Month: January 2009

Obama’s two unnoticed gifts

There are two little noticed aspects of Obama and his family that I think bode very well for America.

The first is Michelle. She has, from the outset, been adamant that family came first. She demanded it of Barack, and I think it was a sine qua non of her willingness to embark upon this shared political journey. I believe she will carry this commitment into the White House.

What this means is that we will have, for the first time in memory, a First Mother who has taken that role by choice. None can doubt her talents in other areas, and she will surely choose a social cause to champion, as all First Ladies do. But I truly believe that, shining through her involvement in whatever cause she may choose, will be her commitment to raising a healthy, well-grounded and well-rounded family without hiding them from public view.

You can already see it in the girls — they are not little smiling automatons or perfectly drilled political children. They are just kids, looking with wonder at the circumstances in which they find themselves, and sharing that wonder with us all. This is a reflection of strong and steady parenting: the children can be trusted to be themselves in a public setting without fear that the selves they show will be either ill-mannered or inappropriate. Like Barack, like Michelle, they are comfortable in their own skins. My guess is that the Obamas as a family will work their way into our cultural consciousness as an honest antidote to the juvenile abusiveness of laugh track TV families, and offer a model of civil behavior to us all.

At the heart of this, as it should be, will be the strong and powerful presence of Michelle. She will be almost a post-feminist figure, not balancing motherhood and a profession, but intertwining them in a way that shows the two of them to be complementary parts of a fully realized human being. If she can do this, she will advance the cause of feminism in a way that will be equally as significant as Barack’s contributions to advancing the cause of post-racial identity.

The second contribution is potentially equally as far reaching. With the arrival of Barack, we have the return of “cool” as a viable expression of personal identity. Between gangster aggression, television talk show screaming, and glowering athletes, we have become a culture that values “hot” in the McLuhanesque sense of the term. Especially in the African American youth culture, which serves as the vanguard for popular cultural forms and identities for almost all of American youth, the idea of a “cool” identity has fallen out of favor. In its place we have lionized a “hot” aggressiveness.

Barack appears to have the capability of changing this. All through the campaign, when attacked, he either embraced and then neutralized the attack, or calmly staked out his considered position and held to it without either aggression or rancor. He respected his opponents, laughed at his own shortcomings, and made civility a virtue. In short, he modeled a measured and worthy manhood.

If, through some bit of cosmic grace, we should have found at this moment in time a woman who can model a resolved and caring motherhood as well as professional excellence, and a man who can show that strength is in embracing rather than in posturing and confronting, we will be standing in a rare shaft of historical sunlight.

At least until shown otherwise, I choose to believe this is true. It will show an America that has come of age, not merely racially, but psychologically. The young country that has so attracted and confounded the rest of the world in its agitated struggling for an identity to match its sheer physical power, will finally be able to lead by example rather than by force.

I once wrote in Letters to My Son, “Strength based in force is a strength people fear; strength based in love is a strength people crave.” The Obamas raise the very real possibility that we will manifest a strength based in love. If this is the case, their presidency will reverberate far beyond the confines of political action and discourse. They will, in effect, redefine what it means to be an American. It is, to my mind, a redefinition that is long overdue.

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Lazarus sits up and goes on and on . . .

I keep getting gentle prods from readers to write an occasional blog. It’s encouraging to know that there are still a few of you out there checking in periodically. As you can tell, I’ve gone cryogenic as a blogger — not completely dead, but in a state of semi-frozen literary suspension. Now and then someone pours hot water on me and I sit up and stare around. The prods from you readers are the hot water that prompts this post.

First, my own situation. It has been a difficult winter. My mother died on Christmas day. A mother’s death is different from a father’s death. At least for a man, the father is the roof over your head, the mother is the ground beneath your feet. When they are both gone, you float free into the universe. As my wife puts it, you become an orphan.

This experience is worthy of an entire book, though it’s not one I’m inclined to write. Suffice to say that her death on Christmas Day had the unexpected consequence of giving the day a new significance, even sacramentality, that I will always treasure. It also reinforced the naturalness of the experience of death and made me wonder anew why it is that the human animal in its passing cannot mirror the passing of the day — moving into a glorious sunset followed by a gentle twilight that marks the closing of the day. However, I can report with authority that it does not.

So, anyway, I am sad. It is a deep sadness, far beyond any surface emotion. It is a sadness that is almost akin to peace — a quiet resignation in the face of a truth much larger than my own. Like the birth of a child, the death of a parent makes you one with the human family, and that, in the face of the deep sadness, is a great balm.

On the practical front, I am finishing a follow-up book to Neither Wolf nor Dog. I have been working on it for years, but have not spoken of it simply because I have not wished to do so. It will be called The Wolf at Twilight, and will be coming out in the fall. I will say more about it as it comes closer. But Dan’s story has been a conundrum for me in many ways, and I prefer simply to tell it rather than talk about the telling. So those of you who are curious will simply have to wait.

People have also been asking me about my take on the apparent economic crumbling going on around us. So, here it is.

Like everyone, I am worried for the financial well being of myself and my family. And my heart goes out to all of those whose fall has been harder and deeper than my own.

I am filled with righteous anger — anger that banks will be given money without accountability so that they can continue to be economically viable while the people to whom they loan money are allowed to sink and drown; anger at the misshapen world view and confused values that the car companies have shown by using their bail out money to provide low interest loans on car and truck models that cannot sell because they should never have been made; anger at the greed and blindness of corporations and industries who think that they should have money simply because they feel that they need it, while we as individuals feel the same need, but are given only vague promises that less will be taken out of our pockets.

Looking at it analytically, however, I just shrug my shoulders. We should have seen this coming. We are simply witnessing, after thirty years, the real fruits of Ronald Reagan’s paradigm shift in American thinking — that money and favor should be given to those who create jobs — no matter how menial and degrading those jobs are, and no matter how inequitable their pay scales and internal wealth distribution may be — on the curious assumption that corporate self interest, properly funded, will miraculously translate into public benefit and social good as the wealth trickles down to the individual.

An entire generation has grown up under this mirage, either unaware of the fact that it was accomplished by cutting the throat of the union movement and shredding the social safety net, or indifferent to the fact that those things ever occurred. A short-memoried public has been sold the story of individual greed and self interest as a noble narrative of self reliance and the American independent spirit.

Now this all is coming home to roost, and, in the short term, it will not be pretty.

Meanwhile, the pendulum is swinging back toward government involvement without the requisite structures in place to make that involvement work smoothly. The fig leaf will be ripped from our current way of doing the public’s business, and the reality of government inefficiencies and our hallowed history of pork barrel distribution of government funds will become frighteningly apparent as the amounts of government monies slated for distribution becomes ever greater.

But this inevitability notwithstanding, we will be well served by a shift in our national consciousness away from the belief in empire, both personal and political. What that shift will be to depends on the vision of governmental leaders, the reconfiguration of corporate values, governmental operational models, and the revaluing of goodness, kindness, and sharing in our own personal lives.

I have spent my adult life struggling with the hard truth that as individuals we are a giving and sharing people, but as groups, whether governmental or corporate, we are venal and self-serving. I would love to see corporate and government behaviors align with the principles of caring that most of us as individuals try to practice in our lives. But to do that we need to have leaders of vision who refuse to kowtow to systems that have become rancid by hiding greed under the cover of “sound business practices”. And we need to stop those who look for cracks in those systems — both individuals and corporate/governmental entities — that see every situation as a chance to serve their own selfish purposes.

As I said, I believe this will be a hard time. But systems reconfigure themselves only after they are irremediably broken, and many of ours appear to have reached that state. The people who are alive at that time of breakage draw a difficult card. But who are we to avoid suffering not of our own devise? Many other generations have experienced it; many alive now in other parts of the world have been experiencing it for years.

But I see two good things coming out of this disintegration.

First, it will give the young people something to believe in and a chance to demand change. Since the sixties, the younger generations have been forced to simply find their place in the machine. Now the machine is broken. They can help construct a new one with the help of those of us who have always been dubious about the one we inherited. It is a chance for all of us to link hands in pursuit of something larger.

Second, it will force us to turn to each other for help. For too long we have believed that strength resides in those who win, not in those who serve, and the goal of too many people has been to become “a winner.” This is going to have to change, partly because a society that operates on the model of winners and losers becomes a heartless beast, and partly because, in some measure, all of us are going to have to lose. Those who make the shift and decide that they must dedicate themselves to serving — and not the caricature of serving that says that by creating wealth for myself I am serving those beneath me — those people will survive and thrive. The echoes of our parents’ and grandparents’ words, that they think people were happier during the Great Depression when nobody had anything, will begin to have real meaning.

I, personally, think we are putting a good man in the White House. I think he understands what needs to happen. Whether he can make it happen, or whether the systems and mindsets are so calcified that they cannot be moved, remains to be seen. There is not even any proof that anything can set things aright. Perhaps we are simply reaping the whirlwind.

But individuals survive and thrive in the most barren economic and physical environments. They create lives and friendships and societies and dreams. They only fail to survive in barren spiritual environments. And we are not yet a barren spiritual environment. We are a big-hearted people. We are filled with love and compassion and the capacity to hope. Anyone who comes here from another country sees that. But the dissonance between our personal character and our public and corporate behavior has become almost too great to comprehend.

The question now is whether the government can become a mirror of our better selves and an agent of positive change. Personally, I think it can, and, more than any time in my life, I am hopeful. I had no problem with Michelle Obama’s comment that, for the first time in a long time, she was proud of her country.

Overall, I think that this is a great time to be alive, because it is a time of great significance. For those who have come to believe that a life well lived means a fat 401K and a Lexus in the garage, it will be a bit of a shock. But beneath this urge for security and prosperity there has been lurking a feeling in those of good heart that we have been stealing from our children and putting our boot on the neck of much of the rest of the world. And we know that our strange position as magnetic north for the hopes of people everywhere has given us a unique opportunity to serve the better impulses of humankind.

For another brief moment in time, we can shape human aspirations and direct the world’s vision to higher values. This sounds grandiose, but I believe it is true. America is unique because, as a nation, we are founded on nothing more than an idea. The challenge before us is to define that idea — freedom — in a way that serves human good rather than individual greed. We’ve done it before; we can do it again.

We’d better, because a whole lot is riding on us. I, for one, would have it no other way.

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