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The Smallness of Barack Obama: Diminishment, Drift, and Sighful Contemplation

A Chinese dissident shows us how to dream big

SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images

Some things are demoralizing, other things are remoralizing. We are not living in a golden age of those latter things. Here in the capital, everything necessary and right feels difficult or impossible. The president is inducting the country into his autumnality, into his mood of diminishment and drift and the sighful contemplation
of insurmountable obstacles. (Imagine the Serenity Prayer without the serenity.) The excitement of agency is gone, which in a deep way marks the end of leadership. Obama’s diffidence is shading into a pessimism about large ambitions and large actions, a defeatism ornamented with executive orders. Having deceived the country into believing that almost everything may be accomplished, he is deceiving it into believing that almost nothing may be accomplished. He is not raising the country up, he is tutoring it in ruefulness and futility. We need to refuse this sullenness. In this saturnine environment, every experience of remoralization, every refreshment of one’s sense of possibility, must be noted and advertised. I experienced such a quickening last week—a repudiation of the forgetfulness about the reasons for democracy that now mars our democracy. I visited the admirable website, which is one of my sources of information about democratic dissent in China. There I read “For Freedom, Justice, and Love—My Closing Statement to the Court” by Xu Zhiyong. It is the most stirring document I have read in many years—as I say, remoralizing.

There is a terrible repression taking place in China now, a really vicious crackdown by Xi Jinping to assert the complete supremacy of the Communist Party over a country that, owing to new courage and new technology, is becoming steadily less manageable by raw autocratic power. Xu Zhiyong is a 40-year-old human rights activist and lawyer who was one of the founders of the New Citizens’ Movement, which agitates against government corruption and discrimination against immigrants, and more generally for democratic reform. Last week, in a show trial in Beijing, he was convicted of “gathering a crowd to disturb public order” and sentenced to four years in prison. When Xu tried to read a closing statement to the court, the judge cut him off and declared it irrelevant to the proceedings. It was this statement that I found on the dissident website; and though it is long and rambling, I can attest that it is relevant to much more than the proceedings. 

Xu’s manifesto exhorts “each and every Chinese national to act and behave as a citizen ... and not to act as feudal subjects.” It espouses “a gradualist approach” to democratic reform and “progress through peaceful means.” “Our mission is not to gain power but to restrict power.” “A clean government is not possible under a regime of absolute power.” “These modern democratic values and measurements are rooted in common humanity. They should not be Eastern or Western, socialist or capitalist, but universal to all human societies. Democracy is the knowledge to solve human problems. Our ancestors did not discover this knowledge. We should be humble and learn from others.” “China’s biggest problem is falsehood, and the biggest falsehood is the country’s political system and its political ideology.” “No one is safe under an unjust system.” “Although I possess the means to live a superior life within this system, I feel ashamed of privilege in any form. I choose to stand with the weak and those deprived of their rights, sharing with them the bitter cold of a Beijing winter the way it feels from the street or an underground tunnel, shouldering together the barbaric violence of the black jail.” And this is what this brave and blessed man would have told his judge if his judge had not muzzled him: “Allow us to take our citizenship seriously ... and to take our dreams of a civil society seriously; let us together defend the baseline of justice and our conscience, and refuse without exception all orders to do evil from above, and refuse to shove the person in front of you because you were shoved from behind.”

As I read those golden words, I remembered what it was like when I first encountered the writings of Sakharov and Sinyavsky and Bukofsky and Brodsky—
the feeling of being morally refined and historically educated and politically catalyzed, the thrill of being pointed in the direction of what really counts. Nothing matters more, in political and intellectual life, than one’s sense of what is important. We choose the scale of our commitments, the outrages that we will allow to disturb our peace. There are transfats and there is tyranny. In America now I hear too much about transfats and not enough about tyranny. (We can fight both evils!) There is no tyranny where we live, of course—in our free and flailing country, none of us, not even Edward Snowden, can pretend to suffer a fate like Xu’s; but our benevolent fortune does not absolve us of a vocabulary like Xu’s, because our solidarity with our fellows is almost always the work of the moral imagination, which compensates for our ignorance of miseries that are real to others but not to ourselves. This is the case with poverty at home and with atrocity abroad. Ethical life is the transformation of there into here.

Mentally, we must live large if we are to live significantly. But I fear that mentally we are living small. In our foreign policy, we are abandoning the world to its chaos and its cruelty, and disqualifying ourselves from acting on behalf of the largest and the most liberating ideals. In our domestic policy, it is true, the grand question of economic inequality has finally come to the fore; but no sooner was the problem broached than the warnings came pouring in about how difficult it really is to do anything about it. Oh, the worldliness. When did we fall in love with discouragement? With the exception of Bill Gates’s rousing annual letter, I see only a parade of fatalisms. 

In the White House the president bathetically muttered something about getting his paragraph right. And on the very day that I read Xu Zhiyong’s masterwork of idealism, Obama grotesquely eulogized Pete Seeger for the same quality. He sought “world peace,” the president declared, as if “world peace” ever meant world peace. 

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.