Johns, Jasper (b. 1930) © VAGA, NY

Flags. 1968. Lithograph, printed in color, irreg composition: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″; irreg sheet: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″. Gift of the Celeste and Armand Bartos Foundation. (291.1968)

Location: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.

Photo Credit: Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY (ART193346)

Obama calls upon Americans to “give our all to a difficult task” and “carry forth a precious gift” of increasingly inclusive liberty, equality, and happiness.  We are empowered to do so by meeting new challenges with reaffirmations of old truths that “have been the quiet force of progress”: “honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism.”  In perfect harmony, God and American democracy call us to continue a long and difficult tradition imagined as a journey “up the path” of progress.

This song is old. But is it true?  What are the implications of framing the virtues for progress as a “quiet force”?  What is gained and lost by imagining progress singularly as upward movement?  When God and America sing in perfect harmony, how is our hearing enabled and disabled? How might such rhetoric shape the precious gift and our capacity to carry it?  These are difficult questions—especially when all these motifs converge toward a “unity of purpose over conflict and discord” that may not invite the asking. Fortunately, Obama’s own paths provide contrapuntal motifs that enable us to inquire further.

In Obama’s presidential election victory speech, the virtues were more a noisy force than a quiet one.  106-year-old Ann Nixon Cooper, daughter of slaves, had heard them: “At a time when women’s voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot….She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham.” And she probably heard Obama reference the noisy and discordant virtues so vital to “our better history” in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention when he conjured up Martin Luther King, Jr.: “‘We cannot walk alone,’ the preacher cried. ‘And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.'”  In Obama’s earlier speeches, the vital quiet virtues were given voice, yet they occurred in the mix of feisty ones as well, and the louder more turbulent enactments of the virtues he names were expressed in the examples he employed.  The courageous hard workers in New Orleans and on 9/11 co-exist with those exercising similar virtues in struggles against congenital defects of the practices and the promises of American democracy.

These noisier agonistic virtues were entwined with a different image of democracy’s journey and how we must carry it forth.  In an Inaugural Address that affirms old truths as the “quiet force of progress,” tradition appears as an upward path.  It is a long and difficult ladder to climb for both individuals and the nation, but its course is that of an advance set by the founding and enduring spirit of our better history.  The central responsibility is not to be led off course by the new challenges.  However, in the context of political contestation and a preacher’s cry in the acceptance speech, the promise of the American spirit is evoked in a more complex manner: the steady witness and advance of old truths is powerfully juxtaposed with a force for turning. Here the origin is both employed and subject to fundamental critique that transforms old truths in ways which involve yet exceed “inclusion.”  Thus “the American promise makes us fix our eye not on what is seen, but what is unseen, that better place around the bend.”

When MLK, Jr. cries we cannot turn back, he calls us beyond the cowardice that would not advance, and the cowardice that would interpret advance only in terms of extending the long-seen truths.  Do not turn back from the turning point: march forth around the scary bend (beyond white supremacy, narrow capitalism, and imperialism) toward a polity that is better but cannot yet be seen, because it does not yet exist.  The tradition of democratic freedom and equality is a turning, because the movement beyond patterns of subjugation simultaneously involves enactments of new modes of tending to each other, new values, practices, and promises.  When Obama’s election speech echoes King’s cry that the arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice, he proclaims a faith that there is enough in our inheritance to spur and enable a responsive and creative people to negotiate the next turn.  At the same time, insofar as this arc is long, the present trajectory of the old truths must be profoundly distant from true democracy or the beloved community.  Hence, tending well to tradition must also involve repeated enactments of what those who are rigidly attached to old truths will view as heresy.

Nothing about this is easy. Yet it is precisely in the tensions of this intersection—between quiet and loud, conciliation and contestation, conservative and radical—that we might best fashion judgments conducive to turnings that bear the gifts of the democratic promise.

In recognition that the gravitas of this responsibility requires all to bear it, Obama’s acceptance speech emphasized—as did his campaign—that “it’s about you.” “Change happens…because the American people demand it, because they rise up and insist on new ideas and new leadership, a new politics for a new time.”  As in his election speech, he repeatedly narrated his march to victory as “your victory”: a victory that came from grassroots organizing which compelled him, in turn, to call people to “join in the work of remaking this nation the only way its been done in America…block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.”   Animating his call, “yes we can,” was a sense of a “we” whose maturity resides precisely in the tensional double-responsibility of citizenship: joining across negotiated differences to do the public work of building the commonwealth, and rising up to contest and transform dominant strands of our inheritance that perpetuate subjugation.  Without the latter responsibility, citizenship becomes functionary and blind.  Without the former responsibility, citizenship becomes a battle with no vision, no accountability, no hope for a coming community that would be better.  Receiving and giving the gift of our inheritance requires forming a “we” in the double responsibility that animates a “yes we can.”

I am deeply sympathetic when George Shulman and Lawrie Balfour’s contributions call Obama to deepen this double responsibility.  Yet I worry that Obama is trending away.  His Inaugural Address quiets the demos and accents more than ever only one dimension of the virtues of citizenship.  In Obama’s One Hundred Days speech, the demos is not mentioned at all, as Harry Boyte insightfully notes in his May 3, 2009 op-ed in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, on Obama’s shift from “we” to “I.”  This is not so surprising: a demos that is wholly reduced to quiet virtues will be little more than a cog servicing leadership that drives America up the path of dubious progress.

In Dreams of My Father, Obama tells a profound story of moving counter to dominant Ivy League lines of progress to work with poor people of color in Chicago. His account is deeply indebted to the receptive prophetic tradition exemplified by civil rights activists like Ella Baker, Septima Clarke, Bob Moses, and Dorothy Cotton, who turned the democratic promise in better directions by moving their lives against many expressions of old truths and dominant articulations of “progress.”  Moving in counter-currents away from the flow toward whiteness, capitals, and capital, they led a broad organizing movement toward poor black people in the rural south.  They sat at the foot of sharecroppers and on front porches—and listened.  And quite literally, they listened people into being. They listened people into becoming the most profound turners of the democratic promise this nation has ever seen, for they changed the imaginary of progress itself.

Perhaps the most eloquent spokesperson for the need for this change in our understanding of progress was James Baldwin, when he wrote:

One cannot afford to lose status on this peculiar ladder, for the prevailing notion of American life seems to involve rung-by-rung ascension to some hideously desirable state.  If this is one’s concept of life, obviously one cannot afford to slip back one rung.  When one slips, one slips back not a rung but back into chaos and no longer knows who he is….The Negro tells us where the bottom is:  because he is there…where…we must not fall.

This notion of progress, Baldwin claimed, generated fear, hatred, and vitiated the possibility of democracy.  The civil rights organizers in the early 1960s enacted America’s most profound turn of the democratic promise because they realized that advancing this promise meant moving down the ladder of progress, cultivating the virtues and capacities for this movement, in order to participate in bending the arc of the universe toward justice. Baldwin conceived of this as messy, struggling—yet the only hopeful—love. This turning the ladder on its head, toward our better histories yet to come—could it be called democratic and Jewish and Christian?  Recall that on Jacob’s ladder, so inspirational for the Black church, a double movement of the earthly toward heaven and the holy toward earth is definitive.  This two-directional movement is crucial to Jacob’s tardy and difficult recognition that: “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!”   Similarly, in John 1:15, Christ evokes this double movement when he proclaims:  “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

Yet this resonance of the secular and the sacred is not a convergence, and it invites more questioning than it suppresses.  For just as Jacob wrestled with angels, our turns toward the better promises we inherit have resulted from messy struggles in which religious and nonreligious traditions have called each other to account.  History suggests that when Nation and God speak harmoniously for upward progress, something bad is often underway.

We should not focus on Obama—though we should support his efforts when they are good and be a thorn in his side when they are not.  Rather, our task now is to enact the many shapes, scales, modes, tensions, and powers of a demos—a beloved community—that is still unseen but better.  Minus this, the tensional “ethic of responsibility” for which Shulman rightly hopes is extraordinarily unlikely.  The hope of the democratic promise, and the hope for the Obama who has evoked it better than most leaders of late, is there: in the quiet and feisty virtues of a we that can.  Yes.

[See David Kyuman Kim’s introduction to “These things are old,” a conversation about Obama, civic virtues and the common good at The Immanent Frame]