Filed under: Rhetoric | Tags: Charlie Chaplin, Communism, Democracy, Fascism, Propaganda, Solidarity, The Great Dictator
Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical, our cleverness hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost…
To those who can hear me I say, ‘Do not despair’. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass and dictators die; and the power they took from the people will return to the people and so long as men die, liberty will never perish…
Soldiers: Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty! In the seventeenth chapter of Saint Luke it is written, ‘the kingdom of God is within man’—not one man, nor a group of men, but in all men, in you, you the people have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness. You the people have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.
Then, in the name of democracy, let us use that power! Let us all unite! Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give you the future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power, but they lie! They do not fulfill their promise; they never will. Dictators free themselves, but they enslave the people! Now, let us fight to fulfill that promise! Let us fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness.
Soldiers: In the name of democracy, let us all unite!
—The Great Dictator (1940). Dir. Charlie Chaplin.
Filed under: Rhetoric | Tags: 1975 World Series, A More Perfect Union, Barack Obama, Boston Red Sox, Carlton Fisk, Cincinnati Reds, History, Home Run, Racism, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Sparky Anderson
Game Six, 1975 World Series. The Boston Red Sox, cursed, improbable participants against Sparky Anderson’s Cincinnati Reds who had beaten their closest Rivals in the National League West Division, the Los Angeles Dodgers, by 20 games. The game is a classic, and for good reason. It had everything: changing leads, brilliant catches, controversial calls and a pinch-hit home run in the bottom of the eighth to tie it for the home-team Red Sox.
Then comes Carlton Fisk, bottom of the twelfth. He connects with a Pat Darcy pitch and drills a swerving line drive towards left-field. The ball is heading certainly, tragically foul. But Fisk leaps up in the air, desperately flails both his his arms right, willing the ball fair. It kisses the yellow foul pole, an electric kiss, winning the greatest game ever played with a walk-off solo home run. Poetry and pandemonium.
Earlier this month, Barack Obama hit a home run of his own. “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.”
Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.
The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.
It was a beautiful thing. A poetic, virtuoso performance turned a difficult situation—the comments of Reverend Jeremiah Wright—into a positive, unifying gesture. Based on some of the responses by the media, you’d have thought Obama had eradicated racism with a single speech. It was reprinted in the New York Times for chrissakes! Home run? It was a career-defining grand slam.
So imagine Obama’s confusion when Rev. Wright did not disappear after Obama opined that his comments “had the potential to widen the racial divide” and “expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country [the United States].” Instead, Wright repeated his comments and insisted upon such inconvenient concepts of historical providence and poetic justice:
We took this country by terror away from the Sioux, the Apache, the Arawak, the Comanche, the Arapaho, the Navajo. Terrorism! We took Africans from their country to build our way of ease and kept them enslaved and living in fear. Terrorism! We bombed Grenada and killed innocent civilians, babies, non-military personnel. We bombed the black civilian community of Panama with stealth bombers and killed unarmed teenagers and toddlers, pregnant mothers and hard-working fathers. We bombed Gadafi’s home and killed his child. “Blessed are they who bash your children’s head against a rock!” We bombed Iraq. We killed unarmed civilians trying to make a living. We bombed a plant in Sudan to payback for the attack on our embassy. Killed hundreds of hard-working people; mothers and fathers who left home to go that day, not knowing that they would never get back home. We bombed Hiroshima! We bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye! Kids playing in the playground, mothers picking up children after school, civilians – not soldiers – people just trying to make it day by day. We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and Black South Africans, and now we are indignant? Because the stuff we have done overseas has now been brought back into our own front yards! America’s chickens are coming home to roost! Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred and terrorism begets terrorism.
Obama is a skillful speaker. But despite the acclaim he earns for speeches like “A More Perfect Union,” rhetoric cannot bridge the crevasse that American history has dug for itself. In fact, tragically, such rhetoric obscures righteous attempts like those of Rev. Wright to expose such fissures in the fabric of American society and packages racial divide as a challenge we can work through and “move beyond” rather than a crisis and trauma that requires intense interrogation and wholesale reconfiguration of social relations. Obama dresses racial prejudice in the comforting guise of an “issue,” much like the vomit-inducing grandstanding of Hollywood films like Paul Haggis’s Crash; whereas Rev. Wright shines a naked light on the catastrophe of racism in America.
I do not live in America and I do not know what I would do if I was faced with the difficult choice with which progressive Americans are faced. Between two lesser evils is never a pleasant decision. But what I do know is what is at stake when Obama dismisses the just diagnosis of Rev. Wright for a more politically expedient path, however eloquent: Obama is dismissing an ally of progressives everywhere in favour of appeasement. Reverend Wright is our ally, rhetoric is not.
Carlton Fisk can sympathize with Barrack Obama’s bewilderment; after Fisk’s career-defining thunderbolt, his game-winning home run, the Red Sox lost Game 7 and the World Series two days later. Don’t mistake a single round for the match, Obama. It ain’t over, not by a long shot.