Monday, September 29, 2008

This is not "The America I Knew"

James Taranto has spotted this reactionary meme at the first Presidential Debate, in Barak Obama's closing statement:
You know, my father came from Kenya. That's where I get my name.

And in the '60s, he wrote letter after letter to come to college here in the United States because the notion was that there was no other country on Earth where you could make it if you tried. The ideals and the values of the United States inspired the entire world.

I don't think any of us can say that our standing in the world now, the way children around the world look at the United States, is the same.

And part of what we need to do, what the next president has to do--and this is part of our judgment, this is part of how we're going to keep America safe--is to--to send a message to the world that we are going to invest in issues like education, we are going to invest in issues that--that relate to how ordinary people are able to live out their dreams.

And that is something that I'm going to be committed to as president of the United States.
Taranto points out:

Barack Obama may be the world's leading expert on Barack Obama, but he managed to misstate a crucial fact in his father's life story. Obama père came to the U.S. in September 1959, the Washington Post reported in March--which would mean that the letter-writing campaign Obama fils describes would have taken place in the 1950s, not the 1960s.

Why is this important? Because it is weird to hear a left-liberal politician wax nostalgic for the "moral authority" the U.S. supposedly enjoyed in the 1950s--before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the War on Poverty, America's defeat in the Vietnam War, women's liberation, gay liberation, Roe v. Wade, Nixon's resignation--all the liberal triumphs of the 1960s and '70s. It is conservatives who usually argue, rightly or not, that the era since the 1950s has been one of moral decay.

Presumably it was to divert attention from this contradiction that Obama misstated the decade in which his father attempted to come to America. Liberals, at least those who weren't there, remember the 1960s fondly. But however one evaluates the legacy of the 1960s and early '70s, is there really any substance to Obama's claim that "our standing in the world now, the way children around the world look at the United States," has deteriorated? (Obama's father, by the way, was a "child" of 22 or 23 when he arrived in the U.S.)

Our sense is that there is not, that Obama is painting a rosy picture of the past in order to disparage contemporary America. It's nothing more than feel-bad rhetoric.

In fact, we'd say the most salient contrast between America in 2008 and America in 1959 is this: In 2008, Obama fils has an excellent chance of becoming the next president. In 1959, there were large portions of the country where Obama père would have been treated as a second-class citizen. Obama père seems to have seen past America's imperfections and focused on its greatness. If Obama fils is to be the next president, one hopes he will learn to do the same thing.

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