In an appropriate show of bipartisan unity, Barack Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, called for unity and for Americans to open their hearts to each other at the memorial for the five police officers slain in Dallas. But the people who needed to hear that message the most won’t listen. In fact, at this point, the American people are not even capable of being led; they must lead themselves out of their mental prisons if there is to be any hope for America.
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse July 13, 2016
AMMAN — At a time when the social fabric of America—on so many levels—seems to be weaker and coming apart more than at any time in recent memory, a (former) President Bush and a President Obama challenged us to come together, to listen to each other, to seek to understand and respect experiences and views different from each other’s, to open our hearts and question our own ideas and own narratives, and to work towards the aspiration of being one people, one nation, to work through these crises together in a spirit of unity, to use our suffering to make us stronger and to transcend hate.
Yet it is at times like these that the power of the presidency—the most awesome office on the planet—reminds us of its limitations.
Many people of a more conspiratorial view tend to think elites and hidden actors pulling all the strings, controlling and manipulating us from behind the scenes.
Such views are espoused by many politicians latching onto populist moments and harnessing populist anger; Bernie Sanders made it sound like “the Establishment” controlled everything, yet, to quote Andrew Sullivan’s important recent New York Magazine piece, in “sustaining his campaign all the way to California on the backs of small donors and large crowds, [Sanders] is, to put it bluntly, a walking refutation of his own argument.” Trump cried about the rigged system when he thought he wasn’t getting a fair shake, but once he won, he literally brought that up and said “Now I don’t care.”
Modern democratic government does constrain voters in offering them a limited number of choices, but within those constraints, the people do make their choices, do have a major, determining impact, and do often go against elites, conventional wisdom, and expectations. Brexit and Trump are just two recent examples of this; Obama winning eight years ago and even four years ago is as well, and Clinton was a surprise in 1992.
The point is, the people actually have a lot more power that they often realize. And today, I don’t feel like Obama or our political leaders are leading us; I think Obama in particular has been stuck somewhat as a victim of frustrating constraining circumstances and has been forced to mainly react to a fickle American public, and many other leaders are more than happy to just respond to and ride the waves of whatever the public’s mood is at any given time.
So, though Bush and Obama each gave one of the best speeches of their careers, I don’t really think the American people are in a position to respond to their sensible challenge to us, or to be led by anyone at this point. People are so divided and anxious and fearful and angry these days that I don’t think there is much of a capacity to listen to reason. At least, when it comes to the angry white people flocking to Trump, I think they just want to ride their tsunamis of rage and self-pity, and have no interest in anything involving African-Americans other than having law enforcement keep them at bay, sadly enough. I don’t think the people who heard Obama and Bush speak today who were already dismissive of Black Lives Matter and instinctively support police officers even when video evidence emerges in situations like Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights of police misbehavior are going to rethink their mentalities because of those speeches. And black people who are in a despair and rage mode right now, I don’t think they are going to listen to either Bush or Obama—the latter whom they greatly admire but who has been disrespected on a virtually unprecedented level and who has been visibly impotent after so many similar tragedies—and all of a sudden have more faith in either police or white America to listen to them any more now than they have before.
So Bush and Obama can give admirable, eloquent, memorable speeches, but ultimately, the power lies with us, and right now Americans as a whole seem more interested in division and hate than in listening or coming together. And during Obama’s very speech, when he spoke about the need for white Americans to understand the concerns and perspectives of African-Americans, stone-faced uniformed white police officers behind him declined to applause, even as the audience and black members of the choir behind them could be seen clapping, but when Obama spoke in support of the police officers, those white police officers clapped. Clearly, we have a problem.
So despite all the great speeches, I seriously doubt any of the people who are totally opposed to gun control and side almost all the time with law enforcement will alter course, and I don’t think the despair and rage of black America will dissipate anytime soon if so many white Americans continue to both be against any accommodation for black Americans or pressuring their representatives in Congress to do anything significant towards that end.
If anything, the last year has shown us that we are becoming more and more divided, at least as divided as any time since the Civil Rights and Vietnam War eras. As noted in my last article, America stands at an abyss of potential racial violence if the status quo prevails; as I have noted, white Americans need to start listening to black Americans in ways they have not shown themselves able to in the past. But too many angry white Americans, especially in light of the rise of Trump, are clearly in a state of mind where they feel that only they need to be listened to, only they deserve to be able to claim the mantle of victimhood, only their concerns are legitimate; they are not willing to have serious discussions about race, they think they know black America better than black Americans do, and they feel black American voices have nothing to teach them and are not worthy of being listened to; they are interested only in being heard, not in hearing. There is a minority of white Americans who feel differently, and while I noted that they need to stand up and make their voices heard now more than ever, these are not the people who needed to heed Presidents Obama’s and Bush’s words, who Obama and Bush needed to reach. The people who most need to open their hearts and minds and ears to understand the real pain and reasons behind black rage and despair are the very people least willing to do so, so consumed they are with their own rage, self-pity, and false sense of relative victimization.
Even as I write this, Hillary Clinton is giving a speech about national unity and race relations at the site where Abraham Lincoln gave his famous “House Divided” speech; hers is a powerful, reasonable speech, but there are too many people who are beyond the reach of reason, and, even more than Trump, even more than Islamic terrorism, this is a threat to our democratic republic and our way of life as we know it.
Today, we know our house is divided, but we can’t rely on George W. Bush, Barack Obama, or Hillary Clinton (let alone the intensely divisive Donald Trump) to lead us; ultimately, we must lead ourselves as people to be willing to first listen and then take concrete steps to accommodate the reasonable grievances of people who don’t look like us, whom many of us are predisposed to dismiss even before they begin to speak to us. No speech from a Republican or a Democratic president or presidential candidate can do that for us; we must be willing and able to do it ourselves, in thousands of little interactions and conversation with each other, for our society and our democratic republic to be worth saving, for our next president to even have a chance of working to heal our wounds and move forward into a better future for ourselves and the rising generation.
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