President Obama’s speech in Tucson

President Obama gave a very good speech last night. I wouldn’t hesitate to say, from my point of view, that it was the best speech of his career. In it he stood above the fray, honored the victims and the heroes a moving terms, and put the issue of the “blame game” in a correct perspective. The apt references to Scripture will also have resonated with millions of ordinary Americans. This is the kind of speech a president should give, and kudos to Bam for giving it.

A very well composed and very key passage was this one (from the text as prepared for delivery):

You see, when a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations – to try to impose some order on the chaos, and make sense out of that which seems senseless. Already we’ve seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health systems. Much of this process, of debating what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future, is an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government.

But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized – at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do – it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.

Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, “when I looked for light, then came darkness.” Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath.

Those are superb words.

Not to take away anything from the president himself, but it has to be said, as many others have, that the persistent cheering and whooping in the audience was a bizarre ingredient for what was billed as a memorial service. I don’t know all the factors that led that to take place — people are speculating about it — but it was a very wrong note, making the thing seem like an over-heated political rally from 2008, although Obama’s speech was far better than that.

I’ll make just one criticism of the speech on substance. Toward the end, Obama talked again about the nine year-old girl, Christina, who was murdered that Saturday in Tucson. He — and his speechwriters — decided to use her as an image of hopefulness and faith in democracy.

I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.

These are nice words, they are feel-good words, but I feel obliged to stick up my hand and offer my opinion that they are also meaningless. Call me monstrous, but it says nothing to say that our democracy should live up to what we think a nine year-old child thought. It might make people feel warm inside — and that was clearly a major goal of the speech — but it means nothing at all. People were expected to project what they thought that meant onto the words, and doubtless they did, but taken as a whole, all of those feel-good projections amount to nothing that is real. Our country and our democracy will never be any child’s utopian dream, and it can even in some ways be dangerous to believe that such dreams are attainable in real political terms.

I’m just sayin’.

A wrap-up requires comment on the reaction to Sarah Palin’s videotaped speech (I commented on the speech itself yesterday). Scanning the headlines yesterday and this morning, it appears that many are avoiding addressing the substance of anything she said by instead focusing on her use of the term “blood libel.” This term originated historically in reference to anti-Semitic charges, centuries ago, that Jews used the blood of Christian children to prepare food for religious purposes. However, in recent years, it has been used again and again (by Jews and non) to rebut other charges that involve the spilling of blood. Alan Dershowitz delivered a succinct comment on this yesterday:

The term “blood libel” has taken on a broad metaphorical meaning in public discourse. Although its historical origins were in theologically based false accusations against the Jews and the Jewish People,its current usage is far broader. I myself have used it to describe false accusations against the State of Israel by the Goldstone Report. There is nothing improper and certainly nothing anti-Semitic in Sarah Palin using the term to characterize what she reasonably believes are false accusations that her words or images may have caused a mentally disturbed individual to kill and maim. The fact that two of the victims are Jewish is utterly irrelevant to the propriety of using this widely used term.


Expressions, and even individual words themselves, change their meanings when a consensus of usage declares that they have a new meaning. Just ask Mr. Webster or Mr. Oxford. In this case, while the historical origin of the term should always be remembered for what it was, it has come to be used in a far broader manner.

Palin’s use the term was quite apt, if you ask me, considering that while the blood of the victims of this massacre was still warm and pooled on the ground in Tucson, commentators and partisan hacks were already invoking the names of conservative bogey-men (including and especially the former governor of Alaska herself) and rhetorically smearing that blood upon them. As I’ve said previously, it was beyond obscene, and it is absurd to say — as many in the mainstream media have said — that Sarah Palin was out of line to respond to such truly bloody libels.

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