Yesterday was an eventful day. The Pope resigned, the President gave the first State of the Union address of his second term, and, here in California, the manhunt for former LAPD Police Officer Christopher Dorner appears to have ended in conflagration and Dorner’s death, presumably at Dorner’s own hand.
I haven’t given much thought to the Pope’s resignation. I’m not Catholic, so my interest in the Pope is purely political. This Pope stands for so many things I stand against, so I’m happy to see him go, not because it directly affects my life, but because what happens in the papacy affects the lives of so many, especially in the developing world, where Rome’s position on birth control, homosexuality and other matters has life or death consequences for believers and non-believers alike. Though I am fairly small-c catholic in my views — meaning that I’m broad-minded, liberal, and universal in my interests, tastes and sympathies (which lie with all) — I’ve found that the Catholic Church has generally not been, and Pope Benedict XVI is the symbol of that (perhaps evolving) Catholic Church. It is hard to imagine that Pope Benedicts resignation doesn’t say something about the future direction of the Catholic Church (though what that might look like I cannot say). He is, after all, the first Pope to resign in 600 years (and the last one resigned because there were three Popes). The cynic in me imagines this may all be a public relations move given Benedict’s alleged complicity in the child rape and sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, which the late ranconteur Christopher Hitchens wrote about so passionately in 2010. The optimist in me hopes that it is more than that. Time will tell.
As for President Obama’s State of the Union Address, one could say the story has already been told. Whether President Obama will be able to achieve some of the broad goals he outlined last night remains to be seen. In politics, after all, folly has a notoriously long half-life — which is just another way of saying that change is hard, long in coming, and generally hard won. The movie Lincoln showed the tip of the iceberg of just how hard. The rest of the iceberg includes the Founding Fathers Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, John Adams, Sam Adams and Thomas Paine, who declined to own slaves, and the Founding Father Ben Franklin, who freed his slaves and then started the Philadelphia Anti Slavery Society. It includes Dred Scott v. Sanford, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in which an African-American slave unsuccessfully sued for his freedom in 1858. It includes the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation and, yes, finally, the 13th Amendment, which finally ended slavery in the United States, though we struggle with its legacy still.
President Obama’s State of the Union was his second statement in a month’s time of his commitment to continuing the legacy of justice and change that began when the Founder Fathers, slave holders and non-slave holders alike, authored the Declaration of Independence. Key takeaways from his speech include his commitment to raising the minimum wage so that no one who works full time has to live below the poverty line; to reforming public education so that our high school graduates are prepared to enter the workforce, as is true some other places in the developed world; to alternative energy; to at least a vote on gun control, an issue that, as he rightly understands, may not be rip yet, despite the horrors at Sandy Hook; to ending the war in Afghanistan, which will happen in 2014. He also spoke about Immigration, Cyber Security and transparency in our drone program. For my money, he didn’t go far enough on either Immigration or drones, but Rome was not built in a day, and there is only so much one man can do with his one or two Presidential terms. If he does even a bit of what he hopes to do, we will have taken another step forward on the long journey of humankind.
The Christopher Dorner tragedy is another reminder of the long walk, which Milton described well in Paradise Lost when he wrote, “Long is the Way, and Hard, That Out of Hell Leads Up to Light.” We may never know what drove Dorner to do what he did. The nature of his acts and certain aspects of his manifesto suggest that compromised mental health played a part. And while most people with organic or situational mental illnesses are not, and never will be, violent, it is nonetheless true that we are having this conversation now because of the violence that Newtown, Aurora, Oak Creek, Tucson, Blacksburg, and now, Southern California, wrought. Will the Dorner incident move the needle on gun control. Probably not. I suspect that President Obama’s instincts are right, that Congressional lawmaker’s are not ready to do what must eventually be done. But I believe in the long march of history, and in that version of the story, moments like the one last night — when President Obama allowed us to stand in someone else’s moccasins so that we might remember that the right to life for those who are already born must trump the right of any of us to carry the type of guns whose sole purpose is to take human life.
The President may not win all his battles this term, but the efforts he makes matter, in the same way that Dred Scott matters. Dred Scott, the slave who sued for his freedom, lost the case that would have set him free, but he paved the way so that others might win.
PHOTOGRAPHY via The New York Times
PAULA PURYEAR is a Lawyer, Film & Television writer, HuffPoster and Founder of Revel In It Mag.