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Joe Biden Gave One Hell Of A Gettysburg Speech
Our better angels have had the crap knocked out of them.
Joe Biden got his Abraham Lincoln on in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, yesterday, in a speech calling for Americans to come together and stop being a house divided, because if we keep going the way we've been going, we may not have fourscore years left as a nation. Something along those lines. It was actually a very good speech — and just the fact that it developed a coherent, well-crafted argument, as speeches are supposed to do, was a refreshing change from the freeform political cacophony of the past four years.
Biden made the most of the location, near the Civil War battlefield, to emphasize not just America's current political division, but also the awful death toll from the coronavirus pandemic, returning to his campaign's theme that the 2020 election is "a battle for the soul of the nation," and reminding us that America came out of the Civil War a different nation, one that keeps trying, too often clumsily and half-heartedly, to live up to its founding principles of equality for all. While he was at it, Biden managed to call for a less polarized politics without falling into the trap of pretending both sides of the political divide are equally extreme. Biden never mentioned Trump in the 22-minute speech, but very clearly called for an end to Trumpism.
In what could be seen as a sane person's riposte to Donald Trump's 2016 "What the hell have you got to lose?" Biden said, "You don't have to agree with me on everything, or even on most things, to see that what we're experiencing today is neither good nor normal."
Here, enjoy a hell of a good speech and maybe refuel your hope engine a bit.
The setting, and the theme of the speech, worked remarkably well together. In contrast to Donald Trump's dark talk of "American carnage," Biden spoke at the site of actual carnage, and called for us to come together to fight the real carnage of the pandemic, not through demonizing other Americans, but by being a nation, damn it. And he invoked the Civil War, and Lincoln's speech at the dedication of the national cemetery at Gettysburg, to argue that America can't go on if we're at war with each other. But again, this wasn't a David Brooksish call for everyone to get along; it was a call to address the injustices at the root of our modern divisions — some of which go back beyond the Civil War:
Today, once again, we are a house divided, but that my friends can no longer be. We're facing too many crises. We have too much work to do. We have too bright a future to have it shipwrecked on the shoals of anger and hate, and division.
As we stand here today, a century and a half later after Gettysburg, we should consider again what can happen when equal justice is denied, when anger and violence and division are left unchecked.
Biden vowed that while he's "running as a proud Democrat," he intends to "govern as an American president," not just the president of those who voted for him. He didn't directly invoke Barack Obama, but the DNA of Obama's 2004 Democratic National Convention speech was definitely there.
In contrast to that unifying vision, Biden said again he'd been convinced to run after Charlottesville, which conjured up a nightmare America that no one should tolerate, and he didn't have to name Trump for listeners to know who he was talking about.
It was hate on the march, in the open, in America. Hate never goes away, it only hides. And when it's given oxygen, when it's given an opportunity to spread, when it's treated as normal and acceptable behavior, we've opened a door in this country that we must move quickly to close.
Then Biden turned to the summer's protests against police violence and systemic racism, and said that calls for justice have to be heard, not suppressed, and he built on a point he made during the verbal carnage of last week's debate: "I believe in law and order," he said, "But I also believe injustice is real. [...] I do not believe we have to choose between law and order, and racial justice in America. We can have both."
In one of the speech's most powerful moments, Biden spoke of George Floyd's six-year-old daughter, who told him when they met, "Daddy changed the world." And he quoted former LA Clippers basketball coach Doc Rivers, who summed up a horrible truth:
"We're the ones getting killed. We're the ones getting shot. We've been hung. It's amazing how we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back."
Biden added, "I think about that. I think about what it takes for a Black person to love America. That is a deep love for this country that has for far too long never been recognized." And we won't have healing without actually addressing those inequities, he said. It was a nice change from tweets that simply shout "LAW AND ORDER!"
He called for a science-based approach to the pandemic, noting that the virus doesn't notice the politics of who it's attacking, and transitioned from that to a call for economic justice, again invoking Lincoln, who
said that the country had to give people, and I quote, "An open field and a fair chance. An open field and a fair chance." That's what we're going to do in the America we're going to build together.
We fought a civil war that would secure a union that would seek to fulfill the promise of equality for all. And by fits and starts, our better angels have prevailed, just enough, just enough against our worst impulses to make a new and better nation. And those better angels can prevail again, now. They must prevail again, now.
I found that the most moving part of the speech, that vision of our better angels having to really struggle to do right in spite of ourselves. It's a far more realistic vision of the fight for justice than the claim that the Founders declared America a land of liberty and justice for all, God smiled, and it was so. We don't need fairy tales of an America that was once great and just needs a few hard slaps (and children in cages) to make it great again. Again, Biden was echoing Obama's theme that America is a work in progress, a nation that's still working (and often stumbling) to form a more perfect union.
Like I say, it was a damn good speech.
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