On June 1st, President Barack Obama proclaimed June 2009 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month and called “upon the people of the United States to turn back discrimination and prejudice everywhere it exists.” If President Obama expected to be showered in lavender love in return for this proclamation, he was sorely disappointed. During June, grumbling about the Obama administration’s public stance on such issues as gays in the military, same-sex marriage, and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) reached a crescendo. Candidate Obama had expressed his determination to overturn the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy and DOMA; now-President Obama is taking a decidedly more muted tack—in the name of pragmatism. At a White House reception for invited gay and lesbian leaders on June 30th, with wife Michelle prominently at his side, the President implicitly acknowledged the slow pace of change (critics might say the no-pace of change) and counseled patience: “I know that many in this room don’t believe progress has come fast enough, and I understand that. It’s not for me to tell you to be patient any more than it was for others to counsel patience to African-Americans who were petitioning for equal rights a half-century ago. We’ve been in office six months now. I suspect that by the time this administration is over, I think you guys will have pretty good feelings about the Obama administration.”
“These things are old”
As Barack Obama stood on the stage at Grant Park in Chicago on election night, my euphoria yielded to a strange unease in the pit of my stomach and all good feeling drained away. I soon realized what caused this sensation as I consciously registered the reflected image in the bulletproof glass that imperceptibly framed Obama’s face. Even as his mouth formed words that announced a new founding and the vindication of old foundations, the ghostly image conjured a recurrent, traumatic history of unfulfilled promises, unredeemed struggles and unaccounted losses, the many thousands gone. Perhaps any victor that night would have been so protected. Nevertheless, that black existence and aspirations toward inclusion and equality in the U.S. readily associate with a history of legal and extra-legal violence deployed to produce and preserve racial distance and disparity is hardly surprising. However unseemly, the strongest prospective parallels between Obama and King drawn during the Democratic primary and Presidential campaign implicated the threat of premature death. In turn, Obama’s ostensible fulfillment of King’s dream arguably has less to do with substantive political connections between the two men than with the racial form and symbolism of one life and its associated promise repairing the violently truncated closure of another before its time.
Without art, Victor Shklovsky writes in “Art as Technique,” “life is reckoned as nothing. Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war….And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life.” In this spirit of freedom from anaesthetizing habit we can, and urgently should, take up the torn threads that tie humanism up with civic education. We humanists can join artists as cultural agents who promote creativity and interpretation as resources for social development. The objective is not a partisan victory but the formation of “thick” civic subjects who are alive to the world and exercise the free judgment that we learn, as Kant taught us, through developing a disinterested enjoyment of beauty. Democracy depends on sturdy and resourceful citizens able to engage more than one point of view and to wrest rights and resources from limited assets. In other words, non-authoritarian government counts on creativity to loosen conventional thought and free up the space where conflicts are negotiated, before they reach a brink of either despair or aggression.
Obama calls upon Americans to “give our all to a difficult task” and “carry forth a precious gift” of increasingly inclusive liberty, equality, and happiness. We are empowered to do so by meeting new challenges with reaffirmations of old truths that “have been the quiet force of progress”: “honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism.” In perfect harmony, God and American democracy call us to continue a long and difficult tradition imagined as a journey “up the path” of progress. This song is old. But is it true? What are the implications of framing the virtues for progress as a “quiet force”? What is gained and lost by imagining progress singularly as upward movement? [...]
When Obama intoned, “This is our moment. This is our time…Yes we can,” we needed to ask, of course, “yes, we can…what?” For me, the answer involves returning to my roots as an antiwar organizer and civil rights activist, my roots as a teacher who believes that schools and classrooms, at their best, are powered by the engines of enlightenment and freedom. The promise of education is always tied up with the radical proposition that we can change our lives right now, today, and that together we can change the world. It is a promise with particular resonance and urgency in a democratic society, for democracy assumes the necessity of continual and dynamic revitalization, and demands, then, regeneration as its lifeblood.
Here we enter the necessary if unglamorous world of organizing, of reframing debates and dialogues at every level, of animating and rebirthing our immanent frames, of challenging the insistent dogma of commonsense, of beginning political education, of enacting self-change and making a movement from the bottom up. Through what may be the most participatory national campaign in the country’s history, a new generation has learned the tools of campaigning, community organizing, political discourse, and civic debate. Their experiences ought now to be turned toward mobilizing others to insist on the changes they had hoped for and imagined. There is something stirring.
Obama’s speeches are glorious. They are a joy to listen to and to read later. He is able to dig deep into the rich rhetorical tradition of the Christian world and of the Founding Fathers, and to articulate a call for awakening that is powerful. But how far is it from our world, from our time? There is an anachronistic edge not only in the cadence, but also in the logic—nothing here about the desertion of populations by the government, the allowance of the few to dominate the wealth produced by the many, and the turn to violence when other means wither in the quiver. Ethical systems cannot be built upon each other without any consideration of social transformations. It is not language alone that we must attend to, but even more so to the social context of the language. Celebrations of “American character” and of the “God-given promise that all are equal” are emotive, powerful symbols of an age that is now no longer with us.
American exceptionalism has been dealt a body-blow. I want to suggest, however, that the variant of exceptionalism that was upset by the Bush era was only a vertical model, and that a horizontal image has not only survived, but is flourishing—perhaps, in fact, finding ultimate expression in the personage of Barack Obama as the official representation of the body politic. Traditionally, there have been two distinct, coexistent images of American exceptionalism—one vertical, and one horizontal. The vertical model envisions America as the pinnacle of a global hierarchy, the privileged “city upon a hill” over an otherwise flat or downward-sloping world. The horizontal model pictures America as being, instead, a consummation, the “melting pot” where the peoples of the world meet, intermingle, and are ennobled by virtue of constituting collective humanity within morally important national borders. In the first picture, America is separate from the world of nations, and in the second, America has subsumed the world of peoples. [...]
Presidents are compelled to use the language of exceptionalism in two important ways. If our presidents are to be believed, we are always doing something New and something Great. We have had, in the past eighty years, the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier, the Great Society, the New Nixon, Morning in America, A Thousand Points of Light, a New Covenant, a Bridge to Tomorrow, and Compassionate Conservatism, and now we have a New Foundation. These slogans are made to do a lot of work, in that they suggest another word that became the brand of the Obama campaign last year: change.
One of the most important elements of Obama’s pragmatism is the sense that “hope” can only be “realistic” if it wishes to be more than wishful thinking and whistling in the dark, just as much as “realism” without “hope” leads principally nowhere, but merely brutally affirms whatever is and only strengthens the powers that be. This may sound trivial, a platitude, but it is not. After all, the least one can say of any truism is that it has, well, truth to it. And, in matters political—but, perhaps, not only there—insight into the paradoxical, some would say aporetic, relationship between the ideal and the real holds the key to all. It all depends on what one gives prevalence, when and where and how. No political calculation can do this trick (and keep idealism from turning into “naïve idealism” or realism into “bitter realism”), nor is instinct its sound alternative. The expression “deep pragmatism” captures nicely what is at work and required here. So much for the truism.