Rhetorical Recap: Obama’s Last (Let’s Hope) Memorial Service Call for Unity
July 13, 2016
In Dallas, was the president adequate to the rhetorical task, as he confessed he had not been to date?
He was elected on the hope that he would help bridge the nation’s racial and partisan divides. He has tried. And yesterday he addressed the deadly consequences of these definitive rifts in our nation. He was eloquent, as usual. He was passionate, as he has been lately. But was he adequate to the rhetorical task, as he confessed he had not been to date?
I will judge his speech and the totality of this episode in the reality show version of our national public life by an intellectual standard that he put forth in response to a question at the July 9 NATO Summit meeting in Warsaw:
OBAMA: “And if my voice has been true and positive, then my hope would be that it may not fix everything right away, but it surfaces problems, it frames them; it allows us to wrestle with these issues and try to come up with practical solutions; and that that perspective may lead to continued improvement so that not just Malia and Sasha, but their children can experience a country that is more just and more united and more equal.
“And that's not going to happen right away, and that's okay. We plant seeds, and somebody else maybe sits under the shade of the tree that we planted. And I'd like to think that, as best as I could, I have been true in speaking about these issues.”
There was a new and devilish development in the series of shootings last week: social media as causal link. Diamond Reynolds videotaped the confrontation in Falcon Heights Minnesota, and Micah Johnson in Dallas went off in reaction. So we must now ask ourselves how politics can proceed in a world where weaponized violence occurs with online depiction and narration. “Death is now live,” as Issie Lapowsky put it in Wired . It is also accessible to everyone everywhere then and thereafter.
Accordingly, police must make their split second decisions knowing that A) someone in their space of operations could possess ultra-deadly arms and B) dash cams, body cams, and witness cams are recording what they do, and that if things go horribly wrong the world will catch glimpses and be vulnerable to believing it understands what happened on the scene, and doubly vulnerable to confirmation bias regarding the underlying causes.
Dallas Police Chief David Brown was surely right to say “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country.” Sometimes, they crack. Sometimes, they act on prejudice. Since 2015 the ACLU has offered a “Mobile Justice” app which automatically dispatches personal videos of citizen-police confrontations to one of its state offices. But video is no equalizer, as Ms. Reynolds sadly proved. It cannot deter a trigger finger in the here and now. And it may trigger another finger elsewhere bent by the motive of vigilante vengeance.
Smartphone documentation may lead in a long run to justice, and AK-15s may offer protection in some situations. But these technologies, and the laws and norms that have resulted in their popularity, are manifestly in combination a distributor of deep mass anguish that threatens our way of life through cumulative effect.
This combination of heavy weaponry and social media is the new aspect of a problem that must indeed be framed for practical solutions. On a day when the latest version of social media, augmented reality, was enabling people to play Pokemon Go at the US Holocaust Museum and Arlington National Cemetery, President Obama did not help his audience understand the explosiveness of the combination.
However, that was a minor flaw in a successful event.
Obama met Monday with law enforcement scholars, officials, and advocates. He spoke from Dallas while the Republicans met to plan their convention and the Democrats announced a final pre-convention truce in which Sanders endorsed and appeared in public with Clinton. The president properly ignored those campaign developments at this occasion.
Mayor Mike Rawlings spoke first. “We did nothing wrong,” he said. He expressed awe of the Dallas police officers’ strength and smarts. “This is our chance to lead, to build a new model…. We may weep but we will never whine.”
Next, three religious leaders led the audience in prayer: Reverend Dr. Sheron Patterson of the Methodist Church, Imam Omar Suleiman, and Rabbi Andrew Marc Paley. An interfaith choir performed “Total Praise.”
Senator John Cornyn, who also serves as Majority Whip for the Republicans in that chamber, thanked the local officials. “The fallen officers overcame evil with good,” he said. He introduced former President George W. Bush in the context of his post 9/11 remarks.
Bush picked up a theme from Rawlings and Cornyn by referring to the police as part of the Texas family. “We are grief-stricken heart-broken and forever grateful,” he said. “Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples and ourselves by our best intentions.” That brought applause.
Rawlings returned to introduce Dallas Police Chief David Brown as “a great leader who has given his life to the city of Dallas. He is my rock.”
Brown received a long standing ovation. He broke the tension and talked about how he would try to get dates as a teenager by reciting lyrics to 70s singers. He reserved Stevie Wonder for those special girls he felt love for, and then read several stanzas from Wonder’s song “As.” There was no greater love, he concluded, than these five men gave to us. Then he introduced the president.
Obama’s wit was swift as ever; acknowledging Brown, he said “I’m so glad I met Michelle first ‘cause she loves Stevie Wonder.”
The frame Obama chose for his speech came from scripture. We are being tested by our suffering, he observed, we are trying to find some meaning amidst our sorrow. He commemorated each of the five officers with exact and succinct details of their family and community lives. Each, he pronounced and explained, “answered the call” all policemen hear. The main reward for being a cop, Obama said, comes from “knowing that our entire way of life depends upon the rule of law.” It was a beautifully accomplished tribute.
Obama reminded the audience that for a while the protest went without incident. Despite the fact that police were being protested, these men did their jobs.
“And then around nine o’clock the gunfire came.” This phrasing echoed “the war came” passage from arguably the greatest speech in the American canon, the Second Inaugural Address of Obama’s hero Abraham Lincoln. Obama focused on the emotional impact and sought to alleviate it through exhortation and perspective. He pointed out that “The police here showed incredible restraint and saved more lives than we will ever know, helped by some of the protesters.” He told listeners that one protester’s 12 year-old son now wants to be a cop. “That’s the America I know,” he asserted.
Obama then took up the issue of racial justice in policing. He was the familiar equivocator seeking a common sense middle, commuting back and forth between the arguments of two sides to acknowledge the validity he saw in each perspective, and appealing for peace and unity through insistent, pleading calls for empathy.
OBAMA: “Race relations have improved dramatically in my lifetime. Those who deny it are dishonoring the struggles that helped us achieve that progress. [But, on the other hand]…we cannot simply turn away and dismiss those in peaceful protest as troublemakers or paranoid. We can’t simply dismiss it as a symptom of political correctness or reverse racism.”
Having validated Black Lives Matter, Obama asked for realism in our expectations from law enforcement:
OBAMA: “We flood communities with so many guns that it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book. And then we tell the police, “You’re a social worker; you’re the parent; you’re the teacher; you’re the drug counselor….And then we feign surprise when periodically the tensions boil over.”
Then he drew his most audacious parallel, paying tribute to Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. They, too, were family and community members. The audience was mostly silent here.
He closed as he began, with Scripture. He doubted the adequacy of his words over the past few years; funeral after funeral and things seem to be getting worse, not better.
OBAMA: “But then I am reminded of what the Lord tells Ezekiel. ‘I will give you a new heart,’ the Lord says, ‘and put a new spirit in you. I will remove from you your heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh.’
“That’s what we must pray for, each of us. A new heart. Not a heart of stone, but a heart open to the fears and hopes and challenges of our fellow citizens.” The police officer needs to see a teenager goofing off, and the teenager needs to see “the same words, and values and authority of his parents.”
For that mutual recognition of humanity to occur, guns and smartphones need to be laid down, so that face-to-face conversation can work its wonders. We need a public education campaign to show people examples of such conversations away from the tension-stuffed points of arrest and protest.
It’s a mistake to conclude that Dallas is Tiananmen Square, that viral photo notwithstanding. The mayor was, as far as I can tell, correct in his account: Dallas as a governmental complex of units did nothing wrong, and Dallas as a civil society did everything right. They did not crack. They acted swiftly, correctly, courageously, and accountably. There could have been many more casualties.
And the funeral was bipartisan, interfaith, and multiracial –harmoniously so. Obama’s account was balanced, humane, unflinching, and typical in its blend of audacity and humility. His efforts have not been futile. Progress continues to be made regarding the rifts that divide us.
Along with more conversation, a salutary way to address this new and emotionally potent death live and death on demand aspect of our running national story is to listen to more good music. Here, then, is a link to the 1976 Stevie Wonder song whose lyrics Chief Brown warmly recited. As the album title declared, it is a song in the key of life.