EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of The Nation’s special issue on Barack Obama’s presidency, available in full here.
Let us say, as a thought experiment, that history and providence conspired to create a president suited to 21st-century America. He might unite in his own person the two races that are shorthand for difference and division within the society, and have deep personal bonds with both black and white. Race has only the meaning that culture gives it—and we learn every day that culture is a heavy-handed enforcer of the distinctions it has made. An ideal president would be one suited to his circumstance, to dealing with the potent aftershocks of an unjust and violent history. If it were clear that he loved and honored, and identified with, both streams of his heritage, he would bring as much humanity to this grievous old affliction as any one person could bring to it.
Only imagine how the unacknowledged empire our country has become would be made more knowing and refined if this president had the memory of passing his childhood among the children of societies that seem remote to most of us: chasing a tattered kite down a muddy road, hearing the call to prayer, learning new forms of courtesy, seeing the effects of lawless government on the lives of good people. Again, if this president had family who were part of the emergence of Africa from centuries of colonialism—a continent at the threshold of the world’s future, a complex and fragile phenomenon capable of igniting and also extinguishing extraordinary individual gifts—he would have a vantage point uniquely suited to his responsibilities toward this volatile planet. In both cases, he would have 10,000 times the understanding that is supposed to be acquired in congressional junkets and sophomore years abroad.
This is a kind of understanding that individual Americans are happy to claim on the slightest grounds. Oddly, at the same time, the public seems to be flattered by the notion that a “real” America would be more provincial than it ever was, isolated from the effects of foreign influences as colonies in a mercantile empire, then as an immigrant country, never could be. Those who speak of the United States as great, formerly if not at present, must acknowledge that immigration has been concomitant with our greatest moments, wherever they wish to locate them. It is perverse, though clearly effective, to treat deep experience of other cultures as compromising. The candidate John Kerry spoke French—so much for him. So did Jefferson and Franklin and Adams, and they read it too, as educated Americans did during that seminal period—to our benefit, no doubt.
The United States is a very great power. It created its modern posture against an adversary it took to be equivalent to itself, perhaps even more powerful. That opponent has fallen away, more or less, and America is left with an overhanging capability to do harm, which is an important definition of power. This capability may no longer be suitable for deterring threats to us, but it is real and undiminished. As we have learned in the course of this instructive election season, there are those who think that since we have it, we might as well use it. Not against Russia, of course, that important region in the new nation of Oligarchia, but against ragtag radicals who torment regions that do not need the further catastrophes our power would visit on them. No war will end war, short of Armageddon. So we had better consider other options. A president for whom other societies are not abstractions, who knows that the children of our enemies are as silly and lovely as our own children, would be well suited to helping us live more consistently with our values, granting all the obstacles that history has put in his path.
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The success with which Barack Obama has been estranged in the minds of many Americans, made to seem foreign on precisely the grounds that made him singularly qualified for his office, reflects a refusal to accept what America is: not only a multiethnic and multiracial nation but a pervasive cultural and economic presence in the world, with responsibilities equal to our influence—a daunting thought. We are mighty and the world is, in every way, fragile. Tact and restraint, where possible, are indicated. But we—politicians, journalists, cultural figures—do little to encourage a temperament suited to our role.
The growing din of our politics, and of the media fantasists who create terrifying worlds of threat and deceit and who increasingly shout down our politics, is not likely to yield a mature consensus about our role and our obligations. It is true historically that Americans in meaningful numbers have mocked and bedeviled our great presidents. They, being great, have tended to do good things for good reasons, and therefore to be able to answer reasonable criticism. This fact has led their detractors to resort to a scurrility potent in its time: Abraham Lincoln was mixed-race, Franklin Roosevelt was Jewish. And now Barack Obama is Muslim. This notion, given force by the insistence of those who propagate it, is that Islam itself is evil and full of insidious intent, as Judaism was said to be in the 1930s by those who wished to discredit Roosevelt. The object in every case is to instill the belief that a great deception has been carried out, that the true character and motives of the president are sinister, that his government is illegitimate and must be opposed. I do not share the exceptionalist or providentialist belief that malicious behavior—outright slander—is somehow vindicated by the fact that we have survived it so far. I don’t accept the view that playing on prejudices is just another part of the political give-and-take. I think history has indulged us, allowing us to get away with abusing the democratic system in ways it will not sustain forever. Would anyone object to what I have said here? Well, in fact, Barack Obama would object.
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It is a remarkable thing to have some meaningful conversation with a president of the United States, in this case a man young enough to be my son. Barack Obama is gracious, poised, and intense in the face of concerns and demands I cannot imagine. There is a sentence in a benediction common in mainline churches like his and mine: “Return no one evil for evil, but in all things seek the good.” It seems to me always that his remarkable dignity and resilience must have its source in a transvaluation of this kind. He is extraordinarily alert. His attention runs a little ahead of the moment, to the next question, to the courtesy or reassurance he thinks the moment might be about to demand of him. It must be clear to anyone who has read his books that he is eager to learn from any encounter that might yield insight into a kind of query he brings to experience, which is, I think, an openness to an extremely inductive understanding of value, one which he is always ready to expand and refine. Though he would not apply such words to himself, the president is a philosopher, perhaps a theologian.
In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man might seem delusional. There are risks in having an interesting mind in this odd climate we have made for ourselves. There are risks also in being in fact faithful to the faith so many of us claim. The president is taken in some quarters to be non-Christian because he is disinclined to hate his enemies. This can only mean that an uninstructed and unreflective “Christianity” has indeed taken hold in the population. The wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God, according to the Epistle of James. But we have lived for years with the raucous influence of self-declared Christians who are clearly convinced that their wrath and God’s righteousness are one and the same. Then when the president, though he is insulted, balked, and provoked, refuses to yield to anger, his self-possession is apparently unreadable. A considerable part of the population must have ceased to recognize and respect piety, not to mention simple dignity.
President Obama would say that my thinking is far too harsh, distracted by the nonsense of the moment, and that the essential thing, the thing that always wins out finally, is the goodness and wisdom of the American people. Only confidence in the ultimate wisdom of the people makes democracy sustainable through crises. The dynamic of the system assumes dispute and contentiousness, but respect for this dynamic and for those who sustain it, however heated the argument, is vital to democracy. In the long term, on the whole, respect will prove to have been justified, and to have kept contention from flying out of control. I hope he is absolutely right, and that his capacious optimism can embrace my indignation as, by his lights, a necessary energy, together with all the contending passions that drive the country forward.
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President Obama is fascinated by the cohesion of communities and societies, by the numberless people who day after day do the numberless things that sustain the life of a city. He has seen what happens where cohesion fails, in America and elsewhere, and this no doubt makes him more aware than most of us are of its value, its beauty, its enormous fruitfulness. This awareness of the value of community also gives context to his equal and deep respect for all lives lived honorably and responsibly, and to his desire to help the marginalized enrich and enjoy the good life of community.
This is a consistent element in his thinking. He often quotes the phrase “a more perfect Union,” which is first in the list of purposes for which, according to its preamble, the Constitution was ordained and established. The language assumes union, and acknowledges at the same time that this union is flawed and difficult. The comparative “more” implies that it will be improved rather than perfected by the new Constitution—realism on the part of the founders, no doubt, who were already dealing with contending regions and interests. But that “more” also implies relative perfecting yet to be done, a continuous adjusting of law and custom to more nearly align them with the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the First Amendment. It is because there is the fact and the strength of union, whatever its failings, that these failings can be alleviated or overcome.
I was in college when Margaret Mead was in her glory and anthropologists could still claim to find societies untouched by the modern world. The idea was that, in such places, human nature would have been preserved in a purer form than in the rationalist and technological societies of the West. By observing these societies, we could learn what we are, essentially, and how we ought to live. These societies were gentle, violent, uninhibited, and so on, depending, it came to seem, on the preferences of the anthropologist. People who have no historical memory in the Western sense and who are engrossed in their lives may not think to wonder what drove their ancestors to the depths of a forest and deprived them of the benefits of better resources and wider contact. In any case, the “primitivity” of these populations could in general be called poverty. Globally and historically, it would seem to be natural in human societies to create wealth, however badly they distribute it. So the isolation of such groups was probably more defensive than Edenic.
In retrospect, this thinking seems akin to some of the less savory rages of the decades just preceding it, having to do with purity and authenticity, the radical undermining of self and identity supposed to result from foreign influence and racial or ethnic mingling—the same kind of nostalgia that produced mocked-up Norse cults and Druidic rituals and that is stirring among us now. Cities in those days were called inhuman. These days, they are called war zones. It all seems credible at any given time, perhaps in part because the ideal of the organic society, philosophically respectable since 1800, has predisposed us to accept it. In course of time, it exhausted its field of research, since the researchers themselves were a corrupting Western contact. An anthropologist told me that he and his colleagues now do polling.
The question at the center of it all was and is how societies cohere, and what in them promotes human flourishing. The United States, by the theoretical lights of the old anthropology, was impossible. It was the great instance of a society that was not organic, not rooted in ancestral soil and ancestral blood, but instead a quasi-nation fabricated from materialism and from certain discredited Enlightenment ideas. When I was in school, it was a commonplace among foreign observers and certain American savants that we did not and could not have a national character or culture. We could not even know what it was we lacked, that being profundity, which, to the deracinated, is only a word. We were theoretically impossible, like so many of the planets that circle other suns. But there they are, and here we are, endlessly circling a few old texts and an idea or two, stable through continuous change while other countries falter. Our culture has inordinate reach and very substantial prestige. Our national character is as distinctive as any.
Nostalgia falsifies. It encourages the notion that we must once have had the authenticity and fellow feeling supposedly to be derived from a common stock. Colonial New England was as near as America has ever come to ethnic and religious homogeneity, and here is how the theologian Jonathan Edwards, in 1746, described religious culture among his contemporaries: “The daughter of Zion [the church] in this land now lies on the ground, in such piteous circumstances as we now behold her; with her garments rent, her face disfigured, her nakedness exposed, her limbs broken, and weltering in the blood of her own wounds, and in no wise able to arise.” Religious life went on, of course, in New England as elsewhere. Edwards says, “God’s people in general have their minds unhinged and unsettled in things of religion…and many are brought into doubts, whether there be anything in religion; and heresy, and infidelity, and atheism greatly prevail.” These would be the “Nones.” Our laws and customs allow for our being a contentious people, yet wherever disputes arise, panic ensues. We really should take whatever comfort we can, and draw whatever conclusions we must, from the fact that we are prone to alarm, a little inclined to frighten ourselves on slight pretexts.
Marx laments that the solidarity of the English working class was drained away by the California gold rush. In the early 20th century, the German language competed seriously with English to become the national language, until the world wars suppressed it. We speak of our history in ways that imply continuities where there were in fact continuous intrusions of external events—wars, famines, and persecutions abroad—as well as the effects of internal developments: for example, the cotton trade and the forced immigration of Africans as slaves, the recruitment of foreign labor to build the railroads or work in the steel mills and coal mines. All this is subsumed under American history, as it should be. But the word “American” encourages selective memory, and the Africans, Chinese, Polish, and Welsh are lost to the notion of a population always English-speaking, always Western European. The Midwest is seen as homogeneous—German Catholics, German Lutherans, German Mennonites. The lions have lain down with the lambs.
The miracle of this country is that, by world standards, it is a union, stable and coherent, even as its heterogeneity increases in every generation. To call this a miracle is only to say it is a fact that at this point lacks explanation. The idea of the organic society, united by blood, faith, language, and culture, attractive as it may sound, actually tears societies apart, since some intolerable difference can always be found, some old wrong remembered. These have been the grounds for separatist movements in Britain and Europe, for conflict in India and the Arab states. Those who invoke the idea of a “real America” would like to import a problem that history has so far spared us. Take just the assertion that America is a Christian country: There is a history of appalling conflict among the churches and sects called Christian, which, by the grace of God, they left on the battlefields and scaffolds of Europe when they came here. The moment Christianity is established, we will begin to notice that it is extremely various, and we will begin to think about who the real Christians are—a group more than liable to exclude me, of course, since my co-religionist the president is excluded already.
Those ideas that have so far held us together are very beautiful. That is their power. That they could have had the authority for us they have had is a thing worth noting, even while the crudest passages of our history make it clear that we can resist them fiercely and distort their meaning utterly, and that at best we are slow in understanding how very much they imply. Surely they offer more basis for a generalization about human nature than any number of cave paintings or kinship systems precisely because they are not local and they are not relics or survivals. They enlist the loyalty and fire the aspirations of a vast and various and continuously changing population through generations and centuries. Insofar as we feel the difference between what our country is and what these ideals proclaim—human equality realized in sacred and inalienable rights—they are always in advance of us. It is in this sense that the genius of our past is the promise of our future. It is in this sense that we can always speak of hope.
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My respect for Barack Obama is vast and unshadowed. Given the information, advice, and reflection his decisions have proceeded from, I might have made other choices from time to time. But this by no means casts doubt on his wisdom or motives, any more than it endorses mine. A modern president is alone with endless decisions, many very grave. It is an accident of history that the weight of the world should fall on his or her shoulders, a consequence of our relative stability in a disorderly world and of the basic effectiveness of our political system—both of which have been indispensable to our “greatness,” if one is inclined to use the word. To have been unfailingly dignified, gracious, competent, and humane under such pressures is a very moving achievement, an endurance that is more than heroic. That this president had no help from his opposition, that they did what they could do to shake and discredit him, to weaken him in this country and therefore in the world, and that he kept his poise through it all and met the demands of his office with deliberate, gentlemanly calm is a gift to our history, an example every one of us can learn from. It is true that he righted the economy, reformed health care, and protected our domestic tranquility as effectively as the availability of homicidal weapons will permit—all great achievements. He has had little help from certain of his friends, who think it is becoming in them to express disillusionment, to condemn drone warfare or the encroachments of national security, never proposing better options than these painful choices, which, by comparison with others on offer, clearly spare lives. The president has done nothing more important than to stand against—above—the vulgar, mean-spirited noise that disheartens the public and alienates good people from politics, which are the one true, essential, and indispensable life of democracy.
I have had a singular relationship with President Obama. I cannot imagine a greater honor than his having called me his friend, but if I call our relationship more than meaningful acquaintance, I might suggest a degree of personal familiarity that I cannot claim. We have had conversations. His expressed interest in my work has had a marked effect on my career, very marked in Europe because he is held in such high regard there. The association of his name with mine abroad has let me see him as he is seen where the miasmas of polemic do not obscure him: as a gracious, good, and brilliant man. There, he is a vindication of American democracy, while here, every means has been tried to deny the public the consequences of having chosen him.
Having spoken with the president, having had some direct experience of his humor, his intelligence, his courtesy, and his goodness, I consider it probable that those who have opposed him so intractably did so because they knew how remarkable a leader he could be. They were threatened with the possibility of a great president, one who could lead the country in a direction they did not favor and give prestige to a vision they did not share. At the incalculable cost to the country of exciting racial animosities in response to his historic election, they have damaged him as they could. So this other greatness—his accepting the discipline that comes with a reverence for the people and the country—has been thrown into prominence.
There is a beauty at the center of American culture which, when it is understood, is expressed in a characteristic eloquence. Every new articulation renews the present life of the country and enriches historic memory to the benefit of future generations. Barack Obama speaks this language, a rare gift. He is ours, in the deep sense that Lincoln is ours, a proof, a test, and an instruction. We see ourselves in him, and in him we embrace or reject what we are.