What caused me to pay attention to President Obama’s commencement speech at Morehouse University last weekend was the opportunity it provided him to step away from the in-your-face day-to-day slugfests of political Washington, and instead to focus on passing eternal verities to a new generation.
Such philosophical asides, especially when in the form of entreaties to youth, tend to reveal what resonates more deeply in a soul, to be an insight into what motivates, what makes someone “tick.”
President Obama is always interesting on this score, and the American people are “getting it.” Polls show that while almost 80 percent think he is a good and likeable person, fully 54 percent also think he is more than just your run-of-the-mill politician.
Morehouse is an all-male, all-African American institution in Atlanta. Speeches like the President’s at Morehouse last weekend are, in many respects, his best offense against the petty nastiness of his adversaries.
Obama invoked the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a “Morehouse man” himself, citing “the moral force of Dr. King and a Moses generation that overcame their fear and their cynicism and their despair,” adding, “Barriers have come tumbling down and new doors of opportunity have swung open, and laws and hearts and minds have been changed to the point where someone who looks just like you can somehow come to serve as President of these United States of America.”
But the President’s challenge to his audience to become role models to others, to become as the poet Schiller said, “greater than their destinies,” to challenge others to grow into role models of excellence and compassion, as well, came under some fire this week with a dour little article by Vanessa Williams of the Washington Post, entitled, “At Morehouse, Obama Message Sounds a Bit Stale,” and followed by a column from Post columnist Courtland Milloy on the same theme the next day.
Williams quoted a former speechwriter for a Michigan governor, Trevor Coleman, who called the speech “finger wagging,” a “clean up your act message” made up of “galling” and “gratuitous” “chastisements…necessary to make himself politically palpable to white voters” that “people are beginning to get weary of.” Milloy accused Obama of “something vaguely contemptuous.”
While there might be one or even a number of such opinions, the disdain reflected in the article actually goes deeper, to the level on which today’s cultural war in the U.S. is being fought.
President Obama is in his heart, to put it in a single phrase, “old school.” He’s “old school civil rights,” and if you parse his speech Saturday, you will find that at its critical points, notions of compassion and empathy rise to the forefront.
He is “old school civil rights” as Dr. King was. Philosophically, he embodies the best of western civilization’s highest notions of “virtue” and applies them to the human condition and, even more ambitiously, to the governing of a nation.
The visionary exaltations of Dr. King, such as his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, invoked these notions, beyond boundaries of race or any other category of division among people. It was his repeated calls to a human-wide solidarity of common purpose rooted in justice and peace that completely freaked out the nation’s ruling class.
They’d always depended on “divide and conquer” to contain the masses while ripping them off. Dr. King threatened to destroy the effectiveness of that approach.
So the ruling classes ushered in a culture war, on the philosophical level known as “postmodernism,” to reintroduce old notions of “each against all,” and attacking tendencies toward social solidarity with radical angry individualism and anarchy, spiced with a lot of drugs and senseless rioting.
Greed and selfish self-interest replaced empathy as the national rallying cry, and it rent the national fabric all the way down to the desperate, poorest streets of America’s inner cities.
It remains an ongoing cultural war, and Obama is now using the bully pulpit of the presidency to engage it.