Saturday, March 22, 2008

Making the personal political: Another view on Obama's Big Speech

With thoughtful, measured analysis and uncommon historical context, Duke law prof Jedediah Purdy considers "A More Perfect Union" and debunks some of the more shallow criticisms leveled at it, noting, "the most principled political heroism has always grown up out of what Yeats called "the foul rag and bone shop of the heart"." Further, "King himself, far from being the universally accessible Tiger Woods of racial politics, said plenty of things that would have gotten him pilloried." It's a really smart, insightful commentary on what is already one of the most talked about speeches in recent history.

This is one of Purdy's most important contributions, exposing the false dichotomies and extremes presented by so many professional commentators:

So which is it: the "profile in courage" that the New York Times admired, the evasive cop-out that conservatives denounced or the failed tactic that horserace handicappers predicted would not placate white swing voters?....It was, for all its ambition, a tactical speech by a candidate in a corner. It's amusing to see some commentators chide Obama for going after the Clinton campaign here and here....Even Lincoln's speeches - the mythic standard Obama has managed to get himself thrown up against - are political through and through, full of wry, ironic digs at opponents (and outright laugh lines, which Obama couldn't risk). The idea that moral and rhetorical ambition can't coexist with running to win is a trap for Obama, one he's mostly managed to avoid. That kind of ambition is how a candidate explains why he wants to win, not a high-minded consolation prize."

Purdy also remarks at length on the honesty and singularity of the vision and voice put forth in "A More Perfect Union", placing the speech squarely in context alongside Obama's memoir Dreams of My Father.

Most important, he acknowledges that, in addition to being necessary means to an end, enabling Obama to secure political redemption in the eyes of the American public, the personal, revelatory tone of "the speech" was needed simply because that's the way change is made:

The reason to go through the unpleasant stuff Obama called up is that there is no other way. There is no alternative that is purely "rational", washed pure of unstable emotional elements, whether technocratic problem-solving or clean principles. Every redefinition of the rights and duties of American citizenship has come with a vision of dignity. From Abraham Lincoln to Lyndon Johnson and beyond, civil-rights residents have helped people give up (some of) the perquisites of race in favour of the dignity of belonging to a (more) free country. Franklin Roosevelt redefined frontier independence as requiring security against sickness, joblessness and poverty in old age. Ronald Reagan justified his takedown of Roosevelt's welfare state by reasserting, in sometimes beautiful political prose, that we had been stalwart frontiersmen all along. [italics are mine]

It's a really smart reflection. But don't take my word for it, everyone should really read the whole thing and tell me what you think!
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