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New York Daily News


Barack Obama's risky bet on hope

January 21, 2009

By John H. McWhorter

A keystone of Barack Obama's inauguration speech was his call for Americans to engage in a communal effort to make the country whole again. "We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America," he told us.

By now, we're past wondering whether he could make it, past celebrating that he did, past mulling over what we would do when he was sworn in. From Wednesday on, the important question is what each of us should be doing to heed the President's call. (Wow—that's my first time writing of him as President without the "-elect" hedge.)

It's a unique proposition Obama is making. Friedrich Hayek told us, "It seems to be almost a law of human nature that it is easier for people to agree on a negative program—on the hatred of an enemy, on the envy of those better off—than on any positive task."

Calling on people to rise up in anger in opposition to a concrete injustice is one thing, for which we have countless historical examples—such as, of course, the civil rights movement, including the whites who joined it.

Obama, despite the attempts we now recall in sepia tone to label him a radical, is not telling America to get mad. He is calling on us to do the less dramatic work of pitching in, taking on more, thinking beyond ourselves. The idea is that Obama's charisma, a desire to follow his lead, is what will float this boat.

That is, Obama is proposing a national movement based on joy—based on belief in our country, our leader and ourselves.

This is really interesting. Yes, John F. Kennedy called on us to ask what we can do for our country. But Kennedy's assassination and Vietnam precluded our seeing how that would have worked out in any thoroughgoing way. Plus, Kennedy made his proposal at a time when most Americans still trusted their government.

Upon which I return to my worry as to how long this "Yes We Can" mood will persist. I want it to persist for, say, eight years—but I cannot help coming back to the likes of James Russell Lowell's observation that "The masses of any people, however intelligent, are very little moved by abstract principles of humanity and justice, until those principles are interpreted for them by the stinging commentary of some infringement upon their own rights."

Example: When a former transit officer shot a young black man to death in Oakland on New Year's Day, people in the Bay Area took to the streets in protest, decorated with shouts of "We ARE Oscar Grant." And Grant's killing was, by all indications, an unjustifiable abomination.

But so is the failure of Oakland's public school system to teach its students. So is each and every incident in which a black kid shoots another one to death over trifles. But these kinds of things, these "infringements upon their own rights" that Americans endure all the time, are harder to march over. Because the "hatred of an enemy" Hayek wrote about is missing.

Indeed, the cynics are already looking for every opportunity to remind us that the age of Obama is not postracial. They seem to relish the opportunity to say that the Grant shooting offers hard evidence that we're not "past race." The old anger, easy and seductive, slips in.

This mode of thinking—encouraging unfocused cynicism and discouraging creativity and persistence—will lurk as an eternal threat to Obama's call for something more constructive. When things happen like Grant's killing, we must respond. But there's so much more.

The question is whether Obama's call for all of us to extend ourselves can grip us as viscerally as the misdoings of a police department, and hold our attention after the majesty of the inaugural becomes history.

As it happens, none other than Booker T. Washington, whose philosophy on uplift corresponded more closely to Obama's than many would suppose, had choice words of guidance as we look forward this week: "We should not permit our grievances to overcome our opportunities."

Original Source:



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