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These Colors Don’t Run
When America Can’t Handle the Truth

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The word, attributed to the late writer Saul Bellow, is “angelization” — willfully putting someone beyond blame. Angelizing America is the common tongue of all national politicians, the oath candidates implicitly take when running for president. It’s what the most sentimental people on earth expect. It’s what enables a country that committed its share of atrocities in the past and is committing more than its share of moral degradations today to look itself in the mirror and see something exceptional looking back, rather than just another empire trampling down its march of folly, as the great historian Barbara Tuchman called it. Angelizing America is the unspoken, self-evident pledge of allegiance. Someone didn’t tell the Obamas.

First there was Michelle Obama: “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country. Not just because Barack is doing well, but I think people are hungry for change.” Then there was Barack Obama’s spiritual adviser, the fascinating Jeremiah Wright — not the outright lies about Wright’s black separatism, which is bunk (although to most classically illiberal whites any black who adopts the fervor of Emersonian self-sufficiency is suddenly a separatist), but this, from a 2003 sermon: “The government gives (blacks) the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no, God damn America, that’s in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.”

Then there was Obama himself, insolently ripping the halo off the romanticized iconography of race in America and returning the matter to the reality of a job undone. That he did so in a 37-minute speech more powerfully essential than anything the incumbent nullity has managed in seven years was bound to inflame those commentators — Shelby Steele, William Kristol, Kathleen Parker, any lips that move at Fox — who’ve been outdoing themselves to dig up hollowness at Obama’s core. What they’re digging up instead is his disarming arsenal, an ability to face up to national blights without, like Wright, stopping at the diagnosis. Obama offers a path to conciliation. The path begins with a willfulness exactly opposite angelization. It begins more along the lines of where a truth commission might begin. That’s Obama’s problem. It’s doubtful whether this country can, in its lethargy for social justice at home and its trances for wars abroad, handle the truth.

Nothing in what Michelle Obama or Wright said was inaccurate or unfamiliar. But it had rarely been heard in more pale-faced circles unfiltered by the media’s angelizing translators, or so intimately attached to a man who could be elected to do something about it. His critics have been reduced to the odd position of defending an America that systematically enslaved a whole race for 300 years then terrorized, dehumanized, and repressed it for another hundred because, as Parker wrote last week, “our progress since the twin blights of slavery and Jim Crow isn’t insignificant.” Insignificant? No. But the double-negative leaves that other elephant hanging, the significant progress that could rightly have been expected of the most self-congratulatory country on earth, the kind of progress that should by now have made the sex and race of a candidate for the White House a non-issue, but instead keeps it the issue of this campaign even as the opposition has managed to field nothing more pulsing than the Arizonian equivalent of Leonid Brezhnev.

Pride in the United States? In these circumstances? Assume that dreamy racial progress the neo-Confederates are celebrating. It’s still not the country most of us knew even 35 years ago, when a proven anti-Semite and pathological liar occupied the White House and nearly got away with his crimes. But he didn’t. The one in there now gets away with it every day: Torture. Extraordinary rendition. Secret prisons. Guantanamo. Domestic spying. Two wars. Abu Ghraib. Haditha. Deaths by the tens of thousands. Terrorism undermines morality, certainly. A president, however, ought to reinforce it. Not this one. He undermines it more than terrorism could. And that’s without touching on his domestic devolutions — his Taliban-like ban on embryonic stem-cell funding, his daily prayers to Darwinian economics, his devotional tributes to God, gut and graft.

Of course there’s pride in the possibilities of a morally just renewal. That’s also the point of America, isn’t it? A point not yet defeated, a point possibly, hopefully resurgent: truth without angelizing. Precisely the point Obama was trying to make in his Philadelphia speech, to the furious despair of his detractors who are watching him turn the tables on them and hearing him say the words, without him needing to say them: these colors don’t run.

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