A most un-Common acceptance speech

commonNow that the smoke from the Oscars is lifting, the best acceptance speech has come clearly into focus.  It was not Patricia Arquette’s controversial call for equal pay for women.  It was not out and proud Graham Moore’s moving description of his suicide attempt at 16.  It wasn’t even John Legend’s compelling reminder that 50 years after Selma the struggle for African-American civil rights continues.

Legend’s partner Common delivered the best Oscar speech:

First off I’d like to thank God that lives in us all.  Recently, John and I got to go to Selma and perform “Glory” on the same bridge that Dr. King and the people of the civil rights movement marched on 50 years ago.  This bridge was once a landmark of a divided nation, but now is a symbol for change.  The spirit of this bridge transcends race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and social status.  The spirit of this bridge connects the kid from the south side of Chicago, dream of a better life to those in France standing up for their freedom of expression to the people in Hong Kong protesting for democracy.  This bridge was built on hope.  Welded with compassion. And elevated by love for all human beings. Thank you.

Common did what none of the other winners did.  He universalized one critically important movement in America – the fight for racial justice – with struggles around the world.  Although conservatives frequently bemoan alleged liberal efforts to channel working and middle-class anger against the rich, the only class warfare in evidence is intra-class as non-affluent Americans eye each other with envy and suspicion.  Common’s speech called on people of good will to put aside our petty differences and fight together for justice as we did at Selma.

Although he invoked God, Common made clear he was not pitting believers against skeptics with the qualifying phrase “that lives in us all.”  By juxtaposing struggling individuals around the globe and linking the liberal fight for justice for all people, Common avoided the common tendency to elevate one particular group’s interest above others.  The co-winner of the Academy Award for “Best Song” delivered 133 inspiring words.

Following Common, John Legend spoke powerfully but more narrowly – on the continuing oppression of African-Americans.  In less than a minute, Legend challenged us with two dispiriting facts – conservatives are dismantling the protections afforded by the Voting Rights Act and more black men are in prison today than were enslaved in 1850.  Legend’s speech was thought-provoking, even essential, but ultimately not all-encompassing.

The politically-charged speeches by Graham Moore and Patricia Arquette were of a lesser order.  When the Moore mentioned his attempted suicide at 16 because he felt weird and different, it was an important reminder of the special challenges that adolescence poses for all – especially gays.  But his follow-up call to a contemporary 16-year old girl fighting depression to stay strong and different because one day she’ll be on stage like him rang hollow.  It smacked of magical thinking as Moore failed to recognize the nearly unique good fortune and talent that brought him triumph.

I have no wish to pile on Patricia Arquette who has been barraged by criticism from leftists for allegedly excluding gay women and women of color from those who deserve equal rights for equal pay.  But her speech was problematic in several ways.  It was disconcerting to see extraordinarily privileged women like Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez wildly applauding Arquette’s plea even admitting that they may well be facing discrimination in Hollywood.  Moreover, the entire concept of equal pay for equal work is extremely inchoate and can easily be perceived as a demand for lowering the pay of jobs that blue collar men disproportionately fill rather than raising the pay of women’s work.

Finally, Arquette couldn’t help but ennoble her group “women” by saying that they had fought for gay rights and rights for people of color, now those groups need to fight for women.  This was clearly a divisive claim.  Many women have been leaders in the struggle for gay and civil rights but many have not – Anita Bryant or Marge Schott anyone?  Additionally, Arquette seemed to be implying that those other battles were won and over.  Like Common, Arquette called for members of outgroups to rally together but on behalf of only one identifiable group – women (arguably white ones) – rather than demanding economic justice for all.

While contemplating the words of John Legend, Graham Moore, and Patricia Arquette, I hearkened to Jesse Jackson’s powerful speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, a part of which I recently played during my radio program in celebration of Black History Month.  Jackson spoke of a beautiful quilt his grandmother knitted of various patches of castoffs.  He mentioned various groups that collectively formed the main part of the  Democratic coalition, including farmers, working people, women, African-Americans, and the LGBT community.

Jackson described each group and its interests such as working people and their desire to be able to unionize without undue management interference.  He wrapped up each description by saying you’re right but your patch is not enough.  Only when all the groups work together to accomplish their goals, Jackson insisted, can the patches form a beautiful quilt.  Common’s brief statement refracted Jackson’s words through a 21st century lens.

Why am I spending time on this?  I mentioned above that the various constituents of what should be a liberal movement are at each other’s throats.  Every time a member of one struggling group disparages another or calls for limited self-interested remedies, a Koch brother smiles.  We will replace the plutocracy with a truly just society, when we collectively build each other up and demand justice for all.

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