I try not to talk about current politics here, but yesterday I was completely surprised – no, astonished – by Barack Obama’s speech on race relations in our country. I deliberately refrained from watching the video, but only read the text. I didn’t want to be swayed by a politician’s charisma, but rather wanted to find out what he had to say. You can read the entire text of the speech here.

I hadn’t expected to be astonished. I suppose I had gotten used to the politician’s self-protective crouch, the safe sound byte, the way even the most thoughtful of public speakers have now learned to carefully dumb it all down, to assume that any real attempt to speak to the intelligence in their listeners would not be worth the risk of having their words taken out of context, that anything complex they try to say would somehow be turned against them.

So I was not prepared to be spoken to with true respect, with actual reasoned intelligence, for a speech to contain complexity, historical context, to frankly discuss the enormous varieties of anger that tear at this country, or to talk honestly about the causes of our nation’s rage, without giving in to that rage.

When was the last time you can remember a major politician in this country actually daring to respect the intelligence of our people, the complexity and contradictions of our culture? Think about it for a moment. When was the last time?

Ever since we entered our current bizarro era of presidential image building, in which a major war is started by shouting “Mission Accomplished” while wearing a silly costume, in which being “presidential” means being periodically driven to a fake ranch for pretend wood chopping, in which wartime photo-ops are staged with plastic turkeys, it feels as though our nation’s citizenry has taken on some of the characteristics of of a chronically abused spouse: After we’ve been slapped upside the head enough times, we begin to believe that we deserve the punishment and humiliation.

By the time of Katrina, when unconscionable neglect was inflicted by an uncaring and incompetent government upon its own citizens, the obscene jokiness of a line like “Heck’va job Brownie” had come to seem normal. Our nation had already been beaten into submission, had been convinced it must really be a race of idiots, undeserving of real democracy, let alone legal niceties like the protection of Habeas Corpus.

We had learned to look down so Daddy wouldn’t smack us again, to keep our voices low and to take off our shoes at airports, while anesthetizing our suppressed rage by sneaking off to watch John Stewart and The Simpsons, the way a generation of enraged teenagers used to sneak off to read Mad Magazine. Anything to escape the scary people who had somehow taken on the role of a nation’s grown-ups.

So to read something like this, a speech so subtle, complex, reasoned, so respectful of its listeners, a speech which gives us the benefit of the doubt that we are indeed capable of holding two ideas in our heads at the same time, this has made my heart leap for joy. I had given up on such possibilities.

I don’t know who will become our next president. But meanwhile, bless you for this moment, Mr. Obama. Bless you. For the first time in years I remember what a privilege it can be to be part of a nation of ideas, a nation of people who are capable of mutual respect, who continue, even while disagreeing, to hold each other’s steady gaze.

I remember again what it feels like to be an American.

One thought on “Astonished”

  1. I recently watched the first three episodes of “John Adams” on HBO. It was a pleasure to be reminded that what you describe was, at least once upon a time, commonplace rather than a rarity.


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