Saturday, February 16, 2008

"Hey Hillary, MLK Was a Talker AND a Doer"

One of the preeminent historians of African American experience, Harvard Sitkoff, has written an interesting short piece in response to Hillary Clinton's comments about MLK, LBJ and change. Here is one nugget:

MLK was never a mere dreamer, never only a talker. He stood up for what is right, repeatedly putting his body on the line, going to jail again and again, constantly facing death threats. By such actions, King and a multiplicity of black leaders and movements at the grass-roots level mobilized black Americans as they had never previously been mobilized to collectively bring about change. King, above all, stirred African Americans’ emotions, raised their hopes, convinced them to believe in their abilities to alter history, and got them to come together to press for racial justice in a manner that could not be, and was not, denied.

To read the whole essay, click here: Sitkoff, "MLK Was Both a Talker and a Doer, Hillary"

I think all of this points out the way Hillary Clinton fundamentally misapprehends how social change occurs. You can hear it in her speeches, not only as she belittles and denigrates Obama's oratorical powers, but also in her persistent references to herself and to the idea that what we need most is a strong, experienced, centralized, supreme power. It is the constant refrain of "I," "I," "I." By contrast, Obama stresses "we" in his rhetoric. He is clear to tell his audience that real change depends on a movement, depends on the mass participation of millions of ordinary citizens, that only "we" can do this together. I think Obama has the cart and horse in the right order on this one. If real, transformative change is going to happen, the broader political context has to be different and Obama gets that. Clearly, he is the only remaining candidate that not only can win, but who might also have some coattails. Hillary is too polarizing and divisive; she may win, but she won't have significant coattails. And, if Obama were to come into office with a nice, comfortable majority in Congress, and a new coaliton of voters, that may enable him to be more bold, active and progressive that if he or Hillary is elected with a tightly split legislature.

But, back to the inspirational/empty rhetoric part of all of this. I feel strongly that charisma and visionary language actually matters quite a bit from the president. Such rhetoric can be central to cultivating the type of political context necessary to make governmental change. Clearly, Obama's rhetoric is not hollow, since it has connected with millions upon millions of citizens and turned them on to the process.

There is something amazingly condescending (cynical?) from Clinton and her supporters when they argue that Obama is full of hot air ("all hat, no cattle") and/or that Obama supporters have been somehow hoodwinked, or brainwashed by his blinding charisma. Hear the arrogance of that view? I've met hundreds and hundreds of Obama supporters in multiple states and I have yet to meet a single one who is glassy-eyed and clueless. In fact, at the events I've been to, I've been impressed by how highly engaged and conscious Obama folks are.

Anyway, check out Sitkoff's brief essay and think more broadly about what each candidate is telling us in terms of what lies ahead and what our responsibility in all of this is?

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