December 10, 2013
Words that matter
CHARLESTON, South Carolina — There are moments when the history of a nation changes abruptly. It was palpable that such a moment had arrived for the United States six days ago when President Barack Obama concluded his inaugural speech.
One dismayed commentator for the aggressively rightwing Fox News complained: “The era of liberalism is back.” Another warned, “liberalism is out of the closet.” Yet another moaned: “This is the most depressing day of the year.”
What had happened was that President Obama, decisively elected for a second term against all the hopes and predictions of the top dogs of the Republican Party, had returned the United States to its founding principles, in fact to liberalism.
In a speech that was a rhetorical rhapsody to the magic and majesty of democracy, the US’s first black president articulated anew “the most evident of truths”that we are all created equal. He emphasized his dedication to that truth by citing three alliterative landmarks in US history: “Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall.” Those three place names sent a message of inclusion to women, blacks and gays.
It was at a Seneca Falls, New York state, in 1848 that the first women’s rights convention in the world was held. Selma, Alabama, is where in 1965 civil-rights marchers were brutally attacked by state troopers and the Rev. Martin Luther King made his stand to emerge as an inspirational leader in the struggle for racial equality. Stonewall is the gay and lesbian club in Greenwich Village, New York city, that was raided by police in 1969, sparking widespread protests.
It was Obama’s inclusion of police repression of the homosexual community at the Stonewall Inn along with the epic struggle for women’s rights and the centuries’ long fight for racial equality that signalled a new and huge leap forward for human rights. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, who is himself gay wrote:
. . “[M]ake no mistake: history was made today, and millions of Americans right now feel that their country has shown them a new, heightened degree of the respect they richly deserve. Our highest elected official, our president, said that same-sex couples should have the right to marry, something that none of his predecessors had done, something that he had refused to do since becoming a national political figure. There’s a powerful message in that.”
Writing in The Washington Post, Sean Sullivan also stressed the point that Obama had made history by becoming the first president to advocate for gay rights in an inaugural address. The passage in his speech that was most quoted was this: “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”
The impact of Obama’s endorsement of equal rights for gays and lesbians was so resounding that those who oppose such radical changes to the unwritten rules of society that are based on religious teaching have responded, so far, with a stunned silence. That will change and today, no doubt, pulpits throughout the United States will shake to the thunder as countless preachers thump their bibles.
Righteous indignation cannot stay, even less reverse, the reality that our gay brothers and sisters, sons and daughters and, in some cases, gay parents have already won their battle for equal rights. All that remains for them to achieve is acceptance, which cannot be legislated.
They have, however, the blessing of the president, who wrestled with his religious instruction before taking this irreversible step.
Polling shows that generally a majority of the people support Obama’s agenda for social change and that he has the backing of a plurality on issues that fit the “liberalism” label. This is a startling change.
Over the years since the “Reagan Revolution,” which enshrined the dictum that “government is the problem, not the solution,” the accepted wisdom has been that the United States is a conservative nation and that it will always be to the right of the political centre. Obama’s election cracked that concept. His historic speech, the importance of which was recognized by this newspaper in devoting a full page to the complete transcript, shattered the mirror which reassured people on the right that they held sway over the republic.
House speaker John Boehner sounded the alarm: “Given what we heard (in the inaugural speech) about the president’s vision for his second term it’s pretty clear to me and it should be clear to all of you that he can’t do any of that as long as the House is controlled by Republicans. So we’re expecting the next 22 months to be the focus of this administration as they attempt to annihilate the Republican Party. And let me tell you, I do believe that is their goal. To just shove us in the dustbin of history.”
Blame the change in the prospects of the Republican Party on the factor that made the country great. That human factor is immigration.
There are now more people who want to improve their lives than those who want to conserve their way of life. Until such time as the new immigrants, most notably Latin Americans, have overcome barriers to their inclusion and eventual success in the United States, conservatism will be the creed of a minority, albeit a large minority. It is to be hoped that the change in the mainstream will not cause conservatives to be resentful, but will, instead, bring about a return to respectable conservatism and a renewed Republican Party.