I have been away at Crawf Major’s University graduation ceremony and generally wilting in the heat of the sun and the England cricket attack. Some space for some writing now reappears, including a nice opportunity to write something for Scotland’s Sunday Post about Martin Luther King’s I have a Dream speech and what it tells us about wider speechwriting technique.
The acquittal of George Zimmerman in Florida has led to a flurry of protests against the verdict that owe more to ignorance of law and the facts than to any serious demand for ‘justice’. However, President Obama has made a much quoted speech about the Zimmerman trial without actually mentioning George Zimmerman (he called it ‘the Trayvon Martin ruling’)! Here it is.
Needless to say I find it a typically eloquent but oddly slippery piece of work on many levels simultaneously. I have written something about it in that sense (link as and when published). Here is one noteworthy (and good) passage that concluded the speech:
Let me just leave you with a final thought that, as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn’t mean we’re in a post-racial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. But when I talk to Malia and Sasha, and I listen to their friends and I seem them interact, they’re better than we are — they’re better than we were — on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.
And so we have to be vigilant and we have to work on these issues. And those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature, as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions…
Good. So how in practice to encourage the angels and avoid heightening divisions?
One way is not to make speeches that identify the President with a seriously flawed young man as if he were innocent and above reproach.
Another is not to use the authority of the President to pick out one trial among thousands of trials across America and assert that wider lessons can and should be learned from it. The case against hapless Obama supporter Zimmerman was weak from the start, both on its technical legal merits and in terms of any supposed ‘racial’ angle. The fact that it has been blown out of all proportion by the US Democrat/liberal chatterati in part to froth up the ‘black’ vote for Obama during the last election is outlandishly immoral, albeit no doubt successful in its own repellant terms.
All of which said, here is a superb analysis of that Obama speech by John O’Sullivan, who hits so many points it’s hard to know what to quote. Thus:
His starting point was that he wanted black America to understand he shared at least some of their disquiet about the trial without improperly challenging the not-guilty verdict. That’s a tough proposition to explain in any circumstances, but it was probably made more difficult (and maybe more necessary) by the likelihood that the Justice Department is not going to prosecute Zimmerman for violating Trayvon Martin’s civil rights.
Indeed, one could plausibly argue that Zimmerman has a stronger case against the Justice Department for violating his civil rights (organizing local protests to demand his state prosecution, seeking to remove state officials reluctant to indict, inviting the general public to level accusations against him via the Internet) than it does against him.
And what about this for a conclusion?
Mr. Obama is also a man of good will. His answer to the anguish inspired by the trial and verdict is thus to appeal for greater empathy for the plight of young black men in American society. This appeal was married to some hopeful remarks about how America was becoming “more perfect” (in this context, less racist) that were well said and mainly accurate but that may be a little too hopeful in the light of this controversy.
The weakness of his appeal for empathy, however, is that it was one-sided — and one-sided, moreover, in two respects. In the first place it was a request for empathy by white America toward black America. Given American history (and given the immediate context of the president’s appeal), that must certainly be the bulk and bias of any such exercise; but it cannot be its totality.
If America’s whites should take to heart, as they should repeatedly, the wounded feelings of respectable young black men who see older white people crossing the road to avoid them, then America’s blacks should understand the rational calculations that prompt such caution. Empathy cannot be a one-way street. If it is, it will become an empty piety and produce not reconciliation but resentment and cynicism. In this regard it was noticeable that the president expressed no tinge of sympathy for Mr. Zimmerman.
Maybe that was inevitable since his main intention yesterday was to pacify black America (whether he managed to do so, given yesterday’s nationwide protests, is another question). Yet it is a gap in his argument. If he respects the jury verdict as he says — indeed, if he merely takes a commonsense view of what happened — then he must realize that Zimmerman’s life has been turned upside down for months and is under serious threat today for actions that were at worst foolish and/or reckless. Somehow official America must find a way of acknowledging this.
The second weakness of the president’s appeal for empathy is that it is too indulgent. Putting yourself in someone else’s place — which is the classic definition of empathy — means helping that person to deal realistically with his problems more than it means hugging him. It means tough love and honest talk. It means not endorsing someone’s comforting delusions out of politeness. It means correcting those whites who argue that black Americans face no racism today and correcting those blacks who argue that white racism remains the main obstacle to advancement.
In the current context it means politely but firmly correcting the malicious fiction that a major threat to young black men — and a major anxiety for their parents — is murder at the hands of white racists. That fiction is itself a racist one.
Read it all. Carefully. Learn from it.
The whole thing of course is not about rationality. It’s about throwing some meat to the race-grievance industry, to keep them slavering away in the corner.
If they had nothing to do and started to die out as younger generations stop obsessing about race and the general cappuccinoisation of Western skin-colour accelerates, a major source of collectivist ‘mobilisation’ and bullying would be lost.