In this moment of stupendous economic blues, President Barack Obama seems to have startled those expecting less than a plain spoken and thrilling speech before Congress. But it is hard to understand what is happening in the new administration when Obama superbly fulfills the duties of a top elected official to sustain national consciousness and democratic morale, while our new Attorney General descends to the rabid rhetoric of what the great Lincoln Kirstein called “lazy bravado.”
While the commander in chief’s speeches have been exceptional, Eric Holder’s speech at the Department of Justice last week was a simpleton’s delight. Holder's palaver was beneath what we have been led to believe this administration would free us from: insults and clichés parading themselves as "proof" of courage, integrity, and the vision necessary to sustain our nation’s our finest ideals.
Speaking at the Department of Justice in observance of Black History Month, Holder two-leggedly put both feet in his mouth by the second paragraph.
Obama’s speech in Springfield, Illinois, on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, was an inspiring example of how he has reinvented American patriotism to include the tragic elements of our past, so that that we can proudly say our country has distinguished itself by facing up to and taking down racism. Change has proceeded at a snail’s pace, but the speed of democracy is never as quick as totalitarianism because people have to be convinced of the rightness at the center of policies that will break a society free of its past. Once convinced, they will vote accordingly and put the appropriate level of heat on those elected to office. Liberty demands attentive maturity and flexible response while demagoguery works best on the fuel of cynicism, bitterness, and paranoia.
The old rules were very simple. Never take the public near the actual blood, sweat and tears of our past. But Obama is not intimidated by the hardships of American history, and he took his listeners soaring with words that confirmed the American ability to handle whatever had to be handled and what still has to be handled.
Obama’s central point is that we have paid the cost often enough to be the boss of optimism. If we are but willing to remember who we are and what feats we have achieved as a democratic nation, we can spit all of our cynicism into the philosophical slop jar where it belongs. That peculiarly realistic vision of tragic optimism is also is central to the all-American blues sensibility. This was the vision with which Obama was able to snatch patriotism away from the Republicans and wave the flag in new rhythms.
That he was an actual African-American half-caste from Chicago by way of Hawaii was even more surprising, because the country did not expect to be roused by high-minded sense of history and possibility from a man who was not white and who was at odds with the clichéd conventions of ethnic exceptionalism. When speaking of America, Obama did not play a variation on what Malcolm X introduced into the black political rhetoric of the last 50 years, which itself seemed a variation on Samuel Goldwyn’s famous Hollywood deal-breaker: “Include me out.”
Instead, like Martin Luther King, Jr., Obama mastered allusions to phrases equally as common to the sermons of the black church as they were to the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, and the language of Lincoln and Shakespeare. His speech on Lincoln’s birthday was great because it had, besides the necessary American component of humor, the severely unexpected presence of real presidential imagination, unforced charm, and an intellectual depth that brought Obama’s policies together with those of Lincoln.
Obama made it clear that the very first Republican president believed that the purpose of government was to do for the people what they alone could not do for themselves, such as build a transcontinental railroad, repair a rusty and rotting infrastructure, and reassert world- class public education. He was speaking of a patriotism beyond exceptionalism of any sort, and that was at the root of his national and intellectual appeal. Those elements were as clear in his speech to Congress on Tuesday as they were in Springfield.
On the other hand, speaking at the Department of Justice in observance of Black History Month, Holder had put both feet in his mouth by the second paragraph. He said, “Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.”
This was so outlandish that Sean Hannity, a fake conservative moralist of an abysmal order, got to huff and puff his way through a "dialogue" with a black guest who functioned as no more than a Fox News prop. As his speech continued Holder attempted to pull out the mop and broom to clean up what had begun as insulting and proceeded to sound more like the clichéd rhetoric of ethnic grievance.
That idea of America, yes, but not me should not be part of what an Attorney General says in public, even if he is insipid enough to believe it. Perhaps the reason the President often reminds us of both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars is to leave no doubt that he knows what it can cost anyone willing to be overmatched in a scuffle with the federal government. Holder does not seem as if he actually understands just how much power he has to influence the course of society.
Instead of calling for a lot of hot air “dialogue” on race, Holder would do well to assign his staff the task of finding a set of signal cases that would make it quite clear that discrimination on the grounds of color, sex, or religion will not be accepted. Any individual or corporation or state or city government that has a provable pattern of discrimination will face the same federal boot that became so familiar to the Confederate anus.
Moreover, when racist policy that aids and abets so-called minority hustlers is found to have established itself, Holder would do well to make an example or two just to clear the air for what could be considered an equal opportunity thrashing of political vermin on either side of the fence.
That is how actual power should work: no brag, no promise, no hot air. A firm enough punt of an asshole over the goal post can be very instructive. I don’t think the country needs more than a half dozen of those, if that many. The point will be made.
Stanley Crouch's culture pieces have appeared in Harper's, the New York Times, Vogue, Downbeat, the New Yorker, and more. He has served as artistic consultant for jazz programming at Lincoln Center since 1987, and is a founder Jazz at Lincoln Center. He is the author of Considering Genius: Jazz Writings, and is working on a book about Barack Obama's presidential campaign.