with phrases and messages that have been carefully vetted with focus groups.
But as the speech unfolded, I realized that it was nothing like what I had expected. I stopped my work and started to focus on it. The voice was level, unagitated but still intensely personal. The speaker tackled issues that by common wisdom could never help his political cause; that could only damage him. He spoke the unspoken truths about racial divide in America, and he spoke with a strong sense of wrongs, yet with no anger, and a clear vision of justice. The vision he presented was more than simply compelling in a political sense. It rang of dangerous truth.
Barack Obama’s speech was about his pastor, but it was also about religion, religious sentiment, and its proper role in a democratic society. His speech was the polar opposite of the one that Mitt Romney delivered a few months back, starting with the political calculus behind it. Obama’s speech was bold, daring, a willingness to speak unpleasant truths that many in his audience will not want to hear. This may not be the formula for a successful political campaign—that question is to some extent a test for the maturity of the voters. But it is a demonstration of moral integrity and indeed of greatness.
He quotes us William Faulkner, the ultimate chronicler of the Southern experience: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” That quote comes out of “Delta Autumn” in Go Down, Moses, which is one of Faulkner’s most gripping shorter works. At its heart is the rejoining of two branches of the McCaslin family, one black and the other white. The tension that runs through the work relates to the desire of white McCaslins to suppress the fact of the relationship. Faulkner’s views are plain enough—the past is painful, difficult, and the desire to suppress it and to delay reconciliation with the truth may be irrepressible. But “some day” it will happen, the truth of the past and the legacy of its systematic denial must be overcome. Faulkner’s curious genius lay in the fact that he could share and express the sentiments of white Southern gentility, and also recognize the rotting planks on which it rested and the inevitability that they would be overcome. It was in his view an ultimate test of reconciliation with the truth about the past.
Obama’s wielding of these images to craft his own message is another masterstroke—it reflects his ultimate message, of reconciliation. This message is simple, heartfelt and powerful. He is telling us that the long waiting is over, and that the time to overcome the racial divide is here. And he presents this as a message to both sides of the divide.
The hate- and fearmongers who dominate American politics detest Barack Obama, and they feel they have found the tools to take him down—the words of his former pastor. Of course, if we attributed to every presidential candidate the ideas of those who fill their camps, or even the ideas of all their advisors, we would despair for ever finding a qualified, or even marginally acceptable candidate. The political hacks will find little to praise and much to criticize in what he writes. We see the evidence of that in the oh-so-predictable pieces which appear at National Review Online and in Michael Gerson’s column at the Washington Post (appropriately, coming from the man who sold a war and “mission accomplished,” using hatred, fear and ignorance at every step, even as he professed his inspiration as a “devout Christian”).
This speech puts Obama on a level above his critics, and it is something that will speak over time and that should be heard over the vacuous chatter of the political punditry. It is something sublime.
In this race we can clearly see that one candidate has the edge in oratory and in the formulation and presentation of inspirational, but soft ideas. That is important but it is also far from the only skill required of a successful president. Experience, judgment, a knowledge of issues and a mind capable of crafting creative answers are all equally important matters on which Obama still has a case to make. But Obama cannot be denied courage, fortitude and vision.
Maureen Dowd reminds us that Obama is no Messiah. That is certainly true. He offers hope, but not redemption. And indeed, if he were a Messiah, the American people assuredly would never elect him president. The peoples of the world have a habit of failing to recognize greatness and of picking charlatans and criminals over those who offer unpleasant truths and a vision of something better which requires pain to obtain. That’s another message for this week; it comes in only a few days.