Some notes on Obama in Charleston
There are several reasons to watch President Obama’s eulogy at the funeral of the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine people shot in the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June.
The first is that it is, simply, an outstanding piece of political oratory, one of the best you might hear, beautifully constructed and masterfully delivered, full of light and shade, with changes in tone and timbre, in which the pauses are often as important as the words. Yet it doesn’t seem, at least not obviously, to draw on many of the familiar tropes of political speech, such as the “rule of three“. So it’s also distinctive.
The second is that it is charged (heavily charged) with cultural meaning: a black American President speaking at the funeral of a black pastor in a black American church. It’s a scene that we have seen versions of before, albeit without the President, in our stories of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement (“I’ve been to the mountaintop. … And I’ve seen the Promised Land”), in histories of American rhythm and blues, and in comedies such as The Blues Brothers.
The cultural charge is freighted with a historic charge that goes back to the days of slavery and the Civil War, both inscribed heavily into the history of this particular church, that would have been palpable even had Obama not woven them into his text.
And, by way of an aside for the conspiracy theorists out there: if Obama really is a Kenyan Muslim, waiting for his moment to overthrow the American Constitution, he’s sleeping very deep. He looked like he just fitted in right there, a black American in a black American church.
States of grace
The third reason is that – for Europeans, certainly – the speech is a reminder of how different, how other, the United States is. While European politics is not marked by much in the way of oratory right now, even our best speakers, the ones who could rouse the room, did it either through speaking of radicalism and social justice or of nations and identity.
But threaded all the way through Obama’s speech, both its heart and its spine, was a piece of Protestant Christian theology – the notion of God’s grace, and the ways we humans come by it. This concept was last seen in British political discourse in the seventeenth century, largely, of course, through the religious dissenters who chose to colonise America. And through a famous story about the dying Oliver Cromwell.
No European politician can talk theology and remain a credible part of the mainstream. More’s the pity: the European Union could do with some progressive theology or even just some moral sentiment, right now.
The fourth reason is that it might – might – mark a turning point in America’s difficult history of race (and I realise that this is ground on which a European needs to tread carefully). As Obama said in his eulogy, “God moves in mysterious ways”. With hindsight, an avowed white supremacist who massacred nine people in a black church in the hope, expressed to a friend, of starting a race war probably shouldn’t have picked on people who would forgive him.
And one of the ideas that sits in futures work, and in systems, is that if a thing can’t continue, it won’t. It will slow down or stop instead.
The current level of shootings of young black men by State police forces feels to me like a social trend that is approaching its limits (shown, for example, in the launch of the data site, The Counted), as is the sharply disproportionate number of black Americans incarcerated in the prison system. The sudden focus on the public meaning of the Confederate flag also suggests an inflection point. To be sure, Obama touched on all of these during his eulogy. And to be sure, he didn’t touch on the economic circumstances of black Americans, which have continued to deteriorate during his Presidency.
Social change seems to move in generational spans: if we borrow the Fourth Turning model, the Civil Rights movement looks like an Awakening, followed by a generation of Unravelling – for example, seen in the rolling drugs crisis in the housing projects – giving way to the current Crisis. Crises are followed by “Highs,” a generation of rebuilding and social learning and innovation.
Of course, this could be an optimistic reading. The secular cycles theorist Peter Turchin, whose work models the interplay of demographics and structural factors, is much bleaker. He has written a grim account of his interpretation of the prospects for American politics that projects a long-run increase in his Political Stress Indicator, driven by elite conflict and inequality, similar to the pattern that preceded the Civil War 150 years ago. On this reading, the violence in America is an early sign of worse to come, even if this is not inevitable.
We make our own futures through our choices, if not under the circumstances of our choosing. While speeches rarely create change, they can crystallise it. They can help us choose.