In January, when the United States remembered the tragic death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., an urban history professor at the University of Buffalo named Henry Louis Taylor Jr., bitterly remarked: “All we know is that this guy had a dream. We don’t know what that dream was.”
Taylor was referring to an erasure of historical memory after King’s 1963 march on Washington, after he was cheered as “the moral leader of our nation.”
In the years before his death, King changed his focus to poverty and militarism because he thought that addressing these issues – not solely racial brotherhood – was crucial to making equality real. And he paid the price for this change, becoming more and more of a pariah.
The danger for Sen. Barack Obama is that he is already doing to himself what later historical censorship did to King: He’s cleansing his program of contentious topics in order to assure his electability.
In a famous dialogue in Monty Python’s religious spoof The Life of Brian, which takes place in Palestine at the time of Christ, the leader of a Jewish revolutionary resistance organization passionately argues that Romans brought only misery to the Jews. When his followers remark that they nonetheless introduced education, built roads, constructed irrigation, etc., the leader triumphantly concludes: “All right, but apart from sanitation, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”
Don’t Obama’s latest proclamations follow the same line? “I stand for a radical break with the Bush administration!” Or: “OK, sure, I pledge to support Israel unconditionally, to maintain the boycott of Cuba, to grant lawbreaking telecommunications corporations immunity, but I still stand for a radical break with the Bush administration!”
When Obama talks about the “audacity to hope,” about “a change we can believe in,” he is using a rhetoric of change that lacks specific content: To hope for what? To change what?
One should not blame Obama for his hypocrisy. Given the complex situation of the United States in today’s world, how far can a new president go in imposing actual change without triggering economic meltdown or political backlash?
But such a pessimistic view nonetheless falls short. Our global situation is not only a hard reality, it is also defined by ideological contours. In other words, it’s defined by what is sayable and unsayable, or what is visible and invisible.
More than a decade ago, when Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper asked then-Labor Party leader Ehud Barak what he would have done if he had been born a Palestinian, Barak responded: “I would have joined a terrorist organization.”
This statement had nothing whatsoever to do with endorsing terrorism and everything to do with opening a space for a real dialogue with Palestinians.
The same thing occurred when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev launched the slogans of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reform). It didn’t matter whether Gorbachev “really meant” them. The very words unleashed an avalanche that changed the world.
Or, today, even those who oppose torture legitimize it by accepting it as a topic worthy of public debate – an immense regression from the Nuremberg Trials following World War II and the subsequent Geneva Convention.
Words are never “only words.” They matter because they define the outlines of what we can do.
In this regard, Obama has already demonstrated an extraordinary ability to change the limits of what one can publicly say. His greatest achievement to date is that he has, in his refined and non-provocative way, introduced into the public speech topics that were once unsayable: the continuing importance of race in politics, the positive role of atheists in public life, the necessity to talk with “enemies” like Iran.
And that is a great achievement, which changes the coordinates of the entire field. Even the Bush administration, having first criticized Obama for this proposal, is now itself talking directly with Iran.
If U.S. politics is to break its current gridlock, it needs new words that will change the way we think and act.
Even measured by the low standards of conventional wisdom, the old saying, “Don’t just talk, do something!” is one of the most stupid things one can say.
Lately we have been doing quite a bit – intervening in foreign countries and destroying the environment.
Perhaps, it’s time to step back, think and say the right thing.