By YOUSEF DRUMMOND
BARACK Hussein Obama’s dance with “History” began on Saturday, January 18th, 2009. The President-elect and the first-lady “in waiting”, Michelle Obama, along with their two young girls, boarded a vintage train, built in the 1930’s dubbed the “Georgia 300”, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that will meander to Wilmington, Delaware, to Maryland, and then to Washington, D.C., where he will be sworn in as the first African-American president of the United States of America. He is not alone on this train; there is Joseph Biden, the Vice-President, along with his wife and their children. Also on board are 40 “ordinary Americans”, along with the President-elect’s campaign staff and a maze of news correspondents.
The President-elect will deliver short speeches at each stop on his way to his swearing-in. He has already addressed some 8,000 citizens in Delaware and he addressed a fairly large crowd in Philadelphia. He will address a crowd some analysts estimate to be 20 times larger, at the Lincoln Memorial that boasts the marble statue of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States of America.
That Abraham Lincoln serves as Barack Obama’s political protégé is no secret. In fact, the President-elect’s train ride that will end with his swearing-in as the 44th President of the United States of America on January 20th is travelling on the same route as that travelled by Abraham Lincoln as he assumed the Presidency in 1861. The similarities between the two men are striking. Both men were U.S. senators for the state of Illinois; and both have similar physical constitutions – they are both lanky. Throughout the presidential campaign, the President-elect’s speeches contain concepts or ideas much similar to Abraham Lincoln’s. I will note two of Lincoln’s speeches briefly here.
In 1858 Abraham Lincoln addressed Republican delegates at the hall of the House of Representatives after accepting the candidacy for U.S. Senate for the state of Illinois. It is here that delivered a speech entitled “A House Divided”, wherein he outlined the relevant constitutional and legal provisions that threatened to divide the nation. One is the “Kansas-Nebraska Act” of 1854 that allowed settlers of these states to decide whether to allow chattel slavery in theirs’ and other states in the South. The other legal ruling is the “Dred-Scott” Supreme Court ruling of 1857 that held that persons of African descent who were imported to the United States as slaves, as well as their descendants, could never be citizens of the United States, and that Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in federal territories. In response to their established political platform dedicated to put a stop to the expansion of chattel slavery, the new Republican Party endorsed Abraham Lincoln to be their candidate for the Illinois State Senate against Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, the Democratic challenger, who designed the Federal Act. Near the beginning of his speech, Lincoln declared: “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free”.
In 1861, upon assuming the presidency, Abraham Lincoln delivered another speech to dedicate a cemetery called the “Gettysburg Address”, against a bloody backdrop that signified the Battle of Gettysburg, where upwards of 100,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were buried. During the 2 minute speech Lincoln declared that the dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation has now been given a “new birth of freedom” and that “the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”.
Rather than focusing on the specific battles in his speeches and the concrete historical or racial circumstances surrounding the Battle at Gettysburg and the American Civil War in general, Abraham Lincoln chose conceptual language designed to tap into the spirit of the Declaration of Independence by invoking the principles of liberty and equality to rouse his audience and by invoking an ethic of a new “freedom” for the nation.
The Roman rhetorician Quintilian believed that in order to convince an audience to his views, an orator must “place himself” in the audience’s place and literally “feel” what it is feeling. Abraham Lincoln managed to “pre-figure” the course of a nation with his words by using concepts designed to rouse his audience to the perils of the time. Some rhetoricians say that Mr. Lincoln had a “keen understanding” of human suffering; he himself suffered debilitating depression for most of his adult life and experienced the mental instability of his wife, Mary Todd.
Barack Obama, the President-elect, elevated himself to the highest office in the land with “transcendental” language designed to unite the nation in troubled times. While campaigning for the highest office in the land two years earlier, he often tells his audience that this nation is neither divided into “blue” (Democratic) states nor a red (Republican) state, but is the “United” States of America. But the mastery of his rhetoric became clear when his (now defunct) spiritual mentor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, delivered a speech highlighting the deepening malaise of race relations in this nation. Rather than portraying race-relations as “static” and polarizing, he repudiated Wright’s extreme rhetoric by reminding his audience of the U.S. Constitution’s core-values of liberty and equality, a value we must all strive for, so that we may develop a newer, more “perfect Union”. To illustrate his point on a concrete level he referred to his mixed heritage – his father was black and his mother, white.
Many commentators jokingly say that Barack Obama “rode the wave” of George Bush’s unpopularity into the White House. My father is now fond of saying that Barack Obama’s speeches “drew them” (the audience) in with talks of “change”. Besides, the American people became weary of George Bush’s handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, his handling of the “war on terror” and of imprisoning “enemy-combatants” without due process (i.e., Guantanamo Bay) and, finally, the nation’s economy began to spiral out of control. But while he “rode the wave” of Bush’s unpopularity, the vehicle that propelled him to shore time after time is his rhetoric.
Rhetoricians like Barack Obama uses concepts designed to present historical imagery into his audience’s minds that is not grounded in historical reality. Think for a moment about the rule of law. The laws that govern this and any other Western nation are composed of “abstract” concepts designed to regulate property relations. Abstract concepts, a product of the mind, are not grounded in historical reality; this becomes clear when we consider the historical determinants of this nation. While the U.S. Constitution boasts of “liberty” and “equality” for all, concrete historical evidence told another story: the “peculiar” institution of chattel slavery, as codified by law, produced a social climate of “masters” and “slaves”, with the latter struggling for recognition by killing the masters themselves. Although this level of “racial” violence doesn’t occur with much frequency today because of enforceable civil-rights laws, the “social stain” of slavery is here to this day and is very much related to economic parameters.
The main challenges of modern Western political thought centers on expanding political rights to all of its citizens – whether gay or straight, black or white. When this is not realized, and the history of this nation is an excellent example, various factions or groups vie for recognition. To use an example, Black Nationalism arose in intensity during the early part of the twentieth century because the laws did not recognize blacks as equal in citizenship or, more deeply, moral worth to whites.
While Barack Obama uses rhetoric to “dance” around concrete historical realities in this nation, can he convince the Palestinians about their chances of “reconciliation” with the State of Israel? How far will his rhetoric expand to include concrete historical realities occurring in Palestine, where Israeli bombs bombard hospitals, schools and residential buildings on a daily basis, killing hundreds of innocent women and children? Estimates now say that some 300 children have died during that three-week war. I now hear that there is a brief truce between Israel and Hamas, but it won’t last for long.
Barack Obama will never say that the Palestinians have a right to self-determination, or recognition, as they relate to the State of Israel. That is not rhetoric; that is real. Self-determination is a historical reality; it is born out of injustice. Self-determination is not a mental concept, but is a heightened level of consciousness that motivates one to direct social action. Self-determination is an existential condition where one “throws” him or herself into a struggle for recognition. Will his rhetoric gain converts in Afghanistan? The answer is no.
What Barack Obama rhetoric fails to tell us is that “History” refers to self-consciousness as it confronts pressing political and social realities.
Barack Obama’s rhetoric often talks of “change”. The question now is, how much “change” both he and his administration will be able to effect on the domestic and international plane. The answer is that he alone cannot effect “change”; our dedication to exercise our political rights to demand “change” will be enough.
The writer is a recent revert to Islam and can be contacted at: email@example.com