Barack Obama went full Boehner this week. He pulled a Patsy Schroeder, an Ed Muskie even.
People died. Obama cried.
Not since Marlon Brando broke down in A Streetcar Named Desire did a watery-eyed performance receive such rave reviews. Amanda Marcotte wrote at Salon: “It was an excellent demonstration of the fact that emotion need not be the enemy of reason.” Chris Cillizza, in a piece titled “President Obama Cried in Public Today. That’s a Good Thing,” concluded, “We could use a little more emotion and feeling in politics after all.”
If friends called the tears bona fide, foes said his eyes lied.
Many found his crying as believable as Thursday night’s town-hall boast of a skeet-shooting enthusiasm. Andrea Tantaros, a woman surely accustomed to seeing (and making) boys cry, advised, “check that podium for a raw onion,” on the Fox News Channel. James Woods, a man knowing theatrical flair better than most, described the waterworks as of the “crocodile” variety. But even Donald Trump called them “sincere,” and most seemed moved by the president seeming moved.
The debates over the authenticity of the tears and whether, as Robert Smith reminds, boys don’t cry strike as the wrong ones. The deeply personal emotionalism that meets the problems of faraway strangers often corresponds with strange indifference to the problems of those close to us in blood or distance. The humanitarians rarely show a great love for the humans in their midst.
The president ends his presidency pushing a “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative and began it in the aftermath of a convention speech that called “the promise of America…the fundamental belief that I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper.”
As Obama uttered these words, his brother lived in a crudely constructed box in a shantytown outside Nairobi on $1 a day. He told Italy’s version of Vanity Fair of a brief face-to-face with his older half-brother: “It was like meeting a complete stranger.”
Thomas Fleming wrote a whole book on this phenomenon called The Morality of Everyday Life: Rediscovering an Ancient Alternative to the Liberal Tradition. Therein, the recently retired editor of Chronicles magazine writes: “If everyone in the world is as dear to me as my next-door neighbor, I might be tempted to treat my neighbor as a complete stranger.”
Perhaps Obama attempted to help his long, lost brother or his long, lost brother exists beyond the help of others. But this illustrates the inherent problem in brother keeperism. Individuals who set themselves up as the keepers of adults set themselves up for failure. Even the president of the United States proves his impotency regarding his own brother. Could he, or those NRA-funded Republicans he rails against, have done anything to stop a nutter from shooting up a school that would not have also infringed on the constitutional rights of the still rather large constituency of law-abiding non-nutters?
This is a difficult question, one that intersects with the national pastime of blaming every bad occurrence — from natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina to man-made ones such as vile dictators belatedly figuring out how to split the atom — on American politicians. Maybe a president of a nation of 318 million people can’t help but subscribe to brother keeperism. But setting the unrealistic standard that he keeps his brothers — maybe children works better here — the president keeps losing support when he inevitably does not.
One needn’t exude the callousness toward others of the first man who asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” But a more moral, and rational, position stands between Cain’s behavior toward Abel and a humanitarianism emotionally wrapped up in humans as abstractions. We should help those within our reach rather than emote over helping those beyond it.
“Telescopic philanthropy is not charity,” Fleming writes. “Call it social justice or anything else you like, but not charity, a virtue that springs from the loving character of the giver. Where the cause is guilt or national self-hatred or only a formal duty learned by rote in catechism, the impulse springs from sources quite distinct from charitable love, and while we may admire the cold sense of duty that calls people to send checks in to telethons, we cannot, in most cases, attribute their zeal to charity.”
It’s unclear whether the president’s many proposals to curb gun violence would actually curb gun violence. He recognized early on Thursday night that people bunched together in his native Chicago and farmers far away from the sheriff in rural Iowa inhabit different worlds where one’s sensibilities on guns necessarily strike the other as senseless. The strict measures imposed on gun owners in the city where Obama once lived in — dubbed Chi-Raq by Spike Lee’s new movie — do little save alleviate the consciences of politicians.
More than a century ago, the founder of a Chicago settlement house unwittingly revealed a real, and perhaps primary, purpose, if only subconsciously so, of do-gooderism. “We have in America a fast-growing number of cultivated young people who have no recognized outlet for their active faculties,” Hull House’s Jane Addams wrote. “They hear constantly of the great social maladjustment, but no way is provided for them to change it, and their uselessness hangs about them heavily.”
One gleans from this week’s histrionics that the lame-duck president’s uselessness hangs about him heavily, too.