This is probably the third time I have tried to write something about Obama’s speech. Sometimes an event comes along which deserves a period of pondering before launching into instant feedback mode. But sometimes a few days of reflection raise the question of whether the latest round of chatter will prove just as fleeting as the last. In a way, yes, obviously, events like The Speech receive a mound of coverage as does any news item, and to judge its permanence based on that alone is to do not just the events in question but all of us writers and citizens a disservice. But in another way the social fact of The Speech seems to me destined for much greater insignificance than much of the commentary of the past few days would suggest.
Not that I’m glad about it. Certainly the prevailing wisdom is right that The Speech flipped a major crisis (at least among smart, cultured people) into a major advantage; that The Speech departed significantly, if not completely, from what sounds like politics as usual; and that The Speech demonstrated above all that words do matter — because they can show forth a level head, a bleeding heart, and a soaring spirit not just in sequence but syncretically, for good and for ill.
On the other hand the keystone of The Speech seems to me to suggest pretty uncompromisingly that caring is almost pointless without understanding. And if there’s one thing a major politician needs to tell us, it’s that the politics of caring is an easy, if not very cheap, way out of our obligations as citizens. For we live in a time when understanding is often deemed pointless without caring — so that the citizen who sizes up Rev. Wright and accepts Obama’s invitation to say “Okay, I get it, I understand why you’re so angry,” yet does not reach out a hand of healing or some such, is labeled morally defective. Far better, we are led to believe, to let our authorized care representatives determine who merits the goods of redistribution and briskly follow their orders.
The tension is a simple one. You find people on the right who insist that we can understand without acting out care, and people on the left who insist we should act out care even in the absence of understanding. Obama would have us understand and care in a deeply social but deeply personal fashion, so far as to include the understanding that judgments ought to be keyed not to some vague standard of public caring but to the highly particular standards of who we care about in our personal lives. The risk is that Obama asks too much for some of us and not enough for others. And finally it’s not clear to me that Obama himself has squared the circle in his own mind, heart, and soul. Perhaps this is to be only human. The main conservative contention is that no matter how human, working out that complex of vexations is not the business of politics. And the opposite contention — compassionism of any stripe — is that it must be and is.
The trouble is that the compassionists always settle for second best — a representative republic of understanding care instead of a direct democracy. The common citizen is profoundly uninterested in making of politics a permanent commitment to crusading for care. Since the common citizen has also lately grown interested in freedom for politics altogether, many Gersonians and Obamaniacs conclude that restoring citizenship to its natural health requires satisfying their longing to romanticize politics with the combined solidarity of the village, the Volk, and the brotherhood of man. I think it’s right to recognize that Obama himself stands in a relation of some ambivalence to this posture. But just that ambivalence leads him to undermine compassionism by stubbornly showing how we cannot truly care for one another or understand one another except through the particular details of long-lasting personal interrelationships.
Such a conclusion — as Alasdair MacIntyre, among others, has pointed out — doesn’t necessarily enjoy any closer affinity with a liberal ideology than a with a conservative one. At bottom, too many of us don’t want to spend the time and effort necessary to building and maintaining those kinds of interrelationships; too many of us are too impatient for that process to eventually ‘solve the race problem’; and large numbers of us will only support calls to use politics to manufacture those interrelationships in the most superficial of ways. This is sad insofar as just those interrelationships are the necessary prior condition of healthy politics, but happy insofar as using politics to whip up care and understanding gets it gravely backward.
Amid such confusion, Obama’s speech seems destined to function as therapeutic balm: licensing us to carry on largely as before with a swiftly and slightly changed perspective. This is a shame in a number of ways, but a further reminder that politics is — and should be — quite limited in its ability to resolve the contradictions in the American cultural psychology which inspire us to deny and ignore them.