When Barack Obama talks about avoiding the “money culture” and the lifestyle of suits and big houses, there is nothing per se wrong with such a call to public service.
By the same token, he makes many fine points in his frequent recitals of U.S. history in which the Underground Railroad, the freedom riders, women suffragists, and icons of the civil-rights movement figure prominently.
The problem is different and twofold: First, in almost every allusion to our collective past there is mention of reform and protest, all of it needed of course. But after a while, whether inadvertently or not, our only heroes become those who found the system wanting and took it on. Yet there were many other elements of the system that are responsible for our current freedom and prosperity, and plenty of wonderful Americans outside of social activism.
At some point as he continues to offer us primers on our past, Obama should also include men and women of genius who were not social activists, whether an Edison and Bell, people of action and courage like Lewis and Clark or Lindbergh, political figures such as Teddy Roosevelt, and military heroism at places like Gettysburg, the Meuse-Argonne, Okinawa, Chosun, or Hue.
Otherwise the aggregate effect is Carteresque — more lectures about the old gloom and doom, and more reminders that the unique Americans of the past were only those who followed paths of activism — not surprisingly like those claimed as well by Obama himself.
Second, this is especially important for Obama who now emerges out of Chicago and Illinois politics onto a national stage, and must shed dubious figures like a Wright or Ayers, who clearly are on record as seeing their country as largely pathological.
When one combines Michelle’s “pride” speeches and asides about a “mean” country, and Obama’s own call for more “oppression studies” in our schools, then the need to remind Americans of concrete examples of our exceptionalism, of good works, and of men and women of singular accomplishment becomes even greater.
Otherwise by summer, each time he evokes American history, millions of Americans are going to wince, tired of either a sermon from a very materially successful person on the evils of, well, being very materially successful — coupled with the same old, same old race/class/gender take on American history that leaves out much of what was good and noble and led to our own fortunate circumstances.
And it doesn’t help that the once forgotten Carter of the past is no longer building houses for the poor, but once again quite prominent on the political scene, de facto shilling for Obama, meeting Hamas and Syria, and in his 1970s-mode once more lecturing the world on the misdemeanors past and present of his own wonderful country, while quiet about the felonies of repugnant others.