Ah, the Dumbos/Teabaggers howl with joy at the dog-whistle references to the "worst President ever" and "Making America Great Again" (for angry white people who've lost their birthright of privilege based upon skin color). Adam Gopnik writes a graceful appreciation of POTUS 44 and celebrates a man who attempted to "make America smart again" with mixed results. The vast portion of Dumbos/Teabaggers are beyond remediation in Civics 101. Here's this blogger's message to those recalcitrant DumbosTeabaggers: As they say in the Texas Panhandle, if you don't like it, you can KMA (Kiss My As2}. If this is a (fair & balanced) greeting (or farewell) to disgruntled Dumbos/Teabaggers, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
By Adam Gopnik
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The American Presidency has developed an unfortunate resemblance not so much to an imperial throne, as some insist, as to the medieval papacy, with an obsessive pomposity of office producing all those hangar-size libraries and bricklike memoirs. We talk solemnly about “his Presidency” (so far), just as people in the Middle Ages talked about “his papacy,” not as a powerful office but as an epoch of spiritual leadership. For good or ill—mostly ill—it means that we expect our Presidents to shape the meaning of their times. If this is the eighties, it must be Reagan’s. One of the oddities of this development is that we also expect the departing swan’s song to be its truest. Almost sixty years ago, this magazine noted in this space that President Eisenhower, at the end of his two terms, “seemed to be speaking out on all kinds of subjects in a fashion less equivocal than ever before, and that because he seemed to be enjoying it, we had been somewhat uplifted ourself.” Indeed, that new candor led to his sermon on the military-industrial complex and its hazards, which remains perhaps the only one of Eisenhower’s speeches that is still remembered.
President Obama seems to be enjoying his own freedom to say what he thinks, as his time in office winds down, and perhaps it hasn’t been sufficiently noted that he has been offering a rationale for his views on social change. In a series of events—including a podcast recorded in the comedian Marc Maron’s garage; an interview with George Stephanopoulos, which turned into a discourse on tolerance; and, most recently, his commencement address at Howard University—he, too, has been speaking out unequivocally, and doing some uplifting along the way.
His words have been varied, but his purpose has been consistent and his point simple: liberalism isn’t centrism. It isn’t a way of splitting the differences between two sides, and finding an acceptable soft middle. Liberalism of the kind he practices, the President has been saying, is the most truly radical of ideologies, inasmuch as it proposes a change, makes it happen, and then makes it last. Someone proposes a more equitable world—the enfranchisement of working people, or of African-Americans, or of women, or marital rights for homosexuals—and then makes it endure by assuring those who oppose it that, while they may have lost the fight, they haven’t lost their dignity, their autonomy, or their chance to adapt to the change without fearing the loss of all their agency. “The civil-rights movement happened because there was civil disobedience, because people were willing to go to jail, because there were events like Bloody Sunday,” Obama told Stephanopoulos. “But it was also because the leadership of the movement consistently stayed open to the possibility of reconciliation, and sought to understand the views—even views that were appalling to them—of the other side.” Liberalism is a belief in radical change made through practical measures.
In the interview with Maron, the President, confronting frustrations with the fact that he wasn’t able to alter the world with the wave of a rhetorical wand, offered an alternative view of how big democratic societies work. They are, he said, like ocean liners: you turn the wheel slowly, and the big ship pivots. “Sometimes your job is just to make stuff work,” Obama said. “Sometimes the task of government is to make incremental improvements or try to steer the ocean liner two degrees north or south so that, ten years from now, suddenly we’re in a very different place than we were. At the moment, people may feel like we need a fifty-degree turn; we don’t need a two-degree turn. And you say, ‘Well, if I turn fifty degrees, the whole ship turns’ ” over. Note that the President wasn’t saying that big ships aren’t worth turning, just that it takes time. Their very bigness is what makes them turn slowly, but their bigness is also what makes them worth turning.
Beneath this pragmatism lies a deeper understanding that humanity is various, that the changes we work for will never be universally accepted, and the test of our politics is extending sympathy to those who seem to stand in the way. Change “requires more than just speaking out,” the President said, at Howard:
It requires listening to those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compromise. You know, when I was a state senator, I helped pass Illinois’s first racial-profiling law, and one of the first laws in the nation requiring the videotaping of confessions in capital cases. And we were successful because, early on, I engaged law enforcement. I didn’t say to them, “Oh, you guys are so racist, you know you need to do something.” I understood, as many of you do, that the overwhelming majority of police officers are good and honest and courageous. . . . The point is, you need allies in a democracy. That’s just the way it is. It can be frustrating and it can be slow. But history teaches us that the alternative to democracy is always worse.
Obama’s liberalism is not therapeutic. You don’t listen to others to make them feel better. You listen because without their coöperation, or at least their tacit acceptance of the moral urgency of change, that long arc won’t bend and progress won’t happen. Your opponents have to understand that reform, even if it makes their fixations unsustainable, will not make their lives unlivable. Freedom didn’t happen because your opponents saw the light. It happened because they no longer found it necessary to live in the dark. Their hands may never move toward a candle, but their eyes adjust. Allowing for the adjustment and the time that it takes is part of the intelligence of politics.
What we have passed through in these eight years is perhaps much larger than we know. (When an ocean liner changes course, the people on deck are often the last to notice.) An African-American President in a nation long ruled by the rage over race, a potential female President at hand: these are big changes, even though made slowly. Of course, the case for evolutionary change can suddenly seem futile, even Pyrrhic, when we spy a meteor hurtling toward Earth, threatening an extinction event for incremental improvement of all kinds. This may give the President’s words an added pathos, but it leaves them no less true. Ω
[In 1986, Adam Gopnik began his long professional association with The New Yorker with a piece that would show his future range, a consideration of connections among baseball, childhood, and Renaissance art. He has written for four editors at the magazine: William Shawn, Robert Gottlieb, Tina Brown, and David Remnick. Gopnik, born in Philadelphia, lived his early life in Montreal and received a BA (art history) from McGill University. Later, he received an MA (art history) from New York University. In 2011, Adam Gopnik was chosen as the noted speaker for the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Massey Lectures where he delivered five lectures across five Canadian cities that make up his book Winter: Five Windows on the Season (2011). More recently, Gopnik has written The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food (2012). In 2013, McGill University awarded a DLItt ( honoris causa) to Adam Gopnik.]
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