My last semester of college I took a remarkable course taught by Eddie Glaude, “The American Jeremiad and Social Criticism.” Structured to explore the space between Michael Walzer’s Interpretation and Social Criticism and Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual, the course achieved a number of complex goals. It offered a history of American civil-religious discourse from colonial times to the present, but it also explored how, from America’s inception, African American discourse had critiqued the lofty promises of a slaveholding enterprise. The Exodus story was central to the course (as it was in Glaude’s own recent work) and to the basis of Black critique of American rhetoric. While early pilgrims saw the colonies as “God’s New Israel,” as a deliverance from bondage, African-Americans saw that “there’s bondage on both sides of these blood red waters.” Freedom still needed to be fought for, and rhetorically defended, in the not-yet Land of the Free.
Walzer’s Interpretation and Social Criticism is essentially conservative: he advocates for the position that laws and morals are best derived from interpreting and re-interpreting sacred texts: the Bible, the Constitution, earlier tropes and symbols. He writes, “moral argument is (most often) interpretive in character” (21). That is, we make our moral arguments through interpreting earlier texts, histories, events. On the first day of Glaude’s class, we watched Obama’s recent “Yes, We Can” speech, delivered after winning the South Carolina primary. In that speech, Obama suggests, with some historical hubris, that his phrase “yes we can” is actually a “timeless creed that sums up the spirit of the American people in three simple words.” With this speech, Obama introduced a vision of America rooted in change versus stasis, but he rooted this vision always in reinterpreting the past, not challenging it. Then we watched Will.i.am’s remix of the speech, where celebrities speak along with Obama to a slick, optimistic beat. Obama’s speech and Will.i.am’s video were both acts in remix: Obama remixed past tropes into a speech, while Will.i.am remixed a speech back into pop culture. Despite his obvious enthusiasm for this liberal, African-American presidential nominee, Professor Glaude was ever skeptical. He pointed out how then-Senator Obama’s speech drew on earlier tropes from American civil-religious discourse, how Obama’s genius was in weaving together themes, tropes, and even inflection and cadence from previous presidents and prophets.
I thought of Professor Glaude’s class this morning, while listening to President Obama’s inaugural address. Obama displayed the same fluency with American tropes and cadence that Professor Glaude pointed out to us eight years ago. The President’s speech today was a triumph of Walzerian re-interpretation. Taking the Constitution as his template, President Obama’s speech presented an inclusive portrait of “We the people” and a progressive understanding of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Bucking the critics who see him as an enemy of the Constitution, Obama rooted his progressive vision within that foundational document, re-claiming the Constitution for American progressives.
The President’s approach, however, was a conservative one. He argued from within our canon, not against it. Instead of challenging the Constitution’s language, Obama critically re-interpreted it. By referencing “Seneca Falls, Stonewall, and Selma,” Obama read America’s movements for women’s rights, gay rights, and civil rights back into a document that cared little–nothing–for women, gays, or people of color. In so doing, Obama reified the power of the Constitution, but he also rededicated himself to a document that can be interpreted powerfully and progressively. He advocated for equal pay for women, gay rights, a path to immigration, livable wages, an end to endless wars, a vision he rooted in the Constitution. This morning’s speech was a masterful display of a moral argument made through interpretation, worthy of our professorial President.