America snubs "wealth, or status, or power, or fame" for goodness. Riiight!
Had the president politicized his Tucson memorial, say, by implicating reckless gun sellers, he'd have faced his own media crosshairs, even uncivil crossfire. Taking no chances, however, meant Mr. Bipartisanship missed a big teaching moment about the complex world of a very violent America. That omission offset what was done well.
Hello! What about crime, robberies, murders, drug wars, 2.4 million in prison (excluding secret ones), inequality of wealth, education and opportunity, and negligence towards the mentally unhinged? And more hostility: two endless, costly wars, permanent incarcerations, citizen assassination programs, and one trillion dollars spent annually on violent "defense" -- peace dividends, anyone?
How do I know this speech was safe to a fault, defying every glimmer of controversy? Because loopy John McCain loved it -- and rightwing pundits cheered. Millions of gun fetishists bought more Glocks, doubtless relieved to have dodged bullets from presidential scolding -- pardon the gun metaphor.
Yet Obama's avoidance of central issues hardly explains the rampant puffery, nor invocations of American mythology that slight the slaughter in Tucson. Obama sermonized as if the last two decades never quite happened, as if one party didn't leverage the rhetoric of extremism to scare the bejesus out of vulnerable rightwing know-nothings (and drive gun sales).
The Myths That Don't Help
Must presidents display their own insular sunshine, even at funerals honoring the slaughter of innocents? Obama Utopian Myth No. 1: America remains the cohesive, tolerant, melting pot, just one "American family, 300 hundred million strong"? Well, except for Muslims, Pakistanis, Mexicans, new immigrants, gays, blacks, and presidents born in Kenya, among others. Leading to Myth #2: more unites us than divides us, so let's not dwell on real-world, searing economic conflicts or growing systemic contradictions. Just talk nicer, and we'd get along better.
Third, Curiously Invoked Myth: America brims with "decency and goodness," with patriots favoring "not wealth, or status, or power, or fame" but "how well we have loved . . . bettering the lives of others." Homage to charity, along with a familiar fantasy, government "of and by and for the people." For Obama, the Tucson gathering was a "quintessentially American scene shattered by a gunman's bullets." The quintessential America is a huge mess, far more tangled than this dreamscape.
Incivility the Symptom, Not Cause
Incivility, in my book, expresses schisms, rather than causing them, a symptom, not the disease. Paul Krugman is right: opposition extends far beyond words, informing "differences in those very moral imaginations Mr. Obama urges us to expand, about divergent beliefs over what constitutes justice." What I question is whether irreconcilable conflict is a "relatively recent development," as he claims, or the recurring engine that drives our history.
No doubt idyllic fables comfort the afflicted, but why ignore the context of violence, studded with class warfare, racial discrimination, ethnic prejudice, street violence and insurgent threats? Further, as if to channel M. L. King, don't contradictions at home (on jobs, abuse and bigotry) relate to abusive empire and militarism aboard, like two endless, remote Asian wars against non-industrial, non-technological, non-Christian tribes in the non-west? Vietnam related to racial discrimination for King, our activist paragon of justice.
What Generation Escaped Rancor?
By my reading, American history boasts barely one 30-year long generation since 1776 NOT having to face down some frenzied minority throwing a disruptive hissy fit. Moreover, history repeats itself, as Tea Party battles over regional "states rights" echo slave owners' defiance of early federalists -- when that southern minority likewise demanded majority veto power. Early on, politics was a vicious, pitched battle, spanning divisions over taxation, commerce, foreign affairs, work conditions, then children's, women's and labor rights as well as state-church separation.
The core, paramount American tension hasn't changed, in my view -- whether the real majority ever gets to rule -- or whether elites and/or minorities demand undue control over elections, power, and thus government. Notable for most of our history are two bulwarks against progress; extremely conservative Supreme Courts (exceptions note) and the backward, elitist Senate, religiously impeding racial, women's, voting, immigration and gay rights.
The Joys of Insurgencies