"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." is one of President Obama's favorite quotes. He attributes it to Martin Luther King Jr. - King had used the phrase in a speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967. King's usage was a distillation of a longer passage by Theodore Parker, an extremely politically active Boston minister and advocate for the end of slavery. In 1850 Parker wrote:
"I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice."
The combination of Parker's life, and that passage, are an essay in the urgency of progress tempered with the reality of patience. Parker organized and successfully fought against the return of people who had escaped slavery back to the south. He sheltered people being sought by slaveowners in his home and church. He was fully engaged in the struggle for abolition, but the quote above makes clear while he had faith in the ultimate outcome, he knew any person cannot see even what the immediate future holds. We need faith that the future conscience of society will move towards the incorporation of all people fully into the cultural fold, but we also need the impatience to do something now.
Parker worked to care for the people around him, but he also worked hard to persuade the broader society and bring them to his side. But Parker did not live to see the end of slavery, though his writing helped push the country to that point. He died in 1860. "My eye reaches but little ways."
I wanted to mention that, because for many of us, this week is going to be an incredibly discouraging time. But history is going to be kind to President Obama. Americans will place Obama clearly in the upper echelon of leaders our country. An ethical man fully engaged in the important questions of his day, but aware of the limitations of any moment, or any presidency.
The election of any single person to the presidency is incredibly improbable, but Obama's presidential improbability was imbued by his transcendence of a racial barrier many, many Americans thought they would never live to see. Obama is a hero because he lived the quintessential American Dream. He was a person of humble beginnings who worked his way to the top. But he's also a hero for giving so many people in this country hope, and a sense of validation. Finally, the country is open enough to give a broader swath of Americans a chance to lead. Finally, thank god. Much of the country filled with pride during his election, and he lived up to the expectations placed on his shoulders.
But Obama was a good president as well. He was incredibly consistent. He was ethical. And his policies and leadership helped the country emerge from a devastating recession and achieve an historic level of stability. Many Americans credit the Affordable Care Act with literally saving their lives. And if not their lives, then their home, their own financial situation, their family's ability to take care of itself. Perhaps one of the faults of his presidency has been his reluctance to point to, celebrate, and defend his own achievements.
Social media and Obama's presidency coincided. History should see him first as the master of the medium, but in the end as its victim. A tool he used to win an improbable first presidential primary eventually spawned an industry of disinformation. He's endured 8 years of constant politically or racially motivated fabrications, including most famously by his successor. The tragedy of our time was the media's obsession with treating "controversial statements" by celebrities as deserving of so much of our attention. In today's environment Parker's moral clarity would have been ignored for the few clicks it generated.
But Obama came through it with his dignity and character intact. He should be more a hero now than he was the day he was elected. All people are flawed - but aside from leading a country during war, what more of a president can we ask for than was asked of Obama? He came to St. Louis in 2008 during the campaign, and after the rally my wife was able to shake his hand on the rope line. I wish I could shake his hand now.
So, from one American to another: Thank you. The possibilities of this country are open to more people than they were 8 years ago. I have no doubt, in the long run, the arc of this country's opinion of Barack Obama will bend towards appreciation. Actually - I don't think it will take long at all.