Positive change v. negative: closing Obama’s Farewell address

Posted on May 1, 2017. Filed under: American history, Puritans, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

On we go at last with our close reading of the Obama farewell speech, despite our temptation to address the president’s poignant question “why was there a Civil War?”, since Yoni Appelbaum over at the The Atlantic does a fine job addressing that for us.

Our transcript source is now The New York Times, since the Trump Administration removing the transcript from its location at whitehouse.gov/farewell. Along with pages on LGBT rights, climate change, health care, and civil rights.

We left off with President Obama’s comments on attacks on the Enlightenment order that is the foundation of the American way, with him saying there had not been a successful attack by foreign terrorists in the United States in the last eight years.

And although Boston and Orlando and San Bernardino and Fort Hood remind us of how dangerous radicalization can be, our law enforcement agencies are more effective and vigilant than ever. We have taken out tens of thousands of terrorists, including Bin Laden.

The global coalition we’re leading against ISIL has taken out their leaders and taken away about half their territory. ISIL will be destroyed. And no one who threatens America will ever be safe.

And all who serve or have served — it has been the honor of my lifetime to be your commander-in-chief. And we all owe you a deep debt of gratitude.

But, protecting our way of life, that’s not just the job of our military. Democracy can buckle when it gives into fear. So just as we as citizens must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.

And that’s why for the past eight years I’ve worked to put the fight against terrorism on a firmer legal footing. That’s why we’ve ended torture, worked to close Gitmo, reformed our laws governing surveillance to protect privacy and civil liberties.

—This section starts out as the usual tough-on-crime/terrorism/”threats” section that is in most 21st-century farewell addresses, but then morphs into an attempt by the president to say that military action is not the only patriotic action, and that military action without constitutional underpinnings is as dangerous as any crime/terrorism/threats. But this section falls strangely flat. The quick half-sentence “we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are” is vague and could be used to support more militarization. It’s not clearly stating that military action alone has no moral value; it is judged good or evil by the cause it supports. And the Obama administration did not leave a great legacy when it comes to prisoners at Guantanamo, stopping surveillance of the public, and protecting privacy.

That’s why I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans who are just as patriotic as we are.

That’s why we cannot withdraw from big global fights to expand democracy and human rights and women’s rights and LGBT rights.

No matter how imperfect our efforts, no matter how expedient ignoring such values may seem, that’s part of defending America. For the fight against extremism and intolerance and sectarianism and chauvinism are of a piece with the fight against authoritarianism and nationalist aggression. If the scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law shrinks around the world, the likelihood of war within and between nations increases, and our own freedoms will eventually be threatened.

So let’s be vigilant, but not afraid. ISIL will try to kill innocent people. But they cannot defeat America unless we betray our Constitution and our principles in the fight.

Rivals like Russia or China cannot match our influence around the world — unless we give up what we stand for, and turn ourselves into just another big country that bullies smaller neighbors.

Which brings me to my final point — our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.

—Here things pick up as the president says that fighting for human rights is “part of defending America.” That’s true. So long as Americans are willing to recognize extremism and intolerance and sectarianism and chauvinism within the U.S., and not always just in other nations, and to fight it as hard here at home as they do abroad, we are on solid ground. The scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law will shrink if the U.S. only enforces rule of law outside its own borders. That’s what it means to say that no one can defeat America but ourselves—if we betray our Constitution and our principles in the fight against injustice in other nations, our credibility is dissolved along with our democracy.

All of us, regardless of party, should be throwing ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions.

When voting rates in America are some of the lowest among advanced democracies, we should be making it easier, not harder, to vote.

When trust in our institutions is low, we should reduce the corrosive influence of money in our politics, and insist on the principles of transparency and ethics in public service. When Congress is dysfunctional, we should draw our districts to encourage politicians to cater to common sense and not rigid extremes.

But remember, none of this happens on its own. All of this depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power happens to be swinging.

Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power. We, the people, give it meaning — with our participation, and with the choices that we make and the alliances that we forge.

Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law, that’s up to us. America is no fragile thing. But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.

—We heartily second all of the statements made here! When people lose faith in our political system, they stop participating, and begin to elect people they hope will either destroy that system as impossibly corrupt, or reform it through strong-man tactics—bypassing Congress via executive orders and/or pushing oppressive and unconstitutional laws through Congress. But we, the people, have to bring meaning to our government or it will cease to exist. That is the substance of Obama’s next section:

In his own farewell address, George Washington wrote that self-government is the underpinning of our safety, prosperity, and liberty, but “from different causes and from different quarters much pains will be taken… to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth.”

Read Washington’s great address here.

And so we have to preserve this truth with “jealous anxiety;” that we should reject “the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties” that make us one.

America, we weaken those ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character aren’t even willing to enter into public service. So coarse with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are seen, not just as misguided, but as malevolent. We weaken those ties when we define some of us as more American than others.

When we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt. And when we sit back and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.

It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy. Embrace the joyous task we have been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours because, for all our outward differences, we in fact all share the same proud type, the most important office in a democracy, citizen.

—It’s this kind of optimism that is so desperately essential to democracy. If, over 275 years later we still have to work to improve our democracy, we can see that as a clear sign that it’s hopelessly flawed and we should give up, or we can see it as a clear sign that our democracy has been greatly improved over those 275 years, and can just keep getting better and better. You have to choose the latter—choose optimism—to keep democracy alive.

Citizen. So, you see, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life.

If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing.

If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clip board, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.

Show up, dive in, stay at it. Sometimes you’ll win, sometimes you’ll lose. Presuming a reservoir in goodness, that can be a risk. And there will be times when the process will disappoint you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been part of this one and to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America and in Americans will be confirmed. Mine sure has been.

—This is a call to energy and real life that more Americans need to answer.

Over the course of these eight years, I’ve seen the hopeful faces of young graduates and our newest military officers. I have mourned with grieving families searching for answers, and found grace in a Charleston church. I’ve seen our scientists help a paralyzed man regain his sense of touch. I’ve seen Wounded Warriors who at points were given up for dead walk again.

I’ve seen our doctors and volunteers rebuild after earthquakes and stop pandemics in their tracks. I’ve seen the youngest of children remind us through their actions and through their generosity of our obligations to care for refugees or work for peace and, above all, to look out for each other. So that faith that I placed all those years ago, not far from here, in the power of ordinary Americans to bring about change, that faith has been rewarded in ways I could not have possibly imagined.

And I hope your faith has too. Some of you here tonight or watching at home, you were there with us in 2004 and 2008, 2012.

—This list of the good and bad moments ends with an emphasis on the good, and subtly reminds us of the historic step that was electing our first black president.

The rest of the speech is shout-out to the First Lady, the Obama daughters, vice-president Joe Biden, the White House staff, and the vast network of volunteers who worked on his campaigns. And then this:

And that’s why I leave this stage tonight even more optimistic about this country than when we started. Because I know our work has not only helped so many Americans; it has inspired so many Americans — especially so many young people out there — to believe that you can make a difference; to hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves.

Let me tell you, this generation coming up — unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic — I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, and just, and inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, that it’s not something to fear but something to embrace, you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber any of us, and I believe as a result the future is in good hands.

—These are defiantly positive statements to make as Donald Trump prepared to take office. Obama wants to counter the idea that there will no longer be a place in the country for those who did not support Trump, and encourage them to continue to push for the positive change that is the work of improving our democracy by extending and strengthening it, even as proponents of the negative change that is the work of narrowing and destroying our democracy look forward to having the upper hand.

My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won’t stop; in fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days. But for now, whether you are young or whether you’re young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your president — the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago.

I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.

I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written:

Yes, we can.

Yes, we did.

Yes, we can.

Thank you. God bless you. And may God continue to bless the United States of America. Thank you.

Next time: thoughts on how to live Obama’s optimism.

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George Washington didn’t show his tax returns

Posted on March 6, 2017. Filed under: Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

…yes, this statement was made on national television last week, in an interview that Bill Maher conducted with Trump supporter and virtual spokesman Jeffrey Lord, who answered Maher’s demand that the current president show his tax returns “as all presidents have done in my lifetime” in this way:

I totally disagree with this. I don’t think he should ever show his tax returns. We’ve had presidents in the United States from George Washington all the way through to Lyndon Johnson who never released a single tax return.

There was scattered laughter in Maher’s audience as people realized the enormity of Lord’s seeming ignorance. Income tax was not instituted in U.S. law until 1913. While an income tax was levied during the Civil War to help the U.S. pay for the war (the Revenue Act of 1862), that was an emergency measure that did not last beyond the war. The 1894 Tariff Act imposed an income tax, but Congress was still debating its constitutionality, and it was not until 1913 that the Sixteenth Amendment was passed, legalizing and instituting a national income tax.

But Lord isn’t ignorant. No, he doesn’t know about the Revenue Act of 1862 or the 1894 Tariff Act, but few Americans do, or need to. Most Americans do, however, know that the U.S. income tax does not stretch back to Washington. There are no cherished stories of Washington traveling to New York City or the new capital, Washington, DC to turn in his 1040-EZ. For Lord to bring up Washington is more than ignorant, and worse than ignorant: it’s dangerous.

Lord is dangerous because he believes the American people are stupid. He’s dangerous because he wants to drape the flag over a breach of trust with the American people. He invokes George Washington to shut people up. We’re not sure whether Lord knows there hasn’t always been income tax in the U.S., but we get the feeling he does, and said what he said to sound a) knowledgeable and b) patriotic. People who peddle you patriotism to cover lies or crimes are un-American, and the opposite of patriotic.

Is the current president hiding criminal activity by refusing to share his tax returns? We have no idea. We will not say that he is, because we don’t know, and that’s not something one should assume. But we do agree with critics that his refusal invites speculation on criminal activity—the worst-case scenario for why he won’t share them.

Those who would defend Lord’s Washington line will say that only pedantic nitpickers would focus on his “little mistake” in the timeline instead of his grand point about individual freedom. They are wrong. Because Lord used Washington in a deliberate attempt to propagandize Trump’s refusal to share his returns as patriotic. That’s the grand point.

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Washington’s Farewell Address

Posted on March 15, 2012. Filed under: American history, The Founders, Uncategorized | Tags: , |

Welcome to the first in a short series on President George Washington’s farewell address of 1796. Most students of American history learn a little about this address, and the one thing that usually sticks with them is that Washington warned the nation not to make permanent or even long-term alliances with other nations. While this was a guiding principle of Washington’s presidency, it’s not the only or even the main point of note in his address.

We have to say “address”, rather than “speech,” because contrary to common perception, Washington did not read his message publicly. He sent it to the Philadelphia Daily American Advertiser, which printed it on September 19, 1796, and it was picked up and reprinted by other newspapers around the country. But the address has become a speech since Washington’s time: in 1862, in the depths of the Civil War, the people of Philadelphia petitioned Congress to have the address read aloud at a joint meeting of the House and Senate to celebrate the 130th anniversary of Washington’s birth. Senator Andrew Johnson presented the petition saying, “In view of the perilous condition of the country, I think the time has arrived when we should recur back to the days, the times, and the doings of Washington and the patriots of the Revolution, who founded the government under which we live.” In 1888 it was read again to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the  Constitution, and since 1896 it has been an annual tradition to read the address aloud to the joint session each February (and was read by Jeanne Shaheen on February 27 of this year).

In this series we’ll look at the address and do one of our usual close readings to get at the messages Washington wanted to send to the nation he had done so much to found and protect and set on the right course.

Next time: the reading begins!

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George Washington and “The Pursuit of Happiness”

Posted on January 14, 2010. Filed under: The Founders | Tags: , , |

Check out this unusual but thoughtful tribute to George Washington from artist Maira Kalman that appeared in the New York Times.

Nice to see no myths to bust!

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