Optimism is the true moral courage: Shackleton and Obama

Posted on January 13, 2009. Filed under: Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

I just got around to reading Clarence Jones’ article on the upcoming Obama inauguration. In it, Jones, an advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr., makes a profound and wonderful statement:

“Dr. King had an abiding belief in the basic goodness, fairness and decency of America. He never abandoned his confidence that a majority of Americans would ultimately embrace the precepts of our Declaration of Independence: That all persons are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”

The power of King was that he didn’t say America needed to do something new, to become another people, to end racism. He didn’t say that racism was part of the fabric of America, the legacy of America, the nature of Americans. King said racism was un-American, that it contradicted our basic founding principles, and that racism turned us into another, lesser people. King had the founding principles and documents of the United States on his side, and he knew it. He called for a return to our true nature and our original commission. He denounced racism as having no part in the American experience, and not worthy of us as Americans.

So rather than angrily or cynically dismissing our founding principles as lies and shams, King demanded that we all live up to them. And he won, because he was right.

I’ve noted elsewhere that Barack Obama shares this quality of King’s; he believes in the founding principles of this nation as the best thing about us, and, when we live up to them, the only thing that gives us integrity in the larger world.

My title comes from Ernest Shackleton, the Irish explorer to Antarctica whose 1914-1917 expedition is the stuff of legend. His ship, the aptly named Endurance, was trapped in ice and eventually crushed. For 10 months, Shackleton and his crew waited for a thaw, and once the ship was gone, spent four months drifting in the open ice on an ice floe until they hit land at Elephant Island. Knowing they couldn’t survive there for long, Shackleton took a small crew in a modified whaleboat they had saved on the floe and rowed 800 miles across the Antarctic Ocean to land, then marched for three days and nights through the ice mountains of South Georgia Island to a whaling station. He briefly rested, then took a whaling ship back to Elephant Island to rescue the rest of his crew. There was not one life lost.

When an astonished reporter, much later, asked Shackleton whether he believed any of the men he had left at Elephant Island would survive for his return, expecting that Shackleton would admit that of course he had not, Shackleton replied of course he had. “Optimism is the true moral courage,” he said, meaning that if you don’t believe in what you’re doing, you will fail, because you will not have the strength of mind or body to succeed.

Obama is an example of that optimism. Belief in our founding principles in the face of their distortion is true moral courage. Believing we can live up to our principles allows us to do so. From King to us, that is the message for all Americans.

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We all have a dream

Posted on August 29, 2008. Filed under: Politics | Tags: , , , , , , , |

“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”

This could have been Barack Obama’s opening line at the DNC on August 28, 2008, as he accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination to run for president. But it was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s opening line on August 28, 1963, as he addressed the Americans gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

That 1963 gathering was a “demonstration for freedom” because Americans of all backgrounds met to demand the fulfillment of our nation’s founding principles of freedom of opportunity and justice for all. The 2008 gathering was also a demonstration for freedom, because again Americans met to demand that our nation’s leaders respect and obey the Constitution and Bill of Rights when governing.

But it was also a demonstration of freedom, of the enormous progress this country has made since 1963. In that year, if you had said that in 45 years, within the lifetimes of most of the people there at the Lincoln Monument, a black American would be close to winning the presidency, you would have been ridiculed. Few could have believed that King’s three little children would live to see a black American close to becoming president (by narrowly beating out a heavily favored female candidate; throwing that in would have made people in 1963 wonder what parallel universe was coming). It wouldn’t have been cynicism or despair that fueled the disbelief, but a pragmatic understanding of how much would have to change to reach that moment.

So a lot has changed. But, more accurately, Americans have grown and evolved, challenged their own prejudices, and worked for change. It’s true that some Americans simply submitted to change, others grudgingly went along with change, and others refuse to change.

But even more miraculous than those who worked hard for change are those who were simply born into it. Americans born in 1990 find it hard to believe that restaurants were really segregated, that they wouldn’t have gone to schools filled with kids of all races, that mixed-race marriage was once illegal. Much as they can’t believe you once couldn’t talk about homosexuality, let alone have gay TV or movie heroes, American young people can’t believe racism was once government policy.

Are many young Americans still racist? Sure. But for most Americans, racism is becoming more and more a personal thing, a private prejudice that one might feel comfortable sharing only with a few others, or expressing obliquely. Like sexism, and homophobia, racism is becoming something fringe, that only a radical element is willing to pronounce publicly. Rather than having one’s racism comfortably mesh with a full personality, now if one is publicly racist, at the office or on the stump, one is labeled a wacko and marginalized.

Nineteen sixty-three was indeed not an end, but a beginning. Beating racism underground to a shameful lair in the soul is just the start. But we can celebrate our progress. Barack Obama’s nomination is a watershed we can act on to destroy racism. Children born in this year will find it hard to believe a black American had never been nominated by a major party for president until 2008, because by 2026 it will be a commonplace. Women, gay Americans, Jewish and Muslim Americans will all be able to become president. This is a moment to push more change, and it would be fatal, as Dr. King said, to overlook the urgency of the moment.

Does that sound ridiculous? As ridiculous as saying in 1963 that a black American would be the Democratic candidate for president in 2008?

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Should God–and the rest of us–damn America?

Posted on April 29, 2008. Filed under: Civil Rights | Tags: , , , , |

I heard once again today the section of pastor Jeremiah Wright’s recent sermon in which he claims that God should damn America for its racism. This has caused uproarious debate.

This is not really an argument about racism or race. It’s about Truth v. Myth. And I’m afraid Wright is pushing Myth.

The attitude that says America should be damned–no matter how metaphorically–for its racism is the same attitude that says America is, has always been, and shall always be, a lie. It has never been a land of freedom, or truth, and is a shameful sham that weighs us down. America, from its Declaration of Independence to it 2008 presidential campaign, is a worthless heap of lies.

This is what really makes those who do feel angry about Wright’s comments feel that anger. They see that he is dismissing America as a lie that ought to burn on the scrap heap. And those listeners, as Americans, as part of America, take offense.

Contrast Wright’s approach to that of Martin Luther King. King didn’t strike a blow against America, he struck a blow for America and what it stands for. He recalled for all Americans, black and white, that their country is dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. He reminded us that segregation and racism are un-American. He would not be fooled into believing what racists said, which is that racism is consistent with American values, its founding principles. He would not cynically accept that there was no point working with whites to recover those principles because those principles were bankrupt.

King reminded us of who we are, of who we are supposed to be, and he forced us to live up to those values. He didn’t let anyone off the hook for America’s failure to live up to its principles, and for that we owe him so much. He was fired up for America, and led millions of others to feel the same way.

The genius of this (besides the fact that it was true) was that anyone who opposed him came off looking anti-American. They were revealed as racist drags on the democratic system. They looked like the moral dinosaurs that they were. They were forced to attack women and children to make their point, and Americans revolted at that.

So we should not damn America. We should rescue it. We can do that by recalling our history and our founding principles and doing our utmost to yank the country back into line with those principles whenever we can. That way, anyone who opposes us looks like the anti-American obstacle that they are.

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