Obama’s Soaring Rhetoric


I’m pretty cynical when it comes to politics and I tend to remain unmoved by flowery speeches declaring grand principles, knowing that such declarations rarely result in genuine change. But these passages from President Obama’s second inaugural address seem to me to be a symbol of how far we have come on LGBT equality:

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth…

It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.

This is the first time the word “gay” has ever appeared in an inaugural address, the first time, in fact, that the subject itself has ever been mentioned. I think that’s a very encouraging development and it signals just how far we’ve come. And I find echoes of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech in the allusion to the ever-expanding application of founding principles. This is the clear pattern of American history, as we slowly — far too slowly, of course — extend those promises to those who were left out.

Obama’s soaring rhetoric is matched by Jefferson’s. When Jefferson wrote of the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we are struck both by the eloquence of that statement and by the very limited nature of its application. It might well have come with a disclaimer at the end: “For a limited time only, void where prohibited, women and blacks and Native Americans need not apply.” The key narrative of the two subsequent centuries has been the extending of those promises to people who were initially denied those rights that were allegedly unalienable.

Every generation has had a battle for civil rights — for human rights — to fight. Slavery was ended, women were finally given the right to vote, the Jim Crow laws and segregation were painfully put down, discrimination on the basis of race, gender and religion was forbidden. At each step, more and more people fell under the protection of those grand promises made so long ago. And we are now in the middle of another great leap forward as we fight for equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. And we are well on our way to winning that battle, with the same historical pattern playing out.

But even as this country has become more fair and just in many important ways, there is much still to be done, and not just on gay rights. Our criminal justice system is corrupt and brutal and unjust in almost every way, destroying lives and families — almost all of them black or Latino — by the hundreds of thousands. One of our two major parties is intent on suppressing poor and minority votes, killing the hard-fought victories for voting rights by a thousand tiny cuts. Public policy is largely controlled by the richest Americans, who distort the legislative and administrative process to ensure their financial gain at the expense of the environment and workers.

And it’s going to take a lot more than lofty rhetoric to fix those things.

Comments

  1. says

    Obama’s soaring rhetoric is matched by Jefferson’s.

    You mean Obama’s speechwriter’s rhetoric, don’t you?

    When political shitheads return to speaking without scripts and teleprompters, I’ll listen to them. Otherwise, all you have is what amounts to some guy reading you a letter. If that’s all you can do, politicos: mail it.

  2. says

    When political shitheads return to speaking without scripts and teleprompters, I’ll listen to them.

    Funny, I didn’t hear you saying anything like that when politicians said bad things. Looking for an excuse not to give credit for anything good, are we? Do you really think Obama just mindlessly read what someone handed him, without even thinking whether or not he agreed with any of it?

    As for the bit about mentioning gayness, that’s only one facet of this unexpected jewel. Obama’s inaugural address was a ringing and eloquent repudiation of the entire libertarian mindset that underlies nearly all Republican policies, and even if only one-tenth of it is followed by real action, that will be a major improvement in the American political climate.

  3. Ellie says

    I don’t listen to speeches, preferring to read transcripts so I’m not distracted by anything. I can’t imagine any other President mentioning Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall in a speech, and I am impressed.

  4. says

    When political shitheads return to speaking without scripts and teleprompters

    When did politicians ever NOT read from a script? Do you think Jefferson improvised all of his speeches on the spot? You think he didn’t have a staff member that ever wrote things for him?

  5. says

    Speaking as a gay man who wants very much to believe in Obama…. the idol has feet of clay. He is very good at making pretty speeches, but does nothing to bring those flowery words to pass.

    Hospital visitation for same-sex partners? Kathleen Sebelius made that announcement as Secretary of HHS, without first consulting with the President. Painted into a corner, Obama issued an executive order. Leaked memos that were leaked showed that Sebelius nearly lost her job for announcing policy changes without clearing them first.

    Benefits to same-sex couples in domestic partnerships or equivalent legal recognitions? Hillary Clinton, astute politician that she is, lobbied the President for months. It was she, not her boss, who assembled legal opinions that these benefits would not fall afoul of the Denial of Marriage Act. Obama finally issued the memorandum to the bureaucracy, but reluctantly. Even so, it covers ONLY those people with a legally recognized relationship: federal employees living in one of the many states that do not grant marriage, domestic partnership or civil unions remain unable to obtain benefits.

    The end of DADT? The President opposed repeal, and did nothing at all to support the measure through Congress. After it passed, he signed it only because of the media spotlight; after it became law, he delayed implementing it for as long as possible.

    DOMA? While he has ordered the Attorney General not to defend the law in courts, and while he has made nice speeches about equality, Obama remains on the record saying that marriage exists only between a man and a woman, and that marriage is a matter of state rights (despite the fact that many states had criminalized the marriage of his own parents until the Supreme Court stepped in in 1968.) He has taken no steps at all towards ending DOMA, either legislatively or judicially.

    I believe the correct term is “vaporware.”

  6. laurentweppe says

    Do you really think Obama just mindlessly read what someone handed him, without even thinking whether or not he agreed with any of it?

    Maybe he also believes that Bill Ayers wrote Obama’s books

  7. says

    Funny, I didn’t hear you saying anything like that when politicians said bad things.

    Most of how what politicians have to go say gets to me via comedy central, google news, and a couple blogs. The good stuff, and the bad, all mixed up so I sort it out myself.

    Of course he approved that speech! And maybe he read it well. They all do.

    I don’t like Obama. One, because I voted for him the first time because he said he’d get us out of Iraq and Afghanistan and close Gitmo. Two because he’s a politician and I don’t like them on principle. Now, before you say that’s unfair consider this: not liking politicians on principle means you’re going to be less likely to judge them on their words than their actions.

    Obama, of course, sucks vastly less than the alternatives. Yay. Democracy. Woo hoo.

  8. says

    When did politicians ever NOT read from a script?

    No shit, Sherlock. When did I ever LIKE politicians?

    I didn’t say that I was impressed with any of the past lot, either. Although Bonaparte extemporized his speeches (you can do that with a captive audience like he had) and I gather Hugo Chavez does as well. Seneca prepared his speeches in advance and memorized them then delivered them so they’d sound unscripted. All lies and lying liars. They say this, they do that. Listening to the speeches would be like having salt rubbed in the wounds. The sounds coming out of their mouths are so soothing or inspiring or whatever the focus groups say it should be.

  9. says

    Excuse me. Did I let my cynicism show? I hadn’t had my coffee, yet.
    Now that the caffeine is kicking in, picture me sitting behind my keyboard with a cheerful smile, farting rainbows like I normally do.

  10. dingojack says

    Marcus here‘s an example of a politician speaking without a teleprompter. Oooh and here‘s another.
    But I guess you’re not impressed – no sparkles, rainbows, unicorns or water turning into wine.
    @@
    Dingo

  11. says

    … not liking politicians on principle means you’re going to be less likely to judge them on their words than their actions.

    No, it just means you’re going to be less likely to recognize, let alone support, decent political solutions when they’re proposed. It also means you’re going to be less likely to have anything to contribute when politicians actually try to solve problems.

  12. says

    Hey, dingojack. I didn’t say that they don’t do it. I said I respect them more when they do. Yeah, and the end of MLK’s “Dream” speech was ad-libbed too. And, guess what? I like that. Don’t you? Don’t you think that’s a bit more impressive than when someone reads a speech that was written for them, off a teleprompter, in a soul-wrenching performance? I’ll bet you that some day some politico is going to just cut to the chase and have an actor do their speeches. “And now, Sir Ian McKellen, will deliver the oligarchy’s State Of The Union address…”

    The nice thing about all the recording media that’s around nowadays is that if someone actually was speaking sincerely and managed to deliver a speech worth listening to, you can go back and watch it over and over. It would have pretty much sucked to have blown of the Gettysburgh Address, “nah, I’m gonna go fishing..”

    Raging Bee, it just means you’re going to be less likely to recognize, let alone support, decent political solutions when they’re proposed.

    Are you kidding? The purpose of soaring rhetoric is to get people all fired up. What you want to do is let them deliver the rhetoric (like I said: mail it) and give us plenty of time to think about what they said. Remember – the role of the political speech is to inspire the masses or whip the mob into a frenzy. Inspiration is good, but what if some political scumbucked just inspired the masses with a great big ole lie? Oops.

    I’m dead serious about this. I think our political dialogue should be presented in writing. Let Ian McKellen do the dramatic reading if you need it. But getting people to sit back and think is important and the pundit-corps don’t do a good job. (Other than the comedians, who have replaced journalism, apparently)

    Can you imagine what the Republican budget “proposal” would have looked like, in black and white, on paper? Aaaahahahahaahahahahhaha!

  13. says

    Oh, and while I’m spittle-flecked ranting: I stopped in at the truck stop the day before yesterday and there was some of the inaguration stuff on the TV. WTF. Who let hollywood and madison avenue decide to put on their idea of a dignified event? I was waiting for the thracians and the lions scene. I kinda thought an inauguration might look like:
    Mr President: “I affirm, I shall try my hardest not to fuck up.”
    Voice-over: “And now, Sir Ian McKellen will read the oligarchy’s inspiring speech, presenting their vision for the next 4 years.”
    (crowd goes wild)

    Well, ok, maybe turning it into bonnaroo isn’t such a bad idea after all. Fuck it. I can read the text a couple days later, and eventually I will.

    PS – I’m one of those disaffected cynics filled with despair about the political process, btw. Sorry for pointing out that the rainbows are painted cardboard and sponsored by Nike.

  14. says

    Marcus Ranum, Ian McKellen? Please. Try John Lithgoth “Four SCORE, and seven YEARS ah-GO!”). Or Christopher Walken (“…owah. Fahthuhs. Brought fo-ruth. On. This con-tin. Ent. A nyew nation. Conceived. In Lih-berty…”).

  15. dingojack says

    Ian McKellen? – Will he have his long-time male partner on stage during the reading? Bet the wingnts would love that!

    Perhaps John Hurt will lead the Marcus Ranum Memorial Two-Minute Hate.

    Dingo

  16. says

    @Modusoperandi – Oh, hell, yes.
    But only if he ends with, “Sealed with a curse as sharp as a knife, doomed is your soul, and damned is your life.”

  17. says

    Marcus Ranum Memorial Two-Minute Hate

    Since I’m not dead, yet. I interpret that as everyone hating me for two minutes. That’d be kind of intense, but I must decline the honor.

  18. says

    Y’know, Marcus, your complaints about the emptiness of political speeches might be more credible if they weren’t so empty themselves. Seriously, even if Obama didn’t mean a word of what he said, he still said more than you have, and his empty speeches are a lot more informative than your empty self-important cynicism.

    I think our political dialogue should be presented in writing.

    Um…it already is. Dude, did you even spend one second thinking about your “ideas?”

    That’s another thing that sucks about our political process. It sucks all the hope out of anyone who isn’t a happy patsy.

    So you’re saying Obama’s hard-fought campaign was won entirely by happy patsies? In that case, maybe you should stop trashing “happy patsies” until you can show us an accomplishment comparable to theirs.

    I hadn’t had my coffee, yet.

    That doesn’t sound like lack of coffee, that sounds like Republicanism: same mindless contempt for people trying to solve problems, same total lack of responsibility for one’s own words.

  19. says

    that sounds like Republicanism:

    Wow, now that is a fucking serious fucking insult. I’d complain that you’re just demonizing, except that I’ve been demonizing the fuck out of the political class all morning. Why did you jump into the gutter with me, though?

    it already is. Dude, did you even spend one second thinking about your “ideas?”

    Good point. That was stupid.

    So you’re saying Obama’s hard-fought campaign was won entirely by happy patsies?

    I was one of those happy patsies last time around. It still stings.

    And, I did not say “won entirely by happy patsies” I acknowledge that what I said was stupid, but I would like to point out that you’re subtly rewriting my stupid remark in order to hammer me harder. That’s not intellectually honest. I don’t know if you deliberately jumped in the gutter here with me but I wish you would not do that.

    total lack of responsibility for one’s own words.

    Yeah, you can see me doing that, dingo.

    Listen. I am one of those voices of discontent and negativity about our political system. Occasionally I stop farting rainbows and vent. And, yes, that was stupid.

    “Mindless” contempt for hypocrites who talk words of peace and love while boming the fuck out of other countries is not really that “mindless” is it? These are legitimate complaints. Complaints I made even more loudly under Bush &co, BTW.* And even though it resembles farting in the hot tub, it’s important to not let the self-congratulating bandwagon – a bandwagon which, I repeat, I am part of – claim credit for high aspirations. I vote against the Republicans every fucking election, but I sure wish the Democrats were doing something I can believe in other than fighting a rear-guard action while appeasing Wall Street and the MICC. If someone were actually talking high aspirations like tearing down the police state, I’d probably fall for it all over again, and wave my flag and give money (it’s always money, grrrrr!) like the happy patsy I am. Like many, I was excited when Obama said he’d close Gitmo and get us out of Afghanistan. One “surge” later and we’ve switched to area bombing and assassination and the president committing military force without forcing the cowards in Congress to stand up and be counted. ExcUUuUUUUUUUUUUUSEEEEE ME for not being optimistic.

    He did do a good job on important domestic issues and he’s doing what he can with the economy in the face of horrendous assholishnes from the other horrendous assholes.

    So, for trying to demonize me as a Republican: I’d really appreciate it if you’d take that back.

    (* Unfortunately, in my book I also said some nice things about Bush that were horribly, terribly wrong. Oh boy, lied to again.)

  20. says

    And OMG I somehow brain-farted and though that was dingojack who made that comment and now I see it was not. Shit. I fucked that up.

    s/[Dd]ingo/Raging Bee/g

    Sorry about that.

  21. rebeccamad gastronomer says

    Huh. The President mentioned Stonewall and gay people in his speech. Hurrah.

    Here’s the thing, though: that doesn’t mean he talked about LGBT rights. That T means something. Trans people are not (necessarily) gay, and while trans people were at the forefront of the Stonewall riots, they never get much acknowledgement of that. Nor do they get any acknowledgement in this speech. It’s incorrect to say that the speech has anything to do with trans equality, and every time “LGBT” is used when the topic has nothing to do with trans people, it is once again assumed that trans people’s interests are those of gay and lesbian people. Trans people are erased by this.

  22. lancifer says

    Badger, Badger, Badger, Badger, Badger, Badger, Badger, Badger, Badger, Badger, Badger, Badger,

    MUSHROOM! MUSHROOM!

    Badger, Badger, Badger, Badger, Badger, Badger, Badger, Badger, Badger, Badger, Badger, Badger

  23. dingojack says

    Marcus – More 3,7-dihydro-1,3,7-trimethyl-1H-purine-2,6-dione, intravenous, STAT! :) *
    Dingo
    ——-
    * Meh – happens all the time, don’t worry too much about it!

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