I Believe We Can Be Better

Terrance Heath

Everyone either wondered what the President would say, or knew what he should say at the memorial for the victims of the shooting in Tucson. Now we know what he did say.

It may be the finest speech he’s given as president, thus far.

He spoke not merely as the President, but as an American shaken by the events in Tucson, and inspired by what those who were wounded or killed, and those who tackled and disarmed the gunman represented about America. He spoke as a parent, heartbroken at the death of nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green. Though he didn’t mention his own daughters, as a parent I’m sure he thought them as he honored her. It’s one of the ways that being a parent can change you. The innocence, wonder and endless possibilities you see in your own children, you see in other children too. You see in them all that you treasure in your own, and want to protect.

But there was something else about the speech. The President spoke as an American, a husband, and a father. While I hesitate to say that he spoke as a progressive too, but it was in some ways a very progressive speech, with progressive values at its core.

Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.

"…Our hopes and dreams about bound up together." Not just our hopes and dreams, I might add, but our fates are bound together too. Sometimes it seems that, in the middle of this economic crisis, we are so busy throwing one another overboard that we don’t realized we’re tied to one another. If I shove you overboard, it is a vain effort to save myself. The chord that runs from you to me will pull me under too, and sooner than I think. We’re either in the same boat together or we both go under together.

As Tom Friedman wrote back in September of 2009, there is no "we" in American politics anymore.

Our leaders, even the president, can no longer utter the word "we" with a straight face. There is no more "we" in American politics at a time when "we" have these huge problems — the deficit, the recession, health care, climate change and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — that "we" can only manage, let alone fix, if there is a collective "we" at work.

This weekend, we will celebrate the birth, life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King would have nodded and uttered a few "Amens," had he heard the President’s speech. In his own way, though he didn’t mention King, the President echoed and called on us to remember the spirit of King’s words, from his "Letter From Birmingham Jail": "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

Part of the President’s message urged us to reclaim "we."

I believe we can be better.

At a time when some of our politicians seem content to trumpet America’s greatness — and a significant part of the electorate demands it, and wants to hear little else — it’s refreshing to hear the President say "I believe we can be better." It’s very progressive statement.

Any greatness we can lay claim, stems in part from a belief that we can be better. Not just that we should be better, but that we can be better. It is within us to be better than we are right now. But we have to want to be better, rather than being content to that we are good and "great" enough right now.

If we want to be better than we are right now, we’ll have to work for it. Believing that we can be better, and wanting to be better makes us responsible for working to make ourselves better — to become  more like the country we want to believe we are, or say that we are on paper.

That is where goodness is learned and greatness is earned — in those moments when we recognize that we are neither as good nor as great as we could be, when we believe we can be better, when we choose to be better, and when we work to make ourselves better.

Think about where we are now and how far from the birth of this country, when its promises were reserved for a narrow portion of its population. Yet, its principles provided the basis for ever progressive movement that had as its goal the extension of those promises to the full spectrum of the population.

And yes, they were progressive movements. By the very nature of their work, they could hardly be otherwise.

…From the abolitionists movement, to the labor movement, to the suffragettes movement, to the civil rights movement, to the feminist movement, to the LGBT movement; every progressive movement that has advocated for change "as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are."

They were and are driven by individuals lending their strength and their hearts to bending the arc of the universe towards justice, because they are comprised of people for whom the status quo is the opposite of justice and people for whom injustice — even though visited upon others, and even though it afforded them some privileges — is intolerable.

What else but believing we could be better could have brought to a moment when someone like Barack Obama could be the president? Or when a woman could hold elected office, or be Speaker of the House, let alone be a serious candidate for our highest office?

We were once a country where African Americans, whether free or slave, were denied the rights of citizenship, segregated, lynched, etc. We were once a country where women could not own property or vote. We were once a country where workers — including child laborers had not rights or protections in the workplace. We are a different country today because so many before us did what the President asked to do in his speech: "expand our moral imaginations," envision "a more perfect union" and work towards it together. From this we derive strength and endurance.

We just recently witnessed the spectacle of the constitution being read on the floor of the House (albeit to an nearly empty "House"), and the strange decision by the House GOP to read the constitution "as amended," effectively glossing over some ugly realities about our history. But to gloss over those ugly realities is to sell ourselves short, because we also gloss that which we have overcome.

By contrast, President Obama calls upon us not to turn away from the tragedy in Tucson, and not to turn away from each other.

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