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.
Most observers, even the otherwise sober-minded journal The Economist, agree that the anticipation and then election of Barack Obama to become the 44th president of the United States carried—and continues to carry—the promise of something like a “redeeming effect.” What has not been well-understood, even less clearly explained, is what I take to be one of the key factors of Obama’s phenomenal success. He won over an unlikely coalition of voters based on an inspirational message of hope for the common good, while running a campaign that stood out for its impeccable discipline and, at times, ruthless efficiency—at a certain moment the New York Times even spoke of its “military precision”—its message-oriented focus and lack of drama, its technological sophistication as well as its overall outreach where it mattered (its so-called ground battle, “street by street, block by block,” as the mantra went). It is fair to say that both the Clinton and the McCain camps and most conservative pundits fatally underestimated what they were up against, completely misread the signs, the writing on the wall, and, in the end, had no idea what had truly hit them. […]
In my previous post, I outlined the civil religion that Robert Bellah and Sacvan Bercovitch both identify, though with opposed intentions. Surely, Barack Obama is working with and within this civil religion. He repeatedly narrates a jeremiad, the “prescribed ritual form” that “directs an imperiled people of god toward the fulfillment of their destiny.” He invokes every trope of individualism and individual mobility, and he identifies himself specifically as an immigrant who embodies that American dream of self-making. If he thereby avoids being consigned to blackness, and so to social fixity, deviance, and political marginality, he also affirms the sacralizing of liberalism as the very meaning of a freedom that is god’s gift. At the same time, he affirms the collective responsibility that Bellah considered the gift of biblical religion to Anglo-American liberalism.
For some scholars, “religion” gives the social cohesion and moral purpose without which a merely self-interested and fragmenting liberalism could not survive. Others see how, at moments of crisis, figures like Lincoln—or now we might argue Obama—draw on biblical language to call a special nation to its higher and redemptive purpose, and thus name common purposes that mobilize nation-building or rebuilding. In 1968, Bellah linked civil religion not only to consensus but to dissent: he invoked the examples of William Lloyd Garrison and Eugene Debs to argue that critics of racism or empire must speak in widely resonant, biblical terms, or they risk cultural marginality and political impotence. Critics who do not invoke “any genuinely American pattern of values,” the “better instincts of American patriotism” or indeed “the deeper moral instincts of Americans,” he argues, will fail, and a corporate and imperial regime will continue to “undermine essential American values and constitutional order.”
A nation is not an indifferent condition for the happiness and social relatedness of its citizens, but serves as a kind of habitus for them, shaping and being shaped by discourse and practice. The following reflections propose that two key elements of the American project form rudimentary aspects of the national imaginary, the collective resource for the conception and practice of nationhood. These are exceptionalism and civil religion. The two are deeply interwoven. I propose to define them and to parse their relationship in the American case. To begin with a familiar claim: at the heart of the American project is the bracing promise of starting anew and the conviction that doing so is possible, that citizens are able to clean the slate of old debts, bad ideas, and the burden of inherited injustices. It would be nice if matters were that simple, but of course they are not.
Here’s an “old thing” which relates, I think, to President Obama and the debate about civil religion—the primacy of practice. Usually in presidential inaugurations, civil religion is framed largely as a watered-down Judeo-Christian consensus, covering over the rough edges of existing differences in theology and custom. George W. Bush’s Inaugural Addresses stand out for their sectarian evangelical Christian tone, which rightly sparked a chorus of dissident voices. But this past January we saw a president in his Inaugural Address openly and honestly wrestling with the nation’s diversity—a “patchwork,” as he described it, “of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.” Non-believers? Their inclusion in the same breath with religious communities, especially on civil religion’s holiest of days, unsettled some, inspired others. Clearly, Obama would like to defuse this tension. More than just carefully chosen words, his was a performative act aimed at uniting believers and non-believers in a common citizenship.
In what has become something of an American tradition, President Barack Obama asked us to rediscover a “spirit of service” in his Inaugural Address. “At this moment,” Obama intoned, “it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.” We must even be prepared to “brave…icy currents” and “endure what storms may come.” Where might such a noble spirit come from? Obama does not say, and for good reason. Any serious reflection on what might sustain such courage and solidarity would compel Obama to rethink the role of religion in American politics. President Obama has a complicated relationship to orthodox Christianity. On the one hand, his political career has been inspired by the civil rights movement. But, on the other hand, Obama has been a harsh critic of the very religious passions and dogmas that inspired the civil rights campaign, not to mention abolitionism and campaigns for democracy abroad. […]
Obama performed some imperative, long overdue work in bidding us “to choose our better history.” In doing so, he recognized the complexity of our history, for if there is a better history, there is also a worse. There is the George Washington who owned slaves and the George Washington who opposed torture. The worse history, Obama didn’t dwell on—an inaugural address was not the place for that. Rather, he invited a new beginning, though without amnesia or false innocence. He invited us as a nation to perform a necessary twist on the seventeenth-century notion that we were divinely elected, “God’s new Israel,” entitled to establish dominion. In Obama’s version, Americans get to choose—to choose perennially—from among multiple and intertangled strands. We were, from the beginning (in fact, from before the beginning) a people of more than one history—freedom and slavery, cooperation and savagery, republic and empire—not easily disentangled. That is why the choosing has to be intricate, deliberate, subtle, ongoing. […]
Although comparisons between Obama and Lincoln are surely overstated—our current president has not yet shown either the rhetorical or intellectual brilliance of Lincoln—they both stand in a long and distinguished tradition of public theology. President Obama seems acutely aware of this tradition in his own Inaugural Address. Like Lincoln he uses theological discourse to gesture toward our common hopes and aspirations, and he invokes the divine not as the one who charts our “manifest destiny,” but as the one “who calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.” Obama’s public theology combines a sense of cautious realism with measured hope, as he calls the nation to greater maturity (“the time has come to set aside childish things”) and to a renewal of “the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.” Biblical cadences and theological arguments are used not to advance American exceptionalism but to sketch an America in which “the old hatreds shall someday pass…and our common humanity shall reveal itself.”
“These things are old. These things are true.” With these words, Barack Obama reaffirmed America’s commitment to “those values upon which our success depends”: hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism. At first glance, these seem like strange words for a Democratic president to be uttering. By invoking the old and the true, Obama appeared to be channeling the late Russell Kirk, the godfather of conservative intellectuals and the “champion of the permanent things.” In a 1987 lecture, Kirk said a conservative is a person “who finds the permanent things more pleasing than Chaos and Old Night.” In the judgment of Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, the young president “intends to use conservative values for progressive ends.” Yet Obama’s vision for America does not resemble Kirk’s list of “Ten Conservative Principles,” which includes such ideals as prescription, restraint, and property rights. […]
What is the past through which “these things”—“honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism”—are constituted? I approach this question indirectly, by reading the Inaugural Address alongside “A More Perfect Union,” Obama’s groundbreaking speech on race. Together, these addresses indicate how Obama negotiates among three senses of the past. The first sense, the one best represented by the Inaugural Address, is the idea of a hallowed past that draws upon American civic and religious traditions. The democratic implications of such an invocation, I contend, depend on the ways in which it intersects two other notions of pastness. Following legal scholar Robert Westley, I call these notions “the past as prologue” and “the past as bygone.”
President Barack Obama’s May 17 commencement address at the University of Notre Dame deftly demonstrated the president’s unique ability to elevate civil discourse and to eloquently incorporate a deep religious sensibility into the nation’s most divisive contemporary public debate. Many observers have rightly commented on Obama’s important emphasis that the abortion issue requires “Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words.” What is equally impressive is the religious repertoire that Obama used in articulating his vision of how that so-hard-to-come-by common-ground might be achieved. I am not thinking of Obama’s references to the “imperfections of man” and to “original sin,” or to the invocation of “God’s creation”—though these religious references are important. More striking was how Obama, a non-Catholic, showed his ability to think and to talk like a Catholic. […]
Obama’s list of virtues comes in pairs, and the pairings are mutually illuminating. I will, though, examine them not in the order in which they are listed in the address, but rather according to the depth of their roots, beginning with those anchored most firmly in the ancient classical and, later, the Christian traditions of the West. What emerges when we take this angle of approach, I will argue, is not simple continuity. Neither do we uncover a sharply defined contrast between classical and Christian, or ancient and modern, virtues. Rather, what comes into focus is a continuously unfolding understanding of the virtues, driven on the one hand by socio-historical changes and on the other by efforts to resolve internal tensions in how the virtues are conceived, both singly and in relation to one another.
Consider these words from the President’s Inaugural Address:
Our challenges may be new, the instruments with which we meet them may be new, but those values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism—these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.
These are heady aspirations, and perhaps the kind of message a nation in crisis and in transition needs to hear. It would appear that this is a moment that is paradoxically imbued with a sense of clarity and ambiguity. And so it is that we at The Immanent Frame have chosen to honor and interrogate this moment—generated by the event of Obama’s presidency (and its corollaries “the Obama generation” and “the Obama era”)—by launching a new series: “These things are old.”
That devotion to the theme “E Pluribus Unum,” “out of many, one,” is among the things that are old in the United States of America, there can be no question. Since 1776 the motto has graced the Great Seal of the United States and is on presidential and other major governmental seals. Citizens carry the theme with them when they carry cash. Many thought of it as the motto of the United States, but it got pushed aside by God, as in “In God We Trust,” when Congress made that phrase official. Official or not, its presence on seals and coins, in textbook titles and legal encyclopedia entries, testifies to the fact that, when serious, leaders and ordinary citizens are devoted to keeping this “old thing” current.