The Joshua Generation

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It's a few days old at this point, but Barack Obama's speech in Selma, Alabama is worth a read. He faced a somewhat tricky task. A white politician goes to such an event merely to pay homage to the giants of the past and their struggle, and to pledge fealty to the contemporary leaders of the African-American community. Obama's task is to identify himself as a leader of that community. But worse as the leader -- as the President of the United States. But this is presumptuous. What did Obama do? Are his accomplishments greater than those of the older generation that marched at Selma and elsewhere? No. His accomplishments are lesser. He is in a position to go further than they were not because of his efforts but because of their efforts. How to gain their support?

Obama, in his speech, aims for an analogy with Joshua. Not, compared to Moses, the greater leader of the Jewish people. But, rather, the successor; the one designated to build on Moses' work and lead the people into the promised land. Certainly, I'm not a grizzled veteran of the Civil Rights movement, so I can't say for sure how this will play, but it seems pretty clever to me.

I think it can also work as a larger metaphor. Progressives these days have a sometimes angsty relationship with the social movements of the 1960s and 70s. The sense that, ultimately, these movements failed and the Democratic Party came to disaster through its association with them is inescapable. And yet precisely what we don't want to do is mimick the smarmy neoliberals of the 1980s and 1990s, forever full of scorn, forever eager to blame the left for the right's malgovernment, forever looking to get ahead by knifing an ally in the back.

Arguably, Obama's hit on the right way to think about all this. The movements of yore accomplished a great deal and were absolutely right about the biggest issues of their time. But they made some mistakes. Mistakes that are dwarfed by the scale of their accomplishments; but nonetheless mistakes that carried a high price. Conveniently enough, 2008 could mark the end of 40 desert years launched by Nixon and capped by Bush. Enough time gone by for old wounds to heal, perhaps, and for a new generation of political leadership to redeem the promises of that earlier era.

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Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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