If you can bring yourself to ignore the contextual inconsistencies between his rhetoric and his record of action, President Obama’s speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma was pretty good. If you put aside the president’s bastardized definitions of words like “justice” and “freedom,” his observation that our American experiment plays out in continual societal change toward a libertarian ideal borders on insightful.
There was a snippet toward the end that stood out, however. As the president wove his 2008 campaign slogan into the tapestry of civil rights history, he expressed a sentiment precisely opposite that which should inform our thinking regarding Selma.
Because the single most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” We The People. We Shall Overcome. Yes We Can. It is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone. Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.
Confronted with this, my mind shifted to a lesser known novella authored by philosopher Ayn Rand entitled Anthem. Written in the first person, the story chronicles the struggle of a man living in a highly-controlled dystopian society which is so collectivized that each individual thinks of his self as “we.”
It’s the word “we,” and everything it represents when used in the manner that Obama wields it, which underscored the atrocities of Jim Crow. It’s collectivist thinking which enables and fuels racism in all is forms.
As Rand’s Anthem protagonist concludes:
The word “We” is as lime poured over men, which sets and hardens to stone, and crushes all beneath it, and that which is white and that which is black are lost equally in the grey of it. It is the word by which the depraved steal the virtue of the good, by which the weak steal the might of the strong, by which the fools steal the wisdom of the sages.
What is my joy if all hands, even the unclean, can reach into it? What is my wisdom, if even the fools can dictate to me? What is my freedom, if all creatures, even the botched and impotent, are my masters? What is my life, if I am but to bow, to agree and to obey?
One cannot judge a man by the content of his character without doing so individually. Thus the explicit goal sought by Dr. Martin Luther King, his resonate dream, requires us to dispense with “we” and deal solely in “I.” Individuals, not groups, exhibit character. Individuals, not groups, affect change for good or ill.
The appropriate call on this historic anniversary is not an appeal to “consensus,” as Obama makes. Rather, we each should seek a rational pursuit of life-affirming values. Reason defeats racism, as it does all forms of irrationality. Reason endows men both with the capability to judge character and to exhibit it. If we shall truly overcome the darkness which those who marched on Selma opposed, we will do so by individually embracing reason as our means of dealing with our reality and with each other.
(Today’s Fightin Words podcast is on this topic available here.)