Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Wisdom from Civilized Men for an Era of Growing Intolerance

In 2008 I was enthralled, dazzled and inspired beyond words at the tectonic shift when Barack Obama was elected President. What a tremendous achievement for a society, for African Americans, for people of all races, what an example for the whole world! From slavery to this! From a silly-minded President beholden to the military industrial complex who let the country slide into the toilet to a man of depth, hope, faith and vision and the knowledge of how to stop the hemorrhaging and repair the damage. 

I felt certain that those who voted for Obama would stand by him through the harshest of obstacles, would take arms against a war of misinformation if it was leveled at him. Defend him to the death.

They had every reason to. And in the post election euphoria it was easy to believe that everybody heard him when he said he couldn’t rescue America on his own. Everywhere I went I saw and heard “Yes we can!” We, not I. It was a magnificent time in history and to be part of it in any way was thrilling, an honor.

What happened? Did Obama turn out to be less of a man than everybody thought? Was he less intelligent, less committed, less courageous, less capable of making rational decisions? Less able to understand the complexities of how to recover from economic melt-down? Did he, with his thoughtlessness and spinelessness, throw away this precious opportunity? Did he abandon the people who had trusted him enough to vote for him?  

No he didn’t. Too many of them didn't have his strength of mind, his vision. They abandoned him, even turned on him. And opened the doors and windows to the ill-wind that has always hung in the air, occasionally blowing at gale force but more often dropping to a noxious evil whisper. Now it blew across the country right out in the open and with a vengeance.

Aah. It’s painful to think about. Obama did and does his job anyway, and superlatively. He is appreciated by many but not as many as he deserves considering what he's given and accomplished. America is better off for his policy direction and so is the world. He was and is an honest man doing an honest job particularly well. And despite the obstacles thrust in his path, the hatred and the vitriol and the sheer, mindless racism sometimes overt often covert but just as recognizable, he maintained his commitment and his dignity and even his sense of humor. And grew in stature. Most of all his respect for Americans, regardless of their political affiliations and beliefs, remained the same.

Imagine being strong enough to rise above all of that. I think about how hard it is for me when spite is directed at me or I’m judged; how deeply frustrated I get when a person who condemns me doesn’t know the truth and doesn’t want to know, even though it’s not that complicated. The pain of it defies description and it rocks my foundations.

Obama has had millions of people doing that to him for over seven years. Even though he’s a really great President. I stop and think about that for a minute. The quintessential civilized man, the modern day hero. 

Six months ago I was sure that the next President would be a Democrat who would build on all the great things that Barack Obama has initiated. There’s plenty to still build, which he has always acknowledged, but he’s left a legacy, laid down a path into a good future. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders would do the Presidency very differently but neither would tear up that path and build one in a completely different direction. Definitely, I thought, Americans will vote for another Democrat. So even if Barack Obama didn’t get the kudos he deserved, at the least the good that he achieved would be honored and sustained.

Now I’m not so confident. This era is fast turning into one where intolerance is burgeoning like a grotesque, rotting, foul smelling fruit on a deadly poisonous weed that’s reproducing as weeds do—in a manner that’s getting out of control.

Presidential candidates are growing in popularity the more foul-mouthed, intolerant, pro-violence and fascist they are. What has happened to America, the land of the free, home of the brave? Well it always was the home of many brave people and it still is, but it was never the land of the free for everybody. Maybe it’s really time to face that and say out loud that it’s also the land of the intolerant, the coward, the bully, the land of the still terribly disenfranchised…  

On December 10 2013 Barack Obama spoke eloquently at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. You can see his whole speech in text here. Or watch it on YouTube here. I recommend it.

One of the things he said that stayed with me was, “The struggles that follow the victory of formal equality and universal franchise may not be as filled with drama and moral clarity as those that came before, but they are no less important.”

He wasn’t just referring to South Africa, but to corrupt leaders throughout the world. On the books America has [kind of] achieved equality but the moral clarity has been/is being smothered. We can point fingers at the Republican candidates and the right wing media that promotes them and we’ll be justified. Their ideas and beliefs are unconscionable. But the biggest danger lies with the conservative voters who will work hard to elect one of them—because they're driven by anger, hatred, fear and paranoia which are all very powerful energizers—and with Democrat voters who might not bother to vote at all.
On April 16 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from the Birmingham jail, “More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of good people.” You can download the full letter or listen to the audio here.

What he predicted has come to pass. His words apply to fighting intolerance of every kind, to the 
nurturing and then preserving all that is good. And to ensuring that democracy creates a world where everybody's rights are respected.