Tuesday, January 21, 2014

It starts: time to sum up the Obama presidency?

David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, has scored yet another series of long interviews with the Prez. (Remnick previously wrote a 650 page Obama book.) This article is an early entry in a genre we can expect to drown in over the next few years: who was this man and what did his presidency amount to? We will have opinions, even more than we have today, perhaps some plaudits and certainly many complaints. I just spent a hour reading this Remnick offering and, against my better judgment, will take the bait and jump into the topic.

Here's the Prez's self-evaluation, aggressively promoted by his spokespersons and by the man himself:

“One of the things that I’ve learned to appreciate more as President is you are essentially a relay swimmer in a river full of rapids, and that river is history,” he later told me. “You don’t start with a clean slate, and the things you start may not come to full fruition on your timetable. But you can move things forward. ...'

… at the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right."

I like that; after all, whatever else I may be, my sensibility is that of an historian. I don't really believe he can accept that he, too, is contingent flotsam -- but we all are.

Elsewhere in the piece, I was taken aback to come across this theological morsel from Obama:

I think I’m pretty good at keeping my moral compass while recognizing that I am a product of original sin. …

I know Obama is some kind of Christian. Given his historical bent and intellectual turn, I guess I should not be surprised by that (Calvinist?) assertion. But for all the professed religiosity of the contemporary United States, there are very few of us for whom a recognition of "original sin" would be anything more than an affirmation of a tribal allegiance to some (pretty awful?) branch of the faith. We don't talk "sin" much. When we do, we usually mean sexual peccadilloes, not statements about our understanding of the nature of our species. But there Obama goes with this and in context it is no throwaway line.

What shocked me most in Remnick's interviews was this:

"I think we are fortunate at the moment that we do not face a crisis of the scale and scope that Lincoln or F.D.R. faced. …"

What? He'd can't mean that. Runaway climate change portends a far greater crisis than Lincoln or F.D.R. ever imagined. Their adversaries and enemies were bad men; we now face planetary disruptions our social systems are causing and which we only begin to understand. Humans have always been able to be confident that however much we changed societies, the planet would not alter, at least not much or very rapidly. This is no longer true.

This sure looks like a crisis to me. The Prez is too sharp not to understand that. He may not believe he can do anything about it, but even if that is so, he still owes us the truth. Or so I think.


Rain Trueax said...

I think, the problem they all face, at that level, is the bubble. He won't be able to look at what he really did for years.

For me it's about the alternative as well as him-- and the alternative was horrific for where it'd take the country. To know that, all I have to do is look at states where Republicans took power.

So did he do all he could? Maybe. Maybe not. But the Republicans didn't offer anyone that wasn't unacceptable, on so many levels, to someone like me.

Rebecca said...

The concept of original sin actually goes back to St. Augustine, and is continued in the Roman tradition through treatises like Anselm's "Cur Deus Homo?" (Why did God become Human?) It's not particularly Calvinist, but it is deeply Lutheran, who started life as an Augustinian monk, and was deeply influenced by Augustine's and his own feeling of utter sinfulness.

So the kinds of Christians who are likely to believe in original sin (and use that language) are Roman Catholics, and some fairly mainstream Protestants. In fact, looking at your Warming Wednesdays post, I'm inclined to believe there is something sinful in how humanity organizes its societies, if not in every individual person.

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