On a Hallowed Anniversary, a Convention Speech

by Roger Clegg

I watched not only the president’s speech but much of the run-up to it, and it was like watching speeches at a political convention. This was a relief, in some ways. There were no specific, ridiculous laws that were being proposed, but instead a diffuse and unfocused call for all kinds of policies, from healthcare to education to employment to welfare (and that was just in the president’s own speech).

The subtext, though, is troubling: that to be opposed to any of part of the standard, liberal program is to be opposed to Dr. King and his dream. Now, to be fair, Dr. King’s dream was not just about ending segregated drinking fountains, and before and after and sometimes even during his famous speech he was all in favor of much of the standard, liberal program himself. But he and his dream now have an iconic aura, and that makes it disturbing to invoke him and his dream for policies that have little to do with racial equality of opportunity.

It was good of the president (and John Lewis before him) to reject the notion that nothing much has changed since 1963. I was glad to hear him condemn those on his side of the aisle for excuse-making and self-defeating behavior, and to hear him making a call for responsibility in place of dependence and even emphasizing the importance of fathers’ being parents (though he didn’t use the “m” – for “marriage” – word). And it was quite charming how the president fell, as he does, into a black and/or southern dialect during parts of his speech. 

But what began as a celebration of ending Jim Crow and racial disenfranchisement then slid into objections to voter-identification laws and then into a discussion of criminal-justice disparities – that is, from wanting equal opportunity to demanding that there be equal results. And then, from that, to demanding not just equality under and before the law, but economic equality, too. And soon we were hearing the standard Obama rhetoric about the middle class and gridlock and hope and change.

The low point for me was when he decried those (surely he had President Reagan in mind) who have argued that government is the problem, not the solution, as engaging in the “politics of division.” Oh, really – and it’s not divisive to say that critics of unlimited government are just demagogues and aren’t stating principles and truths in which they believe? Sheesh.

Anyway, it was just a political speech, and I’m okay with that – but, under the circumstances, it’s a little like giving a political speech in church and implying that those who don’t agree with you really lack the right kind of faith and don’t belong in the congregation.

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