Monday, April 21, 2008

The Old Fashioned Way

I'll admit it, part of Barack Obama's initial appeal to me was the idea that America could have a President who was more universally liked and respected than currently seems possible. That dream, at least as I originally dreamt it, seems to have passed away under a withering assault from idiotic "gotcha" political armaments. We, as a country, dragged this guy down. And we didn't do it through substantive questioning of what can admittedly be somewhat airy campaign slogans, but under the weight of flag lapel pins. I fear that what we've also dragged down is the possibility of reaching a broad, national consensus on issues like climate change, poverty, and the fiscal sustainability of our government, issues that we must confront.

Oddly enough, although I suppose it was bound to happen in the general election, the culprit seems to be the Democratic primary process. More specifically, a fair amount of the blame must be laid at the feet of Hillary Clinton, a woman who I respect and, in a weird way, actually like a great deal, in that odd affection one has for public figures who you've never met. Respect her though I may, it's a pretty nasty game as she has played it, and that's a damn shame.

It's a more complicated picture, of course. The Jeremiah Wright issue knocked my blinders off regarding not the existence but the extent to which our country has built racial caricatures, and relies on inane shorthand media narratives to substitute for anything remotely resembling thoughtful analysis. I hadn't realized how destructive mass media had become, and yes, network television I'm looking at you. I worry more now, about a general election where far, far too many people vote for John McCain because they're just more comfortable with a white, war-hero narrative, and however much they disagree with McCain on particular issues, it just doesn't work to vote for a black man who represents a more complicated story that includes race, a changing society, and a more rigorous examination of the problems we're facing in the world. In short, I guess I worry because the "everybody likes Obama" vibe that we seemed to have for a few months there, before McCain closed up the GOP nomination and Clinton started using the tactical nukes, has faded. And so, things are cloudy again, in doubt, without that euphoric clarity that we can really do it this time, and this is the guy. Lest this stray too far from pragmatism, let me say again that by "it" I mean "address the big ticket issues."

But, on the other hand, if the dream of unity fades, and the dream of unity always fades, there are compensations. Obama's responses to our shoddy, small political discourse, and I'm thinking of the Jeremiah Wright speech here, have given me something genuinely inspirational, and that's a word I don't use often. And if he's not going to get a free ride to popularity, then we're going to have to do this the old fashioned way. First, by winning the primary and the general election, in a long, hard slog. Second, by governing successfully, which means holding Obama accountable, and ensuring that we get what we paid for, a President who makes decisions based on pragmatic, critical reason that is informed by a thoughtful vision of a world that is not free of problems, but held less tightly in their grip. We've got to use the big ticket issues as benchmarks, not expecting them to be solved overnight, but expecting our President to use his reason to take the best steps forward, and critically evaluating those steps in a respectful national discussion.

Is this utopian? A bit, but then I suppose that's where the hope mixes with pragmatism. To paraphrase Saul Alinsky in Rules for Radicals, I'm asking for 100%, and if I only get 30% of what I'm asking for, well, I'm 30% up from nothing. At any rate, I typed this out for a couple of reasons. Mainly just to get some thoughts down so that they would stop banging around my head and let me get some work done. But also to flesh out something I've been thinking about for a little while now. I'll be hanging out in Ann Arbor with my sister this summer pre-Peace Corps, and uprooted from my normal political, scientific, and social engagements in Portland, I've been thinking about going to work for the Obama campaign in Michigan while I'm there. We'll see, but I kind of like the idea as a way to add a little structure to my six-weeks or so in Michigan, as well as work on something that's important to me. We'll see.

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