A Tearful Break in "Politics As Usual"

Friday, January 8, 2016 - 5:36am
Photo by Pete Marovich
The New Better Off

A Tearful Break in "Politics As Usual"

His cheek stayed moist for at least a minute. The camera, it seemed, was mesmerized by that remnant tear. I know I was. Eventually, he wiped it away with a sort of gentle and almost humbled brush of his hand.

His equilibrium returned. The usual cadence of his emboldened speech came back. But all was not the same.

I’m referring, of course, to the stunning moment during President Barack Obama’s address about gun violence last Tuesday when he broke down in front of the world.

It’s worth watching his entire speech — a forceful and cogent summary of what gun violence has done in the last few years to this country, our moral obligation to do something about it, and an impressively comprehensive list of actions that are being taken immediately. But I focus on this minute or two because it struck me as a radical, if not intentional, moment in our otherwise calculated and cowardly political times.

He speaks of the first-grade victims at Sandy Hook Elementary and the emotion appears to wash through him. Even as he tries to continue as planned, you can see that he has been thoroughly hijacked by feeling. After President Obama takes a moment to collect himself in silence, he continues, in what appears to be a completely unscripted moment:

“Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad. And by the way, it happens on the streets of Chicago every day.”

To me, these two sentences say more about the kind of person I want to elect to one of the most morally treacherous offices in the land than all the debates combined. His capacity to feel real, inconvenient, vulnerable emotions in such a public setting is reassuring to me. It shows that his humanity is a stronger force than his delivery.

Further, his testimony that he feels such emotion every single time that he thinks about these slain children, which is no doubt frequent in the lead-up to taking a highly unusual executive action, is also noble. It means that the abstraction of policy, the inanity of partisanship, none of it is more powerful than his basic connection to the sadness and anger of these losses.

All of us have feared the numbing of our own hearts in a news cycle of such relentless sadness. Imagine if you were not just a caring citizen, but the citizen most likely, at some level, to be held responsible for the day’s cruelest headlines. Imagine how difficult it would be to keep your heart from hardening.

The second unscripted line is equally moving. In about a dozen words, President Obama fearlessly inserts race and class into the center of the conversation. The kids getting gunned down on the streets of Chicago — Dantrell Davis, Ryan Harris, Eric Morse, Tyshawn Lee — are black. They’re often forgotten, at least by the larger public. Their deaths certainly didn’t inspire $12 million in donations. And not one of their lives is worth any less than the lives of those children lost in Sandy Hook.

President Obama reminds us of this, in no uncertain terms, with just one, piercing sentence. He picks Chicago, because that is home for him. He picks his home, because it reminds us that he was one of those children, too. Their value is presidential; their loss, profound.

I’m so turned off by politics these days. It feels like one huge circus, distracting journalists from covering the wide range of serious issues that deserve the spotlight. At their worst, politicians seem driven almost entirely by big money. At their best, they seem to speak every word, offer every gesture, based on a poll about how such a word or gesture will be interpreted by the voting public.

But this, this brief break from politics as usual, felt different.

I cried along with the president. I thought about my own daughter and the palpable rage I would feel if anything so senseless and violent ever happened to her. I have no idea how my spirit would recover. It baffles me that anyone’s ever does.

I looked at the people surrounding the president on that stage, mothers and fathers and partners of the dead, and even victims of gun violence themselves. I was reminded of how resilient human beings are, and how resilient they should never have to be.

For a brief moment, politics reunited me with my own humanity. I haven’t experienced that in years.

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

She is currently working on a book titled The New Better Off, exploring how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their baby girl Maya. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

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I am a volunteer tutoring first graders in reading at nearby public school. When the kids saw me this week after Christmas break, they ran up to hug me and made my day! I cannot conceive that these precious children could've been subject to the terrible scene at SandyHook. Tears came to my eyes just like the president when thinking of this tragedy. We need to do things to turn the tide on gun violence in its many forms.

Thank you for what you do, Irene!

Your words always touch me and this post I totally agree with. Thank You for your excellent heart and excellent work.

I was and am so proud to have this man as my president. I wish, though, that the break from politics extended to the other side of the aisle, since rightwingers pounced on him for showing his true sadness and I'm sure his frustration. All along they've complained that he was "aloof" and "emotionless", when he is really a wise and calm leader. But here he shows emotion, and they criticize THAT. Perfect proof that they just want to dislike him.

Amen to that, Sierra.

Exactly. I think the pundit's read on his emotions are so colored by race and gender, too.

Thank you Courtney. A beautiful piece which also reflects my experience and feelings , and I'm sure the experience and feelings of millions. Our lives, our President, these terribly difficult times, and yet... our love. And the need for us inhabit our role of "citizen" in a more active way than ever, making those phone calls and signing those petitions to our so-called representatives to let them know how we feel about guns, global warming, etc. And of course, by voting out the bums who represent only the lobbyists's interests.

Well said Gayle! I thought a lot about Larry Lessig's messages about getting money out of politics as I heard the president lament the Republican voting record on this. The amazing thing is that many of them only receive as little as a few thousands from the NRA. It's heartbreaking that they are bought so cheaply.

I continue to be horrified and I pray for an answer to this terrible repetitive pattern of gun violence that takes innocent people's lives. I completely support Obama's executive order and hope it will actually start to diminish the frequency of killing and that more answers will surface as a result of his brave and compassionate action.

As a progressive, both in politics and life (as I feel a need to qualify, because one can surely "think" progressive, yet "act" otherwise)-- viewing the president's emotions and expressed sentiment were surely a welcomed, albeit brief, slice of humanity that has been missing from the national spotlight.

I only wish that the same "humanity" would carry over to such policies as immigration. Reading about recent middle-of-the-night raids by ICE during the holiday season, shows me that there is a selectivity process at work, a compartmentalization if you will --one that lacks compassion for the overall human condition, and is often driven by what the internal polls say regarding such policy, rather than what one's heart says.

Dave, I agree. My thought though wasn't so much about immigration specifically but about the bigger deeper picture. Yes let's make guns less available for sure, but the problem really isn't about guns or immigration primarily. It seems to me to be about a very shallow culture founded upon a selfish individualism, or if not founded on that surely presently lost to that today. Every one of those people who have misused a gun grew up in this bankrupt society which thrives on violence and foolishness for entertainment. I think waking up to this pervasive cultural reality and humbly seeking to turn around from our self centered core is what's really needed for an significant change to come about. It's a person by person task but maybe it can be contagious if we gain the courage as a society to open our eyes and see the mess we're in and also see that there's hope.

Will -- absolutely. I'm a firm believer that this "selfish individualism" is at the root of our societal ills. Its delivery system, the entertainment industry, is a major cash cow in this country, and we don't have to look too far to see how well those who participate in it are monetarily rewarded. Should we be surprised that nearly all of the highest grossing films involve killing off an enemy? It's a sad commentary that "killing sells."

As both a preschool teacher for disadvantaged children, and a screenwriter, I'm keenly aware of the opportunities to counter this trend. Creating a comfortable, positive learning space by day, and at night --penning scripts that deliver messages of communication, unity, and most definitely hope. Here's to courage and it's potential contagious nature!

Tears in politicians are an interesting thing. If they are shed by a candidate while campaigning for office, they are seen as a sign of weakness. They are seen as an indication that this person probably does not have the emotional strength and stamina to be president. But when this tear was shed by a man who IS president now, it gave me a sense of encouragement and reassurance. This man still has an emotional link with wise compassion!

Can Congress not see that we, the people, have had enough? The greed, the avarice, the posturing, the ambitions,the magnitude of betrayal by those in power are all unfathomable. The spin on everything has just crushed the confidence many of us have in the future of this country. The "haves" have become dictatorial and cement their power with fear and coercion, not common sense and humanity. America peaked 60 years ago in the national level of confidence and happiness, the belief that we could be anything, do anything, and a shared sense of national pride. We are, in this responder's opinion, crumbling, just as other world powers have done in time because their leaders became blind to the general populace's needs and overreached their authority in pursuit of self-aggrandizement. The rest of the world is simply watching and waiting, biding time until we unravel. Things have to change!

Follow the money. The broadening economic inequality we are experiencing is a symptom of the crumbling, and ultimately is also a tool. Is it time yet for our own Arab Spring? Is it time for our own French Revolution? Or do we continue the complacency and complaining?

Thank you for sharing this. I had not seen the full Presidential speech until reading your piece and I am moved by both. I am a great advocate of curbing all gun ownership but realize those aspirations may be a bit to high for my lifetime. I do plant my seeds toward this goal whenever encountering someone who believes that gun ownership should remain sacred with this simple question - "Why does your right to own a gun override my right to live in safety?". This is most often followed by the sound of crickets.
I encourage all to read Gloria Steinem's Top Ten Christmas Wishes ... skip to #3 where she poses her wish on this issue. If you don't want to skip right to #3, read them all. They are all compelling and desperately needed in todays noise.
I too am reconnected to my humanity and will search for a way for me to not just cross my fingers for change but find a way to actively add my voice to the choir.

Preach it, Courtney.

I feel the same as this author. I felt the same sadness President Obama must have felt when I saw him tear up and his voice breaking. I choked up myself, as a matter of fact!! His true humanity was shown and I think anyone out there who didn't feel it; well, they're just plain inhuman, in my opinion. I am so tired of the rhetoric people seem to display criticizing President Obama at every chance. They downplay his efforts to help the helpless; they constantly say negative tings about him. I for one think he hasn't done such a bad job at being our "leader"! One thing that has always gotten my "goat", so to speak, is that a substantial part of those who criticize him don't even vote! MY thoughts are, if you don't vote; you have no right to criticize or downplay any politician, no matter what office he or she holds in our government!! When he first took office in 2004, he came into that office with a 9% National unemployment rate and a deficit that would "choke a horse"-->and yet, HE got blamed for both! Go figure that one out...most people just have to blame someone and I truly believe that the very ones who started that lie, were not of the Democratic Party. I dare say the Democratic Party would criticize their own, at least not until an "election year", if you understand what I'm saying! This author is a very wise one and I wish more people would be able to read HER commentary concerning today's politics, because she seems to have an insight that few others possess! One other ting that really upsets me is the fact that some people claim he's not a God fearing man, for reasons I'm sure they may have; however, I've seen and heard him pray to our living God; he's not against prayer nor is he against God as some would have others believe. This irritates me to no end. I really sincerely think he hasn't done a bad job at being our President; what most people forget is the fact that there's only ONE thing a President CAN do on his OWN and that is declare WAR! He is our "Commander in Chief" of the Armed Forces. THAT means he can't do anything else without the help of the Congress, the Senate and the House--->NOTHING! He can present a bill but "they" can veto it; just as "they" can present a bill and HE can veto it. So blaming President Obama for all the problems we are now having with the economy is asinine! The unemployment rate has gone down and our deficit has decreased (not all gone but decreased), he's done all he could for the American people that Congress and/or the Senate hasn't "shot down"!! (I'm sure many will disagree with my thoughts and that's okay, because everyone is entitled to their respective opinions)....I just feel our President got a raw deal from the general population...the hatred that has come upon this country is appalling and it needs to stop. hen other countries see people who do not support their leadership, it leaves that country wide open for terrorists...as in 2001 when everyone said "Bush stole the election" and the fighting began; sure enough, we got caught "with our pants down--->hence 911! We need to support whoever is our President, whether we like him or her or not...it's called Solidarity!