La Vanguardia, Spain
Obama and the Politics
of the Positive
By Xavier Antich
With this speech inaugurating his second term, Obama has done something similar to what Rosa Parks did the day after the Supreme Court judgement came down to Montgomery: He has taken a seat in the front row of the bus. Nobody can move him from there now.
Translated By Jenny Westwell
12 November 2012
Edited by Mary Young
Spain - La Vanguardia - Original Article (Spanish)
Barack Obama Brings the Politics of the Possible Back to the Center of the Debate
It is hard to believe, but it was not so long ago. It was Dec. 1, 1951, in Montgomery, Alabama. A black seamstress was returning home from work. She boarded the bus and took a seat in the back, the part reserved for black citizens, who were not permitted to sit in the front rows. That day a lot of white people boarded the bus, and the driver told three black women to give up their seats.* One refused. She was arrested, tried and sentenced to jail. Her name was Rosa Parks, and her gesture provoked an avalanche. The following evening, the black community — 70 percent of the city’s bus users — made the decision to boycott Montgomery’s public transport system. Five years later, the U.S. Supreme Court declared racial segregation on buses to be unconstitutional. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act prohibited segregation in schools, public places, workplaces and government. Only a little more than 50 years ago.
There are times when a broader focus is needed in order to appreciate the transcendent character of events whose immense importance may not yet be discernible. Four years ago, Obama made history as the first elected black president of the U.S. Part of the enthusiasm with which he was received doubtless had to do with that fact, together with his indisputable charisma, his brilliant oratory and his background as a committed activist. There were those who voiced a low opinion of him then, despised him even (“more headline salesman than ideologist” — or the flower child label, remember?). They were few, but they made themselves heard. Now, with his reelection, a certain condescension — very European, Euro-centric even — is voicing variations on the same theme.
But one thing alone should be sufficient to silence some of the fatuous remarks. His election night address electrified McCormick Place and was followed avidly both there and around the world. A spectacular piece of oratory without a note in his hand. And a political declaration that will be studied carefully alongside some of the texts that marked the history of 20th century American political thought. We shall leave to one side the excitement in Catalonia that greeted his first words ("Tonight, more than 200 years after a former colony won the right to determine its own destiny...”). Let us focus, very quickly, on just four issues, using Hannah Arendt's “On Revolution” (written partly about the American Revolution, of course) as a reference text.
Firstly, the need to finish what he started: “A decade of war is ending.” The challenge now is “to shape a peace that is built on the promise of freedom and dignity for every human being.” Obama, like Arendt, knows that violence is no more than a marginal element in the process of social and political change, and that the essence of what is human is the concerted practice of discourse and action within a framework of freedom. The millions of people who demonstrated against the Iraq war — in the U.S and around the world — knew it, too.
Secondly, the repeated appeals to the responsible exercise of freedom, which lies at the heart of the American system. The 1776 revolution set the course for a new order based on the exercise of political freedom and the ability of citizens to act freely. That is not something to be undermined. Hence the conviction that “the role of citizens in our democracy does not end with your vote.” Can you imagine a president of the Spanish government saying that, in a country so fearful of asking the people to decide? American democracy since the Revolution guarantees a balance of power and freedom through different institutions devoted to the continued exercise of political freedom. Constituent power, consistently exercised through diverse participatory powers, is open by definition. The health of the democratic system depends on it.
Thirdly, continual references to the justice imperative as part of the exercise of freedom. Obviously there are differences between Democrats and Republicans, just as there are significant ideological differences between Obama and Romney. Not in terms of managing the U.S. economy, but rather in terms of political ideals. And those of Obama — who is reviving and implementing a theoretical rearmament of the Democrats — have to do with one of the most urgent political issues of our times: reconciling increased freedom with the demand for justice and the struggle against inequality. Obama is bringing the politics of the possible back to the center of the debate.
And finally, the appeal to the privilege of education (“we want our kids to grow up in a country where they have access to the best schools and the best teachers"). We know that this is not just empty rhetoric for Obama; rather, it is the only way to ensure that everybody has the same opportunities. I am not naive. I appreciate the difficulties in all this. But I also know that, with this speech inaugurating his second term, Obama has done something similar to what Rosa Parks did the day after the Supreme Court judgement came down to Montgomery: He has taken a seat in the front row of the bus. Nobody can move him from there now. Good luck, Mr. President!
*Translator's note: The correct date is Dec. 1,1955. According to Parks’ own account, four people were required to give up their seats, and not all of them were women.
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