Another right-wing regressive with too much money is flailing around for mud to sling at President Obama. News cycles are chewing on the fringes of the story and alluding to the racism implicit in the story. It reminds me of a thought I had when the Reverend Wright story was raw and fresh in the heat of the Democratic primary and when I saw Obama's excellent speech at the time.
Although I understand the tone and direction of that speech, I thought at the time that Obama may have been able to draw out a whole other distinction between himself and Rev. Wright -- one even more central to Barack Obama's governing philosophy. Although no one wants to give this story more legs than it deserves, it brings back the intuition I had at the time, and in hindsight I think is still more central to who Barack Obama is and who he chooses to be still:
a true public servant.
Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability, based on sound bites, based on polls, Huffington, whoever's doing the polls. Preachers say what they say because they're pastors. They have a different person to whom they're accountable.I actually found Reverend Wright's speechs at the time very well crafted and that they contained a variety of insights. But giving them at the time was pandering to the media narrative that racism was the issue. Reverend Wright jumped into that narrative and wanted to put his stamp on it. The media news cycle heated up and talking heads were having a hey-day. He was riding its wave to make arguments about liberation theology and social justice. Candidate Obama was compelled to respond to that challenge to his campaign message. He was compelled to drop that shoe in reaction to the firestorm Wright himself reveled to fan.
As I said, whether he gets elected or not, I'm still going to have to be answerable to God November 5th and January 21st. That's what I mean. I do what pastors do. He does what politicians do.
Reverend Jeremiah Wright
National Press Club
April 28, 2008
New York Times transcript
But one interview question response by Wright, quoted above, in those heady days really took me aback. It revealed another shoe which could have been dropped. It probably would have been ignored or mashed into the racism-is-the-issue media narrative. But it struck me then, and strikes me anew whenever the "Wright incident" comes up again. Candidate Obama rose to defend public service from the regressive vision of the prior thirty years. President Obama has brought public servants back into the Government and inspired them back into the service of the People -- and that is a worthy cause indeed.
Bitter Wine: The Grapes Of Wrath
When I heard Rev. Wright's response to a question quoted above, I thought of the movie The Grapes Of Wrath. In this movie, and the novel by John Steinbeck, the Great Depression backdrop provided a chance to explore human nature on many levels and in a situation which required people to reveal their character in unexpected ways.
After the Joad family lost everything they had in Oklahoma to the dust bowl, they were driven by hardship to California on the rumor that there was work there. Once they arrived, they were treated with inhuman indifference by those already there. With such an overwhelming flood of people desperate to work, the worst parts of human nature came too easily to the fore. Some of their fellow citizens exploited them. Some of their fellow citizens feared them. They fled Hooverville and the hostility the locals showed for them, much like immigrants now feel in many states of our unioin. They were imprisoned at Hooper Ranch to live in fear of being beaten and hunted by those who presumed to "own" them. Broke, out of luck, their car is down to fumes when they saw something: a sign which said "Government Camp No. 9, US Department Of Agriculture".
What they found was a place where some of their fellow citizens treated them with respect and valued them as people. They heard someone say, "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.".
ALIn such a time, with desperation in the air and hope long smashed by the "reality" of Hooverville and the Hooper Ranch, the Joads are beaten down and suspicious -- for good reason. When they stumble upon Government Camp No. 9, they are incredulous. They are wary. As the following scenes unfold, the Joad family, for the first time in a long time, rekindle their sense of hope, and of dignity. They begin to find themselves again, as our forebears have had to do time and time again to hold onto the dream that is America.
Got any room here for us?
You're lucky. Fellow just moved out
Down that line and turn to the left.
You'll see it. You'll be in No. 4
Toilet and showers and washtubs.
You mean you got washtubs? An'
Camp committee'll call on you in the
morning and get you fixed.
No. No cops. Folks here elect their
The ladies' committee'll call on
you, ma'am, about the kids and the
sanitary unit and who takes care of
Come inside and sign up.
As Ma, Pa, and Al look at each other in almost incredulous
bewilderment, Tom climbs out of the truck.
Take 'er on down, Al. I'll sign.
We gonna stay, ain't we?
You're tootin' we're gonna stay.
(He follows the
caretaker into the
The Grapes Of Wrath movie
Screenplay by Nunnally Johnson
Based on the Novel "The Grapes Of Wrath" By John Steinbeck
You're tootin' we're gonna stay.As immigrants, many of whom have crossed rivers and deserts and lost friends and family moving instinctively to a place where life is rumored to be better, are being driven from whole states of our nation in droves, we should step back and think of how we treat them. As unemployed people give up sending resumes and slip into a warren of part-time jobs and pick-up work and learn the ins and outs of the local food bank, those of us fortunate enough to have a job need to step back and think of how we treat them.
Public service is not a job, it's an attitude. It's the attitude that brings hope to a citizenry bent and broken by disaster and despair and the darker aspects of human nature. It's the attitude that drives people to volunteer, to protest, to stand to post for our protection around the world. Without it, the United States is just an idealist pipe dream belied by whatever "necessary" evils we can visit upon each other. Necessary because we imagine it to be so.
We can each imagine differently. Every one of us is capable of imagining a different future. Every one of us is capable of adjusting our attitude when we look at our fellow citizens.
It seems to me that Barack Obama the candidate could have dropped the other shoe in his speech repudiating Rev. Wright. It probably wasn't as saavy, given the media narrative that focused on the racial elements -- exorcising their own guilt trips by pretending to be enlightened. It was a political move by Mr. Obama, and it worked. But having followed Barack Obama's rhetoric throughout his campaign and after being President (and having a desk calendar of his quotes to remind me), his deeper and more urgent message has nothing particular to do with race.
It has to do with public service.
Reagan's Curse can be stated in his oft-quoted quip and heard in the snarky dog-whistle way he said it:
The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: "I'm from the government and I'm here to help.".The most terrifying? More terrifying than, "Get in your cabin and shut up if you want to work", like the Joads encounter at the Hooper Ranch? More terrifying than "GO HOME" signs crowding the edges of all roads out of Hooverville? More terrifying than being told "The global economy can't help you find a job"?
The conceit of Reagan, and a whole boatload of regressives who follow him, is that something other than the Government is always available, and always better, than what public servants can do. Than community organizers can do. Than committed protesters can do. Than anyone working for social justice any where could do.
Regressivists cannot wait for our civilized veneer to peel away and prove we liberals and idealists are just like them underneath -- we just won't admit it. They revel in the ritual of confessing their depravity and bathe in the catharsis of being able to be politically incorrect after so many years of being nannied by pretend liberals. Back in the day, those of us opposed to war were challenged with questions like, "So if I came into your house with a gun and started killing your family, you would still be a pacifist?" They assume you are just pretending, or deceiving yourself, that you aren't any better than they are. They wear such dares on their shoulders and whistle their subtle calls to each other with euphenisms honed and amplified by a professional army of message makers jamming any other signal that could come out of any media cycle.
Regress. It's who you really are. The irony is, in that attitude they reveal what they most fear: that other citizens really are better than them in this regard. That they really are wrong and that they really are a part of the problem.
The lady doth protest too much, methinks.Rev. Wright committed this same sin. Preachers are better than politicians. Preachers are honestly helping people while politicians are helping themselves to power and don't really care about the citizens they represent. This Barack Obama, as a politician, isn't worthy of judging the best way to help people. Preachers are.
Hamlet Act III, scene II
But the skinny kid with a funny name who stood and delivered at the 2004 Democratic convention was not simply playing politics. He was making the speech of his life. He was making it to us, all of us, his fellow citizens. He was calling for that "long arc of history" to be bent toward justice -- by us, just like the denizens of Government Camp No. 9. Rev. Wright was wong on many levels in the details of what he said and in exploiting an opportunity to fan the flames of his own celebrity, and incite debate on his issues, at the expense of a purported member of his flock who was, after all, just another worthless politician.
President Obama has made public service the watchword of his govening style. Be responsible for your fellow citizens. Provide them a place to regroup and recoup and find their idealism again. To strip all hope from anyone is to leave them bereft, and apt to hide their true hearts so much they begin to forget what that is. Then to doubt it ever existed at all. Then to resign themselves to "reality"; that such a pipe dream will never exist in the future.
In that crux, that dark night of the soul, regression wins out all too often. It is a vapid philosophy that whispers: "Retreat into your comfortable myths and dream of a past era which never existed, but feels like it did. Thinking for yourself becomes painful and frightening. Hide instead in the canticle of despair saying things about your fellow citizens that hurt them, believing it is tit-for-tat in how much "they" have hurt you.".
It's pitiful, really. Pity-full.
A Call To Public Service Is A Call To Social Justice
Citizen Barack Obama wants public service to be among the highest callings any of us could choose, while recognizing it can be the hardest work of all. The Caretaker of that Government Camp No. 9 is not a bureaucrat alone so we can dismiss him. He is a citizen charged with the care of fellow citizens. He takes that job seriously. His ease of telling Tom Joad about how the camp is organized and then leaving the rest to Tom and his family -- trusting them to be responsible and civil with their fellow citizens -- is all the Joads needed to find the last embers of their American Dream and rekindle it.
The Caretaker is a fictional character. But I have known so many just like him. Sure, there are assholes and corrupt public officials. There are politicians who become entangled and compromised by power and the deals that signify it. There are bad apples in every barrel. That's life. But whether you choose to accept it as all of reality is your choice, and yours alone. The public servants who are good at what they do become invisible to us all too often. They don't ask for the spotlight; indeed, they can get more done without it. They could do something else and make more money. But they have found a place to stand and a way to help their fellow citizens, and they wouldn't want it any other way.
The antidote to Reagan's Curse is hope. The innoculant is to be treated fairly and be expected to treat other citizens fairly. The cure is standing firm and delivering when it seems least appreciated by anyone else. Tolerance. Acceptance of each other so we can turn our mutual attention to the hard work that has to be done. Social justice. Throwing off the cloak of false righteousness to expose your nakedness in the face of cynicism and evil is a hard choice. But it is true freedom. It starts when you shift your perspective so Reagan's cute quip is not funny any more.
Whatever I may think of President Obama's tactical moves, I have no doubt that if I found myself and my family out of food, out of water, and out of gas in an alien landscape nearly unrecognizable as being part of the America I love. -- that if Barack Obama was the caretaker I met in that moment, my life would be blessed and not further debased. I have no doubt he would be fair to me and mine, and expect the same of us in return. I have no doubt he understands the meaning of, and undergoes the struggle of being, a true public servant day in and day out.
President Obama could do better. So could I. So could we all. In what he is able to do, he is being fair in its doing. When all else goes to hell around us, it is up to each of us to repudiate that hell is all life can ever be. It is incumbant upon us to imagine a different path and act as if it exists, or it never will.
Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right.True public servants are the ones who square their shoulders and dig in to solve the problems worthy to be solved for the good of all. True public servants administer shelters from the storms, open to everyone without condition. In the throes of such a storm, it would be easy to loose hope and look to their own fortune while fearing the misfortune of others. It takes something special for someone to continue to serve the rule of law and the necessity of reason in such a time. It takes someone who wants to serve when they could rule. It takes people who choose that work as their vocation.
Teachers. Firefighters. Police officers. Soldiers. Caregivers. Regulators. People who keep streets from falling apart; keep planes from falling out of the sky; save lives in emergencies; take in orphans when no one else can or will. Your neighbors. Your friends. Maybe even you.
Such an idealistic view is not an anachronism. It is the paper onto which our social contract is written. It is our shared civic religion, shorn of preachers and popes. It is the assumption upon which the Constitution gains meaning and by which it derives its truth. This kind of idealism is hard because it clashes with the real and seeks to bend the arc of history, not be warped by imagined wrongs from long ago. It is the only proven way to hold the line against tryanny. I have known so many true public servants and shared their struggle in the age of Reagan's Curse, now going on thirty years. Obama's hope uses the same words Reagan cyncially cants with an arrogant tone, "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help". The difference is, Barack Obama the citizen, the public servent, the President -- he isn't joking.
In rejoinder to Rev. Wright, Barack Obama could have said, "I am a politican, and it means I must serve each and every one of you." Like the caretaker of Government Camp No. 9, Barack Obama says it every day he goes to work and doesn't take the bait of the regressives. He may have compromised with them, and I wish he hadn't. He may have allowed them to tout lies while not touting the truth of what Federal public servants are charged by him to do in his administration. Unlike his predecessor, who chose to bend reality to be what Bush wanted it to be, Obama's governing philosophy is to stand and deliver. To be there to help. That the Government is your employer is irrelevant.
From this President's lips, that directive is no joke: it's a scrap of hope. In such times as these, that is a precious thing indeed. It is a gift each of us can give every other. Only we, fellow citizens of the United States of America, can give it. No one can give it for us. It is a gift we can give with pride and humilty and grace, as fellow citizen Barack Obama and other public servants has shown us how to do.
I'm an American just like you, and I'm here to help
In the end, that's what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope?I can, and I will, vote for that. Anyone, if they can find a way to be honest with themselves standing in the polling booth, could find themselves voting for that. It's the other shoe, and one of these days, it needs to drop. Let us hope it is soon, but be prepared to struggle for it until the day we die.
... I'm not talking about blind optimism here, the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don't think about it, or health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it.
That's not what I'm talking [about]. I'm talking about something more substantial. It's the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworker's son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.
Hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, the audacity of hope: In the end, that is God's greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation, a belief in things not seen, a belief that there are better days ahead.
I believe that we can give our middle class relief and provide working families with a road to opportunity.
I believe we can provide jobs for the jobless, homes to the homeless, and reclaim young people in cities across America from violence and despair.
I believe that we have a righteous wind at our backs, and that as we stand on the crossroads of history, we can make the right choices and meet the challenges that face us.
America, tonight, if you feel the same energy that I do, if you feel the same urgency that I do, if you feel the same passion that I do, if you feel the same hopefulness that I do, if we do what we must do, then I have no doubt that all across the country, from Florida to Oregon, from Washington to Maine, the people will rise up in November.... And this country will reclaim it's promise. And out of this long political darkness a brighter day will come.
2004 Democratic Convention
Transcript in the Washington Post
Drop that shoe, fellow citizen. Recognize help when you see it and don't spit in its eye. Give help when you can and do not turn away, even when those you seek to help spit in your eye. Labor in the vineyards of truth believing that most other citizens are there beside you and we all are working toward the same day for our nation, our children and ourselves. Give idealism a chance.
It's the only political philosophy before us with any future in it. In the end, in the polling booth, and in our own dark night of the soul, it's the best thing to vote for and live out each and every day.
Set yourself free. Set the rest of us free. Vote for the dream that is the essence of America and act as if the Constitution means something in your civic life. See the true public servants around you. Be of service to the public of which you are one citizen empowered by the freedom of every other.
From this attitude all American dreams spring. By this attitude we can assure the dream that is America lives on for our progeny. Without it, we are just pawns in a game of power that politicians play, and we might as well get while the gettin's good. Without it, we are already dying as a nation and our power will diminish in proportion to our inability to remember what it is we dreamed of.
Re-member what is sundered. Regain what is lost. A citizen who introduced himself on the national stage as a skinny kid with a funny name is doing his best to show us the way. With all the trappings of power now surrounding him, he is powerless without We The People. So it has been, and so it will be decided. One vote, one act of service and one soul at a time.
Because, Reverend Wright, that's what politicians ultimately answer to. Not a single entity, but a whole people. That that to which preachers and politicians answer are looking to the same ends may well be. But even if we don't believe in one, we all are part of the other. Serving the one does not absolve us of the obligation to serve each other. In any future in which all of us can better realize our own dreams, we will be the ones to make it real or it will not become real for any of us.
Whomever preachers answer to will not, cannot, live our future or make those choices for us. Politicians, however flawed they may be, work for Us. They are tested in the same crucible that tests us all. They are one of Us. Whomever else politicians may serve in private, it is through them that We can balance the forces of Our own history. And that can be a vocation as worthy as any other if, in the end, it holds back the tide of tyranny for future generations. You may not think any salvation lies in that work, but give that skinny kid, now President, his due. You at least owe him, and politicians who honor public service (and all of Us who need them) that much respect.
It is in the small salvations we can accord each other that the freedom to seek grander salvations abides. Denying the power of the small salvations like those of which Steinbeck wrote drives despairing fellow citizens into the arms of the regressivists. In the communion of our civic faith in each other, that is bitter wine indeed.