published as part of forum “The Audacity of Hype” in Mother Jones Magazine (online version), September/October 2008
Professor of law, Columbia University
Years ago a Vietnamese friend whose parents had sent her to boarding school in India to escape the war spoke to me of her amazement at the then-still-emergent intertwining of Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King’s philosophies. From her vantage point, the most remarkable thing about what became the American civil rights movement of the 1960s was that it was a revolution based on love. “How counterintuitive is that?” she asked. “How many times in history has that happened?”
It’s not that the struggle wasn’t attended by its quantum of brutality and violent backlash, she mused, but rather that King framed his goal as uniting a “beloved community” rather than bringing down a common enemy. It was a battle for recognition of the humanity that resided within every heart, “even Bull Connor’s.”
I don’t think it is at all an exaggeration to say that Barack Obama’s campaign is rooted in and furthers that kind of embracing progressive American story. The Bush administration has brought us to a very dangerous precipice: The world has been divided into good guys and bad guys, the due process promised in the Bill of Rights has been all but suspended by executive whimsy, and the use of torture has gained a stature in American discourse that it has not had since the good old days of public lynchings. Yet for a dangerous few years, public opposition was nonexistent in the face of manipulations like “you’re with us or against us.” Color-coded fearmongering silenced some of us; cynicism and a feeling of helplessness paralyzed others.
Barack Obama has done more to cut through the Orwellian garble of that frozen moment than any other public figure. He has given eloquent voice to the widespread unease at the course our government has pursued; he has done so with grace, without anger. And he has brought enough reasoned good sense back to the discussion that “diplomacy” is no longer a curse word.
If we are to pull back from the cliff’s edge to which George W. Bush has shepherded us, I think it will be because the most redemptive moments in American history have always been rooted in the deepest promise of the First Amendment. I mean not merely the reductive right of frat boys to yell epithets, but the profound commitment to the propagation of ideas about how we constitute ourselves as a nation; the profound power of imagined political possibility; the profound freedom to exchange thoughts without fear of punishment. From the Puritan jeremiads to the Gettysburg address, from Harriet Tubman to FDR’s fireside chats, from Abigail Adams to “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” our most interesting social transformations have always been given life by our most intelligent rhetoricians. Within that tradition, Barack Obama could be our Nelson Mandela—not a magician, but the page-turner to a more encompassing future for all.