Thursday, April 13, 2006

Pesach, Roosevelt, and us

This year, the anniversary of the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt coincided with the first night of Pesach. It's a timely coincidence because there are parallel messages for us today from both Roosevelt and the Haggadah (the text that Jews recite in retelling the Pesach story each year).

Democrats searching for language to make the case against Bush would do well to study the 1936 acceptance speech of Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the Democratic Convention.
Rhetorically, Roosevelt (or his writers) understood much that today's mealy-mouthed consultants have lost track of. Tell a story. Lift hope. Don't fear strong rhetoric. And don't let them make "class warfare" a dirty word. To give it all legitimacy, embrace the revolutionary origins of the nation. If you listen to the speech, you'll even hear the word "overthrow." How about this one: "Private enterprise, indeed, became too private. It became privileged enterprise, not free enterprise."

Pesach celebrates, in particular, the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt. But more generally, it encourages our continuing journeys from servitude to freedom, from darkness to light. We're asked to find parallels in other lands and times and in our personal struggles toward liberation from habits, self-deceptions and unwanted limitations to fulfilling our highest aspirations. The memory of the exodus from Egypt--literally and metaphorically--is one of the core engines of the Jewish spiritual journey. We celebrate the divine liberation that happened. And we yearn for its completion. Liberation past. And liberation future.

Flashback. It's 1936. The president has been renominated. His acceptance speech is very Haggadah-like. He goes back to tell the founding liberation of the country. And then to find a contemporary parellel. You have only to omit a few specific references to the depression to have a speech that works today.

As you can see below. Or you can read the whole speech here or listen to it in Roosevelt's ringing, patrician tenor here.
Philadelphia is a good city in which to write American history. This is fitting ground on which to reaffirm the faith of our fathers; to pledge ourselves to restore to the people a wider freedom; to give to 1936 as the founders gave to 1776 - an American way of life.

That very word freedom, in itself and of necessity, suggests freedom from some restraining power. In 1776 we sought freedom from the tyranny of a political autocracy - from the eighteenth-century royalists who held special privileges from the crown. It was to perpetuate their privilege that they governed without the consent of the governed; that they denied the right of free assembly and free speech; that they restricted the worship of God; that they put the average man's property and the average man's life in pawn to the mercenaries of dynastic power; that they regimented the people.

And so it was to win freedom from the tyranny of political autocracy that the American Revolution was fought. That victory gave the business of governing into the hands of the average man, who won the right with his neighbors to make and order his own destiny through his own government. Political tyranny was wiped out at Philadelphia on July 4, 1776.

Since that struggle, however, man's inventive genius released new forces in our land which reordered the lives of our people. The age of machinery, of railroads; of steam and electricity; the telegraph and the radio; mass production, mass distribution - all of these combined to bring forward a new civilization and with it a new problem for those who sought to remain free.

For out of this modern civilization economic royalists carved new dynasties. New kingdoms were built upon concentration of control over material things. Through new uses of corporations, banks and securities, new machinery of industry and agriculture, of labor and capital - all undreamed of by the Fathers - the whole structure of modern life was impressed into this royal service.

There was no place among this royalty for our many thousands of small-businessmen and merchants who sought to make a worthy use of the American system of initiative and profit. They were no more free than the worker or the farmer. Even honest and progressive-minded men of wealth, aware of their obligation to their generation, could never know just where they fitted into this dynastic scheme of things.

It was natural and perhaps human that the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reached out for control over government itself. They created a new despotism and wrapped it in the robes of legal sanction. In its service new mercenaries sought to regiment the people, their labor, and their property. And as a result the average man once more confronts the problem that faced the Minute Man.

The hours men and women worked, the wages they received, the conditions of their labor - these had passed beyond the control of the people, and were imposed by this new industrial dictatorship. The savings of the average family, the capital of the small-businessmen, the investments set aside for old age - other people's money - these were tools which the new economic royalty used to dig itself in.

Those who tilled the soil no longer reaped the rewards which were their right. The small measure of their gains was decreed by men in distant cities.

Throughout the nation, opportunity was limited by monopoly. Individual initiative was crushed in the cogs of a great machine. The field open for free business was more and more restricted. Private enterprise, indeed, became too private. It became privileged enterprise, not free enterprise. . . .

The royalists of the economic order have conceded that political freedom was the business of the government, but they have maintained that economic slavery was nobody's business. They granted that the government could protect the citizen in his right to vote, but they denied that the government could do anything to protect the citizen in his right to work and his right to live.

Today we stand committed to the proposition that freedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place.

These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power. In vain they seek to hide behind the flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.

The brave and clear platform adopted by this convention, to which I heartily subscribe, sets forth that government in a modern civilization has certain inescapable obligations to its citizens, among which are protection of the family and the home, the establishment of a democracy of opportunity, and aid to those overtaken by disaster.

But the resolute enemy within our gates is ever ready to beat down our words unless in greater courage we will fight for them. . . .

We are poor indeed if this nation cannot afford to lift from every recess of American life the dread fear of the unemployed that they are not needed in the world. We cannot afford to accumulate a deficit in the books of human fortitude.
. . .

There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny. . . .

I believe in my heart that only our success can stir their ancient hope. They begin to know that here in America we are waging a great and successful war. It is not alone a war against want and destitution and economic demoralization. It is more than that; it is a war for the survival of democracy. We are fighting to save a great and precious form of government for ourselves and for the world.

I accept the commission you have tendered me. I join with you. I am enlisted for the duration of the war


Anonymous said...

best post yet. i wish some of the major bloggers would pick this up and give it the wide audience it deserves.