Thursday, January 13, 2011

Obama's Arizona Memorial Speech: A Personal Distillation

"To rate this address on any political meter would be to demean it. The president wrested free of politics tonight and spoke of greater things. I pledge myself to try and follow his advice and debate with vigor and spirit and candor and bluntness, but with more civility, more empathy, and, yes, more love."
--Andrew Sullivan

I watched President Obama's memorial speech last night. At first I felt a little uncomfortable with the exuberance of the crowd. Many smiled, clapped, and cheered more like they were at a political pep rally than gathered to pay their sober respects to last Saturday's fallen and to the heroes who came to their aid, and it almost seemed to me that President Obama himself was initially a little uncertain as how to pace and voice his oratory in that milieu of ambivalent emotions and mixed expectations.

But as he continued, he gradually seemed to find his stride, and I, in turn, became so focused on the meaning of the message that the aesthetics of its delivery, the style of the messenger, and the response of the crowd ceased to hold any great importance for me.

Beyond his poignant recounting of Gabrielle Giffords opening her eyes for the first time, his moving tributes to the slain and wounded, and his glowing praise for the heroes who risked life and limb to save the fallen and subdue a murderous madman, what was President Obama's message when distilled to its essence?

What I distilled from it was that we honor the fallen by doing our level best to rise above partisan bickering, blaming, hating, and vilifying to find the human and spiritual ties that bind us and work together to make ourselves, each other, and our great nation better than they were before. Yes, we can speculate on and even debate what led to the shootings and how to prevent such tragedies in the future, and we can disagree on the answers, but we can and should do it with empathy and love in our hearts and with respect and civility in our demeanors.

After the speech, I read Andrew Sullivan's words above and resolved to make his pledge my own as well. Following through is not an easy thing to do though. Last night, in the immediate wake of President Obama's soul- stirring words, it seemed easy enough. But by now, after seeing business return to quarrelsome normality on TV, talk radio, and the blogosphere, it's tempting to let myself follow suit and regress back to snide remarks, finger pointing, angry denunciations, and other derogations of those, especially on the political right, who don't believe as I do. Yet, I am determined to resist these regressive urges and at the very least, as I wrote yesterday, not contribute to the divisiveness that plagues our country when we can ill afford to let it rage on.

Below is my selection of the most substantive passages from the president's speech followed by an embedded video of the entire speech.

What, beyond the prayers and expressions of concern, is required of us going forward. How can we honor the fallen? How can we be true to their memory?

You see, when a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations - to try to impose some order on the chaos, and make sense out of that which seems senseless. Already we've seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health systems. Much of this process, of debating what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future, is an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government.

But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized - at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do - it's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.

Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, "when I looked for light, then came darkness." Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath.

For the truth is that none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped those shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man's mind.

So yes, we must examine all the facts behind this tragedy. We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of violence in the future.

But what we can't do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.

After all, that's what most of us do when we lose someone in our family - especially if the loss is unexpected. We're shaken from our routines, and forced to look inward. We reflect on the past. Did we spend enough time with an aging parent, we wonder. Did we express our gratitude for all the sacrifices they made for us? Did we tell a spouse just how desperately we loved them, not just once in awhile but every single day?

So sudden loss causes us to look backward - but it also forces us to look forward, to reflect on the present and the future, on the manner in which we live our lives and nurture our relationships with those who are still with us. We may ask ourselves if we've shown enough kindness and generosity and compassion to the people in our lives. Perhaps we question whether we are doing right by our children, or our community, and whether our priorities are in order. We recognize our own mortality, and are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame - but rather, how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in bettering the lives of others...

If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost. Let's make sure it's not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle.

The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better in our private lives - to be better friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let's remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud. It should be because we want to live up to the example of public servants like John Roll and Gabby Giffords, who knew first and foremost that we are all Americans, and that we can question each other's ideas without questioning each other's love of country, and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations.

I believe we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here - they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us. I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.


Tom Armstrong said...

Excellent. Just when I begin to worry that the time isn't right for the elements that make up Mr. Obama to be president, he steps up and shows that he has precisely the right understanding and the right heart.

But, of course, he is asking a lot from the country with its crazy Republicans and polarized politics. But for whatever reason, the tragedy in Tucson has a profile to plug in to what's wrong and what's right with our country. And Obama saw what was there and brought forward the heroic and Good, something that we must strive to bring forward in our politics if America is to do better and again thrive.

Wonderful speech. Wonderful reflection on the speech, Steve.

Nagarjuna said...

Tom, if I were wealthy or had been raised Republican, I might well be Republican too, and not necessarily "crazy." Just looking out for #1. Or duped into thinking I was even if what I was actually doing is looking out for the real #1's in this country--the very wealthy and powerful--at my own expense.

I agree that President Obama said the right things at the right place and the right time, and I, for one, am resolved to do as he urges and as I and Andrew Sullivan have pledged. I will work, in my own exceedingly modest way, to make this a better country, but I won't try to do it with counterproductive scorn and even hatred for those who don't share my vision.

In that respect, I will be guided more by the likes of George Lakoff than by angry denouncers like Keith Olbermann.

I'm not as optimistic as I'd like to be, given my sense of just how bad things really are, but I refuse to succumb to complete despair.

Tom Armstrong said...

It was Bill Maher's comment at the end of last season -- which I agree with -- that the Democrats are in no way the equivalent of the Republicans at being paranoid and nutty these days. I think that he is absolutely right.

Olbermann is feisty, but his criticisms are truth-based and humor-based -- which is mostly not the case for the bunch of fear- and hate-mongering Fox commentators. The Fox group use humor, but in a meaner, crazier way.

I'm all for a nicer America, but that can only come from being clear-eyed about the nature of the problem that now exists. The better place we are seeking to find just simply is not in the middle, by spliting the difference.

As Lakoff recommends, "Don't move to the right. Start thinking longer term. Build as much of a communications system as possible. Design long-term framing for your own high level, moral system and basic policy domains. Fit your immediate messaging needs to the long-term frames. Carry on both kinds of messaging in parallel."

Nagarjuna said...

Maher's show began its new season last night, and he re-emphasized the point you alluded to about the lack of equivalence between the left and the right.

I agree that Olbermann's derision of the right is of a higher level than most of what we find on the other side, and I suppose that there's a place for it, along with Rachel Maddow's and other intelligent spokespersons' of the left. And I also agree that, in our efforts to share our progressive vision with others in a respectful and civil way, we need to be very clear about that vision and resolute at fulfilling it.

Thanks for your excellent comments, Tom.

Johnnyt said...

So I take it by your comments that you're "down" with the pep/political rally atmosphere of the memorial, the theme based t-shirts and the political action group organizing literature passed out at the event?
Anything to furthur the cause?

Nagarjuna said...

"Down with it"? I don't know what all happened off camera, since I wasn't there. As for what I saw on camera, I would have preferred that the proceedings be more somber. But, as I wrote, I focused mostly on the content of President Obama's speech and agree with its key points.