Obama’s Speech on Race
Readers of this blog may be disappointed that I have not commented on Barack Obama’s speech on race in America. I have good reason. I am conscious of Lincoln’s words and my own “poor power to add or detract.”
No comment on the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David, or Einstein’s general theory of relativity could possibly do justice to the thing itself. So it is with Obama’s speech. It ranks with our Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and King’s “I have a dream” speech. No doubt it will enjoy a similar place in history. The only appropriate comment is an exhortation to read it or watch it.
Yet as two days passed, I thought my own personal reaction might be of some interest.
I am a teacher. Part of my job is identifying and nurturing extraordinary talent. I like to think that, over the decades, I have developed some skill in doing so.
Once in a while, a student surpasses the teacher while still in school. Sometimes the student is smarter, sometimes more skillful politically, sometimes of greater courage or better moral character. The recognition of another’s superiority is always bittersweet. But it blossoms into joy when—even in a small way—a teacher is able to help bring great talent out and foster it.
I have never been Barack Obama’s teacher. Yet I approached his candidacy much as I would evaluating a student of mine. I read his books; I studied his papers and speeches; and I watched him grow.
Never in my career have I seen such extraordinary talent. After reading his second book, I speculated in an e-mail to a colleague that he might be our generation’s Lincoln.
For nearly a year I have known that he has the intelligence, judgment, empathy and self-restraint to be exactly that. His speech on race convinced me that he can show those qualities even while under attack, and even on an issue of public policy touching the core of his own persona. That speech revealed not just a brilliant, Harvard-trained technocrat of extraordinary competence and skill—which he is—but a man of outstanding courage and moral character.
Moral character is crucial in this election because we humans have come of age. For the first time in our history, we have the power and the potential to destroy not just our enemies, but our species and our planet as well. We almost did so out of anger nearly half a century ago, in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. With global warming, we can now destroy ourselves and our biosphere just as thoroughly out of greed, indifference and stupidity. Moral character in ourselves and our leaders is therefore no longer just a desideratum; it is a necessity for our survival as a species.
Fortunately, the last century’s brutal tyrants are not our only role models. We also saw leaders who were unusual in human understanding. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela achieved what appeared at the time to be political miracles through clarity of vision, courage, and moral character.
Each of them grasped the best of the human condition and never let go. Obama has done the same throughout his campaign, as he grew from a weak and hesitant debater to a master of the trade.
Like the last century’s great leaders, Obama is no silly idealist waiting for bitter enemies to hug each other and sing “kumbaya.” He is, after all, the first and only candidate to advise not coddling Musharraf and going after our worst enemy in the Pakistani borderlands. He spent three years on the mean streets of Chicago, and he knows when enemies must be brought to heel.
But like those other great leaders, he knows that cooperation and reason are mankind’s only salvation. If we humans fight for resources and supremacy while nuclear weapons proliferate and the world heats, our species’ future will be grim indeed. If we cooperate, we can make the globe on which we evolved the Eden it was supposed to be. It will take a leader—maybe several leaders—of great moral character to move us toward that end. And those leaders will have to come from great powers like us.
In this regard there is a distinction between Obama and the twentieth-century leaders whom he seems ready to emulate. Gandhi, King and Mandela all led oppressed and exploited people against what seemed at the time to be overwhelming odds. Their people had stronger enemies with better weapons and vastly superior economic and political power. Yet Providence sent them leaders who made miracles without the bloodbaths or political turmoil that everyone expected.
If elected, Obama will lead no oppressed people. He will lead the strongest and richest nation on Earth. If a person of great moral character can produce miracles for oppressed people threatened with overwhelming power, think what one can do for the world’s only remaining superpower, and for the world. Providence has sent us such a leader, if we can only recognize him in time.
That’s why Obama’s speech on race in America is not just for white and black, and not just for Americans. Israelis and Palestinians should study it. Pakistanis and Indians should, too. So should the Chinese and Tibetans and the Kikuyu and Luo in Kenya. If anyone can bring order, peace, understanding, stability and reason to a troubled world, it is someone with Barack Obama’s extraordinary moral character, human understanding, competence and political talent. He is truly the man for our times.