Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Farewell and Hail

It was President Obama's Farewell Address as President of the United States, and brought him full circle from the themes of his first campaign in 2008.

It was a preemptive attack on the priorities of the next regime.  And it was the outline of a program for Barack Obama, citizen, serving notice that his voice will be heard in the future.

In his farewell address, President Eisenhower warned against the Cold War dominance of the military-industrial complex.  It was as prophetic as it was surprising, and prefigured the lasting traumas of Vietnam.  President Obama put his finger on the basic threats to our tottering democracy that will dominate and endanger in the coming years: underneath arguments and political advocacy, the disappearance of a sense of common national purpose and solidarity, successfully assaulted by cynical partisanship that demonizes and shamelessly lies.  And the disappearance not only of a basic agreed-upon set of facts, but the disappearance of the acceptance that there could be agreed-upon facts--in other words, a cynical ignoring of facts themselves.  He said:

"And increasingly we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.

And this trend represents a third threat to our democracy. Look, politics is a battle of ideas. That’s how our democracy was designed. In the course of a healthy debate, we prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, then we’re going to keep talking past each other.

And we’ll make common ground and compromise impossible. And isn’t that part of what so often makes politics dispiriting? How can elected officials rage about deficits when we propose to spend money on pre-school for kids, but not when we’re cutting taxes for corporations?

How do we excuse ethical lapses in our own party, but pounce when the other party does the same thing? It’s not just dishonest, it’s selective sorting of the facts. It’s self-defeating because, as my mom used to tell me, reality has a way of catching up with you."

President Obama was quite clear on the consequences of this in confronting the climate crisis:

"Take the challenge of climate change. In just eight years we’ve halved our dependence on foreign oil, we’ve doubled our renewable energy, we’ve led the world to an agreement that (at) the promise to save this planet.

But without bolder action, our children won’t have time to debate the existence of climate change. They’ll be busy dealing with its effects. More environmental disasters, more economic disruptions, waves of climate refugees seeking sanctuary. Now we can and should argue about the best approach to solve the problem. But to simply deny the problem not only betrays future generations, it betrays the essential spirit of this country, the essential spirit of innovation and practical problem-solving that guided our founders."

I haven't heard a single commentator nor read a single story on this speech, but I'm sure somebody said, okay, we all know he gives a good speech, but... Such people should be in a different line of work--the Russians would no doubt hire them, though likely at lower rates.

What made this speech great was not rhetorical eloquence or even elegance (though there was plenty of that) but cogency and precision.  President Obama outlined the clear and present dangers to democracy, though an hour was not long enough--nor was the occasion appropriate--to describe them all, the still-expanding story of Russian influence scheduled to move inside the White House in ten days.  Putin won't (as far as we know) actually be sworn in, but he might as well be.

Though President Obama pointed no fingers, and his speaking of the words "Fascism" and "authoritarian" were historical references, this speech was a positive statement of the beliefs he brought to the office, but the threats to democracy he outlined were all predominant in the 2016 campaign and outcome.  So it was a warning of what to watch for in the coming weeks, months and years of the next regime.

The crowd cheered him but there was sadness and anxiety at his going. (Especially since the speech proved that he is right in claiming that had he run against the Rs in 2016, he would have won.) That Michelle's dress was black, and daughter Malia in black and white, meant the statement and the mood couldn't be mistaken.

President Obama also paid emotional tribute to his wife Michelle, to his daughters, to Joe Biden, and to his White House staff.  For more complete video of all of this (without annoying commentary), the C-Span coverage is worth exploring.

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