I have been traveling and didn’t get a chance to listen to President Biden’s Independence Hall speech until last night. As longtime readers of this blog know, I am very pessimistic about whether the United States can hold together through the next few years and remain a democracy. The president’s speech heartened me. The odds are still against the genuine American patriots, even though the majority is with us, because the fascist minority is tens of millions strong, enraged, and manipulated by extremely powerful, malign forces with bottomless pockets. But at least the problem has been named by the most powerful figure in the world.
Critics of Biden’s speech as too “political” or “partisan” are in error. They understand neither the nature of leadership in a democracy, nor the nature of the mortal danger the country is in, both of which are fundamentally and inescapably political. Of course the president urged his listeners to “vote, vote, vote!” What the hell was he supposed to do, urge us to take up arms against our fellow citizens? That is what we are trying at all costs to avoid! The critics are also quite wrong to skewer Biden for having an honor guard of two Marines in dress white gloves, as though he was doing the same thing Trump did in June 2020 when he violently broke up a peaceful demonstration outside the White House and then had top military brass walk across Pennsylvania Avenue with him so he could hold a borrowed Bible upside down outside a church that vehemently opposed him. Yes, military honor guards are a symbol of armed power, but no more so than a constitutional monarch’s jeweled scepter that embodies the memory of a wooden club. Anyhow, intentions have to count for something, or else we must adopt the Foucaultian cynic’s view that all of politics is just the dumb exercise of power.
Biden’s rhetoric is not quite as powerful as Lincoln’s, Churchill’s, FDR’s, or even JFK’s. But he is quite eloquent enough to get the job done. The message was received, all right, as shown by the enraged reaction of Trump, Tucker Carlson, and all the other MAGA fragile-ego fascist screamers who have no problem smearing him and all elected Democrats as pinko pedophiles.
Biden has his flaws, but as he said in his speech, the other side’s fanatical devotion to a human being whom many of them pretend is flawless is what is dangerous. In fact, the great moralfailing I cannot forgive the president for is eerily parallel to that of America’s original antifascist leader, the great FDR himself. American Jews blessed President Roosevelt with the Sabbath candles, as the late Philip Roth memorably put it, and yet, surrounded though he was by Jewish advisors he respected, he was nonetheless a country-club antisemite capable of musing that “the Germans” were understandably angry that so many Jews were prominent in the professions. He was well informed about the Holocaust as it was happening, yet he chose to do nothing to rescue the Jews of Europe. His mouthpiece Rabbi Stephen Wise and others sternly told anxious American Jews to shah shtil, keep your mouths shut about what’s happening to our people at the Nazis’ hands lest we stir up American antisemites itching to convince other Americans that this is a “Jewish war,” and anyhow not one single American soldier can be spared from the war effort to rescue the Jews. No, but there was an entire American military unit devoted to rescuing “priceless artwork” from Nazi clutches, which is why I refused to see the recent movie about it, “The Monuments Men.” I am an artist myself, but I don’t hesitate to say that every single divine work Michelangelo ever created is not worth a single hair on an innocent child’s head.
The parallel isn’t precise, but Biden’s abandonment of all those Afghans who had trusted our promises of the same liberty he valiantly defended at Independence Hall is of a similar order to FDR’s abandonment of the European Jews. Biden doesn’t even seem to understand that America has a direct obligation to the thousands of translators and guides who worked with our military and intelligence forces over the twenty years they were in Afghanistan, and that leaving them to the tender mercies of the Taliban does grievous damage to the national interest in the most cold-blooded of calculations, for it marks us as a faithless friend. No, that is not to say he had any other choice but to end that endless war. So here we are, with our imperfect president and our implacable enemy, in “a battle for the soul of this nation,” as he correctly puts it. Can we possibly win? Can we stave off dictatorship and/or national disintegration, and without much more loss of life than the fascists have already caused? I don’t know, but at least the battle has been joined.