Friday, March 21, 2008

Obama: ethics, intelligence, inspiration

Hunter S Thompson once wrote about a speech Jimmy Carter gave on the stumps running up to the 1976 presidential election. It was delivered, I believe, at a minor venue and was not widely reported.

Thompson was sparse on details, but his pivotal point was that the speech enormously impressed him and greatly increased Carter's stature in his mind. Soon after, he asked Carter for a text of the speech. Carter responded that it had been given off the cuff, and that nobody had kept a record of it.

Whatever you think of Carter or Thompson, the sentiment has to be admired. When in the course of a cliche-strewn, jading, saturation-reported, safe-rhetoric-laden election season, there is anything at all that raises the spirits, it must stand out like an oasis in the desert.

Barack Obama has given such a shining beacon of a speech.

I read it yesterday, and gave it a strong recommendation to the first two people I met (for the first time), minutes later.

The sentiment, ethics, and intelligence of the speech reflect enormously on the man. Until I read it, I suspected Obama of potentially empty rhetoric. But he dealt with a controversial situation (his association with a divisive firebrand preacher) not by distancing himself as any other candidate would, but by speaking to the wider issues with a ringing clarity.

My personal feeling is there has not been a candidate of such intelligence and ethics since at least Jimmy Carter (and I would be very surprised if Carter does not endorse him) - and probably much further back.

I can only hope that Obama lasts the distance to election day, because the world needs him.

BBC mentioned the speech is available on YouTube and Obama's web site. I reproduce below the text as I read it yesterday. The full text is here; the video is on Obama's web site (YouTube's copy is not in sync).

I recommend you read below for a taste, then watch the full 30 minute speech. I cannot recall ever being held by a political speech for more than five minutes; this lasts the distance and is most rewarding.

"The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright's sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning. That anger is not always productive; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change.
But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.
In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience - as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense.
Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren't always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan coalition.
Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze - a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favour the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognising they are grounded in legitimate concerns - this too widens the racial divide.
This is where we are now. It's a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naive as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy.
But I have asserted a firm conviction that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, that we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.

In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world's great religions demand - that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle - as we did in the O. J. trial - or in the wake of tragedy, as in the aftermath of Katrina - or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright's sermons and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow sympathise with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence she's playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the election regardless of his policies.
That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, "Not this time".
This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of all our children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can't learn; that those kids who don't look like us are somebody else's problem.
This time we want to talk about how the lines in the Emergency Room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care; who don't have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together.
This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn't look like you might take your job; it's that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.
This time we want to talk about the men and women of every colour and creed who serve together, and fight together, and bleed together under the same proud flag. We want to talk about how to bring them home from a war that never should've been authorised and never should've been waged, and we want to talk about how we'll show our patriotism by caring for them, and their families, and giving them the benefits they have earned."

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