JUNE 25, 2008
Whether or not this is the Lord's doing, it is certainly marvelous in our eyes. An African American is the Democratic candidate for president of the United States. The United States! If ever there was an occasion for soaring language, this is it; but the man of the hour has somewhat ruined soaring language. One is left mainly with a gulp, and a tear, and an unfamiliar sensation of the sweetness of history. When is history sweet? Truly this is an American benediction. So hyperbole may be forgiven--as when John Hope Franklin declared to The Washington Post that Obama's candidacy is "the most radical, far-reaching, significant [undertaking] by any individual or group in our history." Perhaps not, but the historian has earned his hour of ecstasy. The great American counterfactual is now a fact. By the standard of where we are, Obama's victory may not be surprising; but by the standard of where we were, it is shocking. Complacence about this turn of events is a form of forgetting. So for a moment I will not care who Barack Obama is. I will care only what he is. The complexities will soon rush in--as they must, because the office that Obama seeks is too powerful to be regarded only sentimentally, or as a symbol--but for now I will pause to savor the simplicity of a fact. Even more, to savor the color of the man's skin: to enjoy (shame on me!) a fleeting racialist thrill. I do not give daps, but when he dapped her on the stage in St. Paul the other night I was happy for them in their particularity. Let the just times roll!
In a conference room at the Supreme Court there hangs a portrait of John Marshall. It was painted by Rembrandt Peale in 1834, as a pendant to his famous portrait of George Washington that now hangs in the Senate. Both pictures set their heroes within a stonework oval, rather in the manner of contemporary prints of great men. Jupiter appears in the keystone above Washington, and Solon, the giver of laws, above Marshall. Each is inscribed with a large Latin motto. Washington says Patriae Pater, or "Father of [His] Country," and Marshall says Fiat Justitia, or "Let Justice Be Done." When I first saw the picture years ago, I gasped: this was the bluntest expression of American optimism I had ever seen. For the motto beneath the Chief Justice's wise head is an abridgment of a longer Latin statement. The statement comes in two forms--fiat justitia pereat mundus, let justice be done and the world perish (Kant was fond of this version), and fiat justitia ruat coelum, let justice be done and the heavens fall (this version was cited by the judge who valiantly commuted the death sentence of one of the Scottsboro boys, as he reflected on the consequences of his decision for his career). Both these formulations are admonitions about the consequences of utopianism--of what we would call, in our dreary vocabulary of efficiency, over-reaching. These mottoes do not call for perfect justice, they warn against it. So do you see it now? When the portraitist in the young republic lopped off the concluding words of the phrase, he reversed its meaning, and thoroughly Americanized it. It is one of the axioms of America that justice can be done without the world perishing or the heavens falling. For this reason, Americans are always a little surprised by failure, by disaster, by war, by tragedy. Such calamities, many of them the result of human actions, do not cohere with the American notion of shadowless possibility. The entire career of idealism in this country, of the oscillations in our politics between enchantment and disenchantment, is limned at the bottom of Peale's painting.
There were some Americans, however, who knew better. They were the ones who had seen the heavens fall: the slaves and their descendants, with the culture of melancholy and its mastery that they created out of the memory of slavery. These Americans understood that there is an outcome even worse than the destruction of the world with justice, and it is the destruction of the world without justice. And they fortified themselves against that outcome with a joyful insistence upon the perpetuation of the world even in the absence of justice. The proximity of joy to injustice, of idealism to suffering, is the most affecting, and the most humbling, of human scenes. There are no greater inner resources than these. And so "yes, we can" is more forceful coming from a black man, even if this black man is not a sufferer. The past seems to attach a special integrity to his confidence, and makes it look like courage. That is why Obama's glibness, his frictionlessness, is so disappointing: he is too sleek for the moral and historical vicissitudes that he claims to exemplify. In this way he is the antithesis of Dr. King, who was always stalked by the recollection of evil, and always wrestling, in his person no less than in his society, with darkness.
Many are depicting Obama's candidacy as a cleansing, an expiation, of America's most odious sin. "It can redeem American history from the specter of race that has plagued us for nearly four hundred years," Manning Marable told the Post. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to find myself to the left of Manning Marable, but I wonder. With a black man running for president, and even with a black man as president, how much lighter should the American conscience be? Obama's breakthrough is certainly transformative, as he likes to say, but how much, and what, will it transform? The genuine transformations, in law and in politics and in mores, took place decades ago: Obama is not the seed, he is the flower. In a culture that aspires only to "redemption" or "closure," it would be nice to accomplish both at once, and finally shut the hideous ledger. But if we must not deny the mutability of our arrangements, neither must we exaggerate it. It will take more than the election of Obama, for example, to find a solution to the problem of the inner city--a problem that has defied so many ideas and so many programs that it may defy even hope. White racism will survive an Obama administration, as will black racialism. There will be lobbying in Washington. I foresee a wave of quasi-eschatological disappointment in the man, whose shape-shifting has already begun; but never mind. I will cross that news cycle when I come to it. For now, I prefer only to behold the candidate and be glad. The question is no longer whether a black man can run for president. The question now is whether to vote for him.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.
By Leon Wieseltier