—Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again”
Langston Hughes, a powerful voice in the Harlem literary renaissance during the 1920s, suffered discrimination and desegregation as most blacks in America have. But he continued to hope that America would “be the dream the dreamers dreamed,” that it would be the “great strong land of love.”
Barack Obama has the same hope and and drive for social justice that poet Hughes had. And that is why Obama has stirred mass enthusiasm, heavy voter registration and ardent support throughout the nation.
Obama confronted the demon of racial prejudice with a speech recently that was hailed by some observers as great, magnificent, a landmark, a masterpiece.
Columnist Bob Herbert of the New York Times said it should be required reading “in classrooms across the country.” Author George Lakoff called it “one of the greatest ever,” comparing it to the eloquence of Lincoln.
Perhaps. Time will tell, not the emotions of the moment. As Shakespeare said: “Ripeness is all.” The Obama speech has yet to ripen.
Nevertheless, the speech was terribly important. Obama sought to exorcise forever the racism in politics. He wanted to render race irrelevant—as it should be. Yet the bitter truth is that race-baiting has played a despicable role in politics for more than 40 years. It still wins elections.
Nixon in the 1970s developed the racist Southern Strategy. Reagan made a point of opening his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., the site of the grisly murders of three civil rights workers, as a blatant gesture to racists. Bush II started his 2000 campaign at Bob Jones University, which prohibited interracial dating. And McCain condones the segregation-forever Confederate flag flying over the state capitol in South Carolina.
Another bitter truth: so many people in America vote their racial prejudice at the expense of their own economic interests. So many people vote for Republican candidates who are strongly opposed to their social and domestic needs.
As Obama told columnist Herbert: “It hard to address big issues if we’re easily distracted by racial antagonism.” And as he said in The Speech: the enormous challenges the nation faces, in Iraq and Afghanistan wars, in the failing economy and in climate change, cannot be solved in an environment riven by divisiveness and hostility,
The Speech had its own symbolism. Place: Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were framed. Site: Constitution Hall. Obama, surrounded by the de rigueur American flags, began his speech with the first words of the Constitution: “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union….”
Then he urged “a more just, more equal, more free, more caring” America. He repeatedly noted the “empathy deficit,” what author Lakoff calls “the heart of progressive politics.”
The policies of the Bush administration have been anything but empathetic and progressive. A President Obama would reverse those shameful policies. He has already displayed his empathy by posting the most liberal voting record in the Senate.
The ‘Economic draft’
The Iraq war is being fought with an “economic draft.” As Michael Zweig wrote in The Nation recently:
“Members of the armed forces come mainly and disproportionately from the working class and from small town and rural America where opportunities are hard to come by. The economic draft operates, in effect, to recruit young people from these communities as they sign up to gain job skills, experience and educational opportunities absent from their civilian lives.”
Mac Bica, former Marine officer turned peace activist, makes the same point: “It is apparent that the burden of this war is not being shared fairly. Only a fraction of our citizenry is directly affected while the majority go about their consumption-driven lives as usual, oblivious to the sacrifices and the death and destruction being prosecuted in their names.”
Dulce et decorum est
Wilfred Owen, British poet killed in World War I, wrote of “The old Lie: dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori.” The lines come from a Horace ode in the first century B.C. They mean: “It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country.”
Untrue. Never has been. Governments take those lives.
Dalton Trumbo in his 1939 anti-war novel, “Johnny Got His Gun,” wrote: “You can always hear the people who are willing to sacrifice somebody else’s life…You can find them in newspapers and Congress.”
Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, went to jail in 1947 for refusal to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee about former communist associates. Then he was blacklisted.
Trumbo: American hero.
Jake Highton teaches journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno.