It is one of the most astounding projections in public life that the conservatives should have, with great success, turned Obama's speech to schoolchildren into an example of the conservatives' own Kulturkampf. They have convinced great numbers of people that Obama is out to sway the minds of the young with some subtle political agenda: i.e. they have convinced great numbers of people that Obama is William Bennett's heir.
It could be that, in their eyes, Obama poses a greater threat to their cultural domination than handwringing liberal pundits, so strangely eager to declare Obama ineffectual, would have us believe. After all, the most potent part of Obama's campaign strategy was to attempt to make a pragmatic synthesis of conservative emphasis on personal responsibility with liberal faith in a benevolently activist government. Fusing those two world-views together was exactly what Obama did in his speech to the schoolchildren, as he promised better educational environments in exchange for students' commitment to their own lives.
The obvious thing that separates Obama from many conservatives, is marrying a belief in individual responsibility with the notion that government should do more that just get out of the way. No disrespect to Obama, but this kind of "conservatism" is unoriginal, and is as old as black American political thought, itself. It's likely as old as American political thought, but I'm talking here about what I know.
Frederick Douglass didn't simply believe that Union forces should march through the South freeing slaves, he believed that the slave, themselves, had a responsibility to fight for their freedom. Harriet Tubman did not need to read "Self-Reliance," to understand that her freedom, and the freedom of black people, would ultimately be in their own hands. Indeed Tubman and Douglass believed (correctly) that unless the slaves fought, in some form, they wouldn't be free. Ida B. Wells was hard on the broader country for allowing lynching, but she could be particularly viscous toward black men whom she thought had allowed it to happen.
That sort of thinking extends all the way up through Malcolm X's "Ballot Or The Bullet" speech (promoting power through electoral politics, and entrepreneurship.) You can find traces of it Farrakhan and Jesse Jackson also. Of course, Bill Cosby has all of it. I don't know when it became taboo for black people to say "Do your homework," to their kids and "Reform health-care" to their government. A lot of this is about the cheap way we report stories and the need for an obvious conflict. Again, it's very hard for me to object to a guy like Barack Obama, given his own story, saying to kids, in essence, "Go kick some ass." I think most parents, profanity aside, feel the same way.
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