As you probably know, President Obama recently gave his Farewell Address, as did his wife Michelle. Both speeches are well worth hearing, and you should bring a box of tissues with you.
Both speeches had some phenomenal things for us to take from them, to have in our hearts and in our minds as we keep going forward this month, and this year, and these next four years as we work to make this country and this planet everything we all deserve.
In this essay, we will be talking specifically about President Obama’s speech. Michelle Obama’s speech will be covered in another essay. Again, I encourage you to think of this as the study guide.
In his speech, President Obama used the word “democracy” 20 times. That is far and away more times than any other Farewell Address by any other president. Why mention democracy so much? Because that is what America is. Because it is important. Because he has to leave us, as President, right as our democracy comes under fire. He specifically outlined for us three specific threats to our democracy that we need to be aware of, and ready to tackle, and that is what we are going to talk about.
“We need to create a sense that everyone has economic opportunity…We need to create opportunities for all.” -President Obama
This is broken down into two parts. We’ll start with the last of his comments first:
We Need to Create Opportunities for All
There are people out there who struggle financially. Maybe you are one of those people. Maybe you aren’t. There are those who have to work multiple jobs, don’t have any days off, and still have to choose which to let go: transportation, housing, or food. Take a look at GoFundMe and you will find people crowd-sourcing the payment of expensive medical procedures, major life emergencies, rebuilding after natural disasters, and even funeral costs.
What we need to do, is to stand up for eachother against a system that values us only as consumers or labor in a capitalist system. We are people. We need living wages, we need benefits, we need healthcare, and childcare, and not just to survive but to thrive. These are the issues we should be helping eachother fight for.
2. We Need to Create a Sense that Everyone has Economic Opportunity
This is so important, and arguably as big a challenge as goal 1. During President Obama’s Administration, great deal was done to improve the economy, to improve the lives of the middle class, and people living in poverty, to expand social safety nets, and the Affordable Care Act was created, which allowed millions more people to access life saving healthcare. However, MANY people have no idea about these things. The problem we are fighting against is ignorance and misinformation. People who opposed President Obama, either because he was a member of the Democratic Party, or because he was Black, or because they had their own ideas banded together to reframe his successes as failures. Many people who used the ACA had no idea that is what their insurance was. Many people who were able to access social programs, who hadn’t be able to previously, had no idea that it was because of Obama. When he says we need to create a sense of Economic Opportunity, he doesn’t mean smoke and mirrors, or giving people false ideas. He means get the facts out there. Talk and engage with people. Which is HARD. It is difficult to change people’s minds about an issue once they have made their mind up, but it isn’t impossible, and that is our task if we want things to improve. Otherwise, people will continue to have the false idea that things are “getting worse”, which charlatans and con men like Trump will be able to prey on. People wanting to have economic opportunity isn’t wrong. It’s when those fears are used against them that we see problems happen. We shouldn’t demonize people for wanting something better. We should help them become educated so they aren’t duped by liars and frauds.
For a template on how to do this, or to see that it is in fact possible to change a person’s mind, check out this great 2 minute clip of Bernie Sanders engaging with a Trump-supporter about the ACA.
“‘Post-Racial America’. Such a vision, however well intentioned, was not realistic.”
Obama spoke openly about what I would term, intersectionality. How issues such as race and class tie together. He warned however, not to arbitrarily make issues about “White middle-class versus Poor Minorities”, lest the have-nots of all races spend all their time and energy fighting eachother for scraps while the rich get richer and no one is there to do anything. I thought this was good advice, because it is a tool used time and time again by the those in power, to stay in power. Divide and conquer. Societally, race does exist and is the friction there can lead to problems, but, some of the best lies are those with an element of truth. Many shady politicians would have us believe that there is nothing that we could have in common with those who are different from us, that being different means being different in every possible way.
This made me think of two things. The first, was one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs, “A Pawn in Their Game”:
A South politician preaches to the poor white man
“You got more than blacks, don’t complain
You’re better than them, you been born with white skin” they explain
And the Negro’s name
Is used it is plain
For the politician’s gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game.
While things are not as dire as in the Jim Crow-era, they are far from perfect, and a group of people just took power who would love nothing better than to roll us back to the Jim Crow era. We must be vigilant, and thoughtful, and not allow ourselves to be pawns.
The other thing I was reminded of, in regards to race relations was the SNL Sketch “Black Jeopardy” which was a laugh, while making some amazing commentary about race as well as the ways we do have things in common with one another:
“We become so secure in our information, that we accept only information (true or not) that feels comfortable.” -President Obama
This has been a big problem, and it continues to escalate. It is a non-partisan issue. We get so hyped up about stories, we don’t check sources, we don’t wait to see if all the facts are in yet. It’s easy to do, especially in such a politically charged climate. Sometimes, you hear something, and it just seems true. Other times, you’re on social media, you see a meme, which typically don’t have sources, and you share it, because it’s funny, or it seems like it has good information, and you don’t even question the lack of sources, because it’s a meme. We need to retrain ourselves.
- Diversifying our media diet.
- Retrain ourselves to rely on experts, and things that can be measured, not the way things “feel” when we’re talking about facts.
- Get familiar with the primary source documents from the founding of our country.
- Talk to people with different ideas, instead of automatically shutting them out.
- Consuming more media that is predominately fact-based reporting, and not opinion based analysis.
- Double checking sources.
- Work to eliminate fake news from any media we consume.
- If we make any memes or post any information on social media, cite our sources.
- If we see a meme or information on social media without cited sources, fact check it, and then if it is legitimate, comment or re-post, or both, with cited sources or to let people know it isn’t credible. Help others around you to burst their media bubbles too!
These are crucial first steps to preserving our democracy. Democracy is our founding ideal. It is what countless people have worked their whole lives for, and many have died for. Now it’s our turn to step up and preserve our institutions. If we ever need inspiring, let us just remember President Obama’s closing words to us: