Tuesday, January 22, 2013

"We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect"

Many progressives seem surprised at the progressiveness of President Obama's inaugural speech yesterday. BooMan is surprised at their surprise. I'm with BooMan on that one. It was surely a great speech, but nothing - in terms of ideas - that we haven't heard from him before. Even in terms of style, xpostfactoid documents President Obama's tendency to "to equate liberal priorities with the nation's founding principles and historical development."

But as we've often seen, I suspect that many progressives are just ignoring this part of the speech that came after his enunciation of how "our journey is not complete until..."
We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.
Yesterday, I heard echoes of President Lincoln in those words. But Andrew Sullivan heard the pragmatism of Niebuhr and the bottom-up approach of our Community Organizer-in-Chief.
Over the years, I've never let go of that understanding of conservatism's core truth - that all politics ends in some version of failure, that we cannot change and should not want to change the whole world over night, that constant failure is integral to human life and action - and the key spur to fleeting success. But I've also come to accept and more firmly believe that the flip-side to that must never be cynicism or retreat or nihilism. It must be to play our part where we can to fight injustice, knowing that our achievement will be partial, knowing that as soon as we have solved problems, new ones will replace them, and knowing that the process never ends. In fact, the true hero is the one who acts even in the knowledge of inevitable failure, who puts the realizable good before the unrealizable perfect. Yes, over the last six years, Obama has helped me understand his method of community organization, of leading from behind. And it is as conservative in its understanding of how society really changes from below as it is liberal in its refusal to relent against injustice.
He's certainly describing a kind of conservatism that hasn't been on display with our current crop of Republicans. But I suspect that in a more perfect world, conservatism would be about a measured approach to change.

In that way we can understand President Obama's pragmatism...high ideals matched with an awareness of the ongoing nature of the struggle.

I've mentioned before that it was when I read The Audacity of Hope that I realized how President Obama had assessed the recent history of liberalism in this country. He saw that the backlash against the liberalism of the 60's led to the Reagan revolution and a general rejection of our ideals (we even had to change the name to "progressive" because "liberal" became so vilified) by the majority of people. One of the ways Obama set his sights on being a transformational president was to reverse that trend. As he speaks to the liberalism that is not only embedded in our history but the hearts and minds of most Americans, he's sparking that very transformation.

I suspect that once the rhetoric of ideals that we heard articulated yesterday returns to the imperfect world of actual governing, today's progressives will resume their disappointment. Thus has it always been.

The truth is, they are not this president's audience. Its the rest of the country he's busy transforming.

1 comment:

  1. In that way we can understand President Obama's pragmatism...high ideals matched with an awareness of the ongoing nature of the struggle.




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