When I first heard Obama’s “uniter, not a divider” schtick from the 2004 Democratic convention, I thought he was just an idiot, warming up the crowds with a bit of feel-good, content-free nonsense. But I don’t think so anymore. Obama’s nonsense is an extremely calculated, supremely mendacious work of rhetoric. Look at how he chose to “honor” Martin Luther King yesterday:
King inspired with words not of anger, but of an urgency that still speaks to us today:
“Unity is the great need of the hour” is what King said. Unity is how we shall overcome.
What Dr. King understood is that if just one person chose to walk instead of ride the bus, those walls of oppression would not be moved. But maybe if a few more walked, the foundation might start to shake. If a few more women were willing to do what Rosa Parks had done, maybe the cracks would start to show. If teenagers took freedom rides from North to South, maybe a few bricks would come loose. Maybe if white folks marched because they had come to understand that their freedom too was at stake in the impending battle, the wall would begin to sway. And if enough Americans were awakened to the injustice; if they joined together, North and South, rich and poor, Christian and Jew, then perhaps that wall would come tumbling down, and justice would flow like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Unity is the great need of the hour – the great need of this hour. Not because it sounds pleasant or because it makes us feel good, but because it’s the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that exists in this country.
I’m not talking about a budget deficit. I’m not talking about a trade deficit. I’m not talking about a deficit of good ideas or new plans.
I’m talking about a moral deficit. I’m talking about an empathy deficit. I’m taking about an inability to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we are our brother’s keeper; we are our sister’s keeper; that, in the words of Dr. King, we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.
But of course, true unity cannot be so easily won. It starts with a change in attitudes – a broadening of our minds, and a broadening of our hearts.
It’s not easy to stand in somebody else’s shoes. It’s not easy to see past our differences. We’ve all encountered this in our own lives. But what makes it even more difficult is that we have a politics in this country that seeks to drive us apart – that puts up walls between us.
We are told that those who differ from us on a few things are different from us on all things; that our problems are the fault of those who don’t think like us or look like us or come from where we do. The welfare queen is taking our tax money. The immigrant is taking our jobs. The believer condemns the non-believer as immoral, and the non-believer chides the believer as intolerant.
So let us say that on this day of all days, each of us carries with us the task of changing our hearts and minds. The division, the stereotypes, the scape-goating, the ease with which we blame our plight on others – all of this distracts us from the common challenges we face – war and poverty; injustice and inequality. We can no longer afford to build ourselves up by tearing someone else down. We can no longer afford to traffic in lies or fear or hate. It is the poison that we must purge from our politics; the wall that we must tear down before the hour grows too late.
Because if Dr. King could love his jailor; if he could call on the faithful who once sat where you do to forgive those who set dogs and fire hoses upon them, then surely we can look past what divides us in our time, and bind up our wounds, and erase the empathy deficit that exists in our hearts.
Look at the extraordinary care with which Obama guides us here, and the fundamental duplicity of his message. He moves from King’s message of unity as solidarity in the face of oppression, to an idea of unity as empathy with the oppressors. He redescribes King’s ideology of struggle, in which unity depends on knowing who your enemy is, as an ideology of empathy, in which there are no antagonisms to be overcome, just differences to be resolved through understanding. A rather horrible article in the New Republic describes Obama as practicing “anti-identity politics,” but this gets things the wrong way round: Obama is the fulfillment of identity politics, in that his idea of unity is only possible on the basis of an ideology that substitutes identity (distinguishing characteristics that must be respected) for politics (a difference that forms the basis for struggle).
The New Republic article assimilates this ideology of unity to a certain pragmatic ability to get things done (as does Obama himself), because “Real transformations require a degree of consensus.” What Obama’s ideology systematically, and I assume intentionally, obscures, is that this consensus involves a fundamental dissensus, an identification of those who oppose us and how we are to achieve our goals in spite of this opposition. What’s depressing is not that Obama might well become President (I don’t suppose he’d be that much worse than Clinton), but what the enthusiasm for his lying, reactionary politics says about contemporary American political culture.