The thrill is gone

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If you ever get a chance to tour the Martin Luther King Jr. Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, located in the same Lorraine Motel where the great American civil rights leader was assassinated in 1968, take it.

It is an exhaustive, and exhausting, exhibit of the man and his times, as I found when I tried to pack it all into a single afternoon during my visit a decade ago. But it is worth it simply to relive the man’s speeches presented in museum settings that attempt to bring the visitor back to the days of struggle and hope in the 1950s and 1960s.

Few people, little matter their politics, could fail to feel the goose bumps raised by King’s soaring oratory in famous speeches such as his 1963 “I have a dream” address in Washington, DC. I personally felt transported listening to him talk about not fearing death during a speech to support striking garbage workers in Memphis on April 3, 1968 – the day before he was shot to death and America’s star began to dim.

A couple years ago, millions in the United States – and Canada – dared to hope again when another black man with inspiring oratory and hypnotic cadences fired our collective imagination. It was hard not to chant along with Barack Obama when he repeatedly and credibly asked Americans to believe, “Yes, we can.” Politically, 2008 was a thrilling year.

It’s a coincidence that the day I write this (October 14) is the same day Martin Luther King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1964. Almost half a century later, his legacy is secure. Like King, last year Obama also won the Nobel Peace Prize, more for the hopes people around the world pinned on him than for any actual accomplishment. But let’s face it: only two years after Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States, the thrill is gone.

As he faces the disastrous prospect of losing his party’s huge majority in Congress, and with it, any possibility of enacting a progressive agenda in the face of obstructionist, “Just say no” Republicans, Obama must be asking himself where it all went wrong. Instead of hope, the guiding emotion on the campaign trail across the US during these mid-mandate elections is hate. Instead of “Yes, we can”, there are too many explanations of why we can’t, at least not right now.

The day Obama took office, he announced the closing of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp that the US operates on occupied territory in Cuba. And yet, almost two years later, Guantanamo is not only still open for business, it is hosting the same military courts Obama denounced on the campaign trail to try a child soldier named Omar Khadr on murder charges.

Aside from an economic stimulus plan that simply lined the pockets of the bankers and other grifters who caused the current recession, Obama’s biggest accomplishment is the passing of his healthcare plan. Yet, here again, there is no “public option,” which would have finally helped the US gain access to truly affordable universal healthcare. Instead, Obamacare gives wider coverage by forcing Americans to buy private health insurance, which is exactly the system that has made quality healthcare inaccessible even to those Americans who already have insurance.

Then there’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell”, the Clinton-era compromise that allowed gays and lesbians to continue serving in the US armed forces only if they remained deeply closeted and never enjoyed a relationship of any type. If there was ever an issue on which a president who based his political rise on civil rights should be clear on, this is the one.

Officially, the Obama administration wants to repeal the policy. In practice, Obama’s Justice Department is appealing a US federal court order made two weeks ago that would force the military to stop kicking out homosexuals if their sexual orientation becomes common knowledge.

On the face of it, the move is incoherent. Obama is risking the disaffection of a key constituency in the days before people are being asked to vote for his party. In reality, it’s another example of the brokerage politics of triangulation. In other words, by trying not to alienate anyone, progressive change inevitably ends up being delayed or watered down to the point of insignificance.

But this question is particularly odious. As the federal court judgment noted, the US military is routinely delaying investigations and discharges until “suspected” gays and lesbians have completed their combat missions. In other words, their service is essential where it most counts. Only after they risk injury and death in the service of their country are they being kicked out and having their lives ruined in humiliating circumstances.

Here is a golden opportunity for Obama to say, once again, “Yes, we can.” Unfortunately, the message from his administration is “Maybe later.” In the meantime, the bigots and the haters who are firing the so-called “Tea Party” wing of the Republican Party gain heart and momentum. It’s a sad turn to a presidency that held such promise and potential only two short years ago.

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