President Barack Obama’s recent speech in Osawatomie, Kansas is being hailed by the left and the mainstream media for its renewed focus on inequality–and for its crafty use of Republican president Theodore Roosevelt to push socialist themes.
Even some conservative observers are hailing the speech–not for its divisive substance, but for the fact that Obama is no longer attempting to hide his radical views in moderate rhetoric.
Indeed, the choice of Osawatomie may be more significant than the Roosevelt conceit or Obama’s maternal family roots.
Osawatomie was the site of a historic battle between abolitionist John Brown and pro-slavery forces (who were backed by the Democrats of the age). Though Brown’s men were defeated, his audacious tactics earned him the nickname “Osawatomie.” Obama may have chosen deliberately to cast his struggle against “the rich” in the same emotive terms.
Obama alluded to Osawatomie in his autobiography, Dreams from My Father, in discussing his Kansas ancestors (p. 12):
…Kansas had entered the Union free only after a violent precursor to the Civil War, the battle in which John Brown’s sword tasted first blood…
Obama also cited John Brown as one of his historical inspirations in his second autobiography, The Audacity of Hope. In a passage that almost anticipates the radical themes of this week’s speech, he writes (p. 97):
The best I can do in the face of our history is remind myself that it has not always been the pragmatist, the voice of reason, or the force of compromise, that has created the conditions for liberty… It was the wild-eyed prophecies of John Brown, his willingness to spill blood and not just words on behalf of his visions, that helped force the issue of a nation half slave and half free.
Obama conspicuously neglected to mention Osawatomie’s history in his speech on Tuesday, but the town is clearly important to Obama’s personal identity, as well as to the way he understands his political destiny.
Given that Kansas is not a swing state, the choice of setting likely had more to do with the symbolism of Osawatomie Brown than electoral votes. In Obama’s revision of history, the Republicans are the slave-owners, the villains in “the defining issue of our time.”
Also interesting is the fact that the official organ of the Weather Underground Organization in the 1970s was called Osawatomie, in an attempt to cloak the group’s radical struggle in the mantle of John Brown’s fight against slavery.
Former terrorists Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn were, of course, key leaders of the Weather Underground, and were supporters and associates of Barack Obama early in his Chicago political career.
Osawatomie focused on familiar radical themes of the era, such as U.S. “imperialism” and labor organizing. One issue (included below) was dedicated to Ho Chi Minh and “the victorious peoples of Indochina.” It also included an ode to “Osawatomie” John Brown on the second page.
In addition, the Weather Underground logo (at top left) graced the front cover of Osawatomie. As noted by the “Zombie” blog in 2008, the WUO design bears an amusing (though likely coincidental) resemblance to Obama’s campaign logo.
It’s highly unlikely that Obama was channeling Bill Ayers on Tuesday or sending a “dog whistle” to the extreme left. He is not shy about siding publicly with the radicals of the Occupy movement and evoking their rhetoric, and did so in the speech itself.
Yet the very choice of Osawatomie, a symbol beloved by the earlier generation of radicals that mentored Obama, is a reminder that his present radicalism has a deep–if largely ignored–history.
It also seems to confirm that Obama sees himself as the leader and instigator of an internal struggle among Americans. No matter how much Democrats complain about Republican charges of “class warfare,” Obama’s apparent decision to evoke the symbolism of Osawatomie in launching an attack on the wealthy is a reminder that he, in fact, relishes the fight and believes he will win even if his views are presently those of a radical minority.
Like John Brown, he is prepared to sacrifice himself for the sake of his goals–even if, unlike Brown, Obama fights to restrict freedom instead of expanding it.