No Comment — March 19, 2008, 12:47 pm

The Speech

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.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2018

The Bodies in The Forest

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Minds of Others

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Modern Despots

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Before the Deluge

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Notes to Self

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Within Reach

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Minds of Others·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Progress is impossible without change,” George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1944, “and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” But progress through persuasion has never seemed harder to achieve. Political segregation has made many Americans inaccessible, even unimaginable, to those on the other side of the partisan divide. On the rare occasions when we do come face-to-face, it is not clear what we could say to change each other’s minds or reach a worthwhile compromise. Psychological research has shown that humans often fail to process facts that conflict with our preexisting worldviews. The stakes are simply too high: our self-worth and identity are entangled with our beliefs — and with those who share them. The weakness of logic as a tool of persuasion, combined with the urgency of the political moment, can be paralyzing.

Yet we know that people do change their minds. We are constantly molded by our environment and our culture, by the events of the world, by the gossip we hear and the books we read. In the essays that follow, seven writers explore the ways that persuasion operates in our lives, from the intimate to the far-reaching. Some consider the ethics and mechanics of persuasion itself — in religion, politics, and foreign policy — and others turn their attention to the channels through which it acts, such as music, protest, and technology. How, they ask, can we persuade others to join our cause or see things the way we do? And when it comes to our own openness to change, how do we decide when to compromise and when to resist?

Illustration (detail) by Lincoln Agnew
Article
Within Reach·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a balmy day last spring, Connor Chase sat on a red couch in the waiting room of a medical clinic in Columbus, Ohio, and watched the traffic on the street. His bleached-blond hair fell into his eyes as he scrolled through his phone to distract himself. Waiting to see Mimi Rivard, a nurse practitioner, was making Chase nervous: it would be the first time he would tell a medical professional that he was transgender.

By the time he arrived at the Equitas Health clinic, Chase was eighteen, and had long since come to dread doctors and hospitals. As a child, he’d had asthma, migraines, two surgeries for a tumor that had caused deafness in one ear, and gangrene from an infected bug bite. Doctors had always assumed he was a girl. After puberty, Chase said, he avoided looking in the mirror because his chest and hips “didn’t feel like my body.” He liked it when strangers saw him as male, but his voice was high-pitched, so he rarely spoke in public. Then, when Chase was fourteen, he watched a video on YouTube in which a twentysomething trans man described taking testosterone to lower his voice and appear more masculine. Suddenly, Chase had an explanation for how he felt — and what he wanted.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Before the Deluge·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the summer of 2016, when Congress installed a financial control board to address Puerto Rico’s crippling debt, I traveled to San Juan, the capital. The island owed some $120 billion, and Wall Street was demanding action. On the news, President Obama announced his appointments to the Junta de Supervisión y Administración Financiera. “The task ahead for Puerto Rico is not an easy one,” he said. “But I am confident Puerto Rico is up to the challenge of stabilizing the fiscal situation, restoring growth, and building a better future for all Puerto Ricans.” Among locals, however, the control board was widely viewed as a transparent effort to satisfy mainland creditors — just the latest tool of colonialist plundering that went back generations.

Photograph from Puerto Rico by Christopher Gregory
Article
Monumental Error·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1899, the art critic Layton Crippen complained in the New York Times that private donors and committees had been permitted to run amok, erecting all across the city a large number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues had been dumped in Central Park. “The sculptures go as far toward spoiling the Park as it is possible to spoil it,” he wrote. Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that was being done.

Illustration by Steve Brodner
Post
CamperForce·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

After losing their savings in the stock market crash of 2008, seniors Barb and Chuck find seasonal employment at Amazon fulfillment centers.

Minimum number of shooting incidents in the United States in the past year in which the shooter was a dog:

2

40,800,000,000 pounds of total adult human biomass is due to excessive fatness.

Trump’s former chief strategist, whom Trump said had “lost his mind,” issued a statement saying that Trump’s son did not commit treason; the US ambassador to the United Nations announced that “no one questions” Trump’s mental stability; and the director of the CIA said that Trump, who requested “killer graphics” in his intelligence briefings, is able to read.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today