08 May 2008

"You can't divide the country up..."

I don't expect the dawning of the Age of Aquarius on Inauguration Day, January 20. I expect that if the people make the best choice for U.S. president, the result on a policy level might be 5% better, or 10% better, than if they make the "wrong" choice.

But if Barack Obama wins, and his vision of a more united country, a "more perfect Union," is vindicated, part of our gain would be something other than immediate, miraculous payoffs in improved policies. Instead, it would be a wonderful defeat for divisive wedge campaigning, and a victory for his biggest moral priority--closing our country's "empathy gap." In the long term, closing that gap is a key element of opening up the political space for better policies.

I vividly remember an interview on public radio after the 1994 Republican congressional tidal wave. One of the Republican consultants said triumphantly that "born-again" Christians had voted 65% for the Republicans. When you play that wedge game, 65% seems equivalent to 100%, but what about the millions represented by the remaining 35%--aren't they people, too?

That memory came back to me when I listened to commentators talking about Hillary Clinton's successes in rural Indiana counties in the May 6 primary elections. Almost none of them talked about even the remote possibility that Hillary had simply done a better job making her case locally, and had therefore earned her county-by-county victories fair and square. Instead, her 60% or 65% majorities were interpreted as if it were physically and mentally impossible for a white farmer (or name your glib category) to vote for Barack Obama, even though many of them--in the thousands--actually did.

Again, when Paul Begala says that "eggheads and African Americans" can't carry the Democrats to the presidency, he perhaps unintentionally marginalizes those people (just think how African American eggheads might feel!) and at the same time marginalizes people who are NOT in those categories. Blue collar and rural white people can't be trusted to do the right thing, nor can eggheads of all colors and languages, when presented with wide-spectrum candidates and their programs; everything has to be targeted with narrow symbolism and clever rhetorical crowbars.

I vaguely remembered some delicious quotations from Harry S Truman and once again looted our partially boxed-up library for the Merle Miller oral biography, Plain Speaking, that contained them. (I know this book has been partially discredited for its apparent deviations from the original tape recordings, but these quotations are not from the weaker chapters, and furthermore are consistent with speeches and documents available from the online Truman archives for 1948.)
When 1948 was coming along, they said that if I didn't let up with my asking for a Fair Employment Practice Commission and asking for a permanent commission on civil rights and things of that kind, why, some of the Southerners would walk out.

I said if that happened, it would be a pity, but I had no intention of running on a watered-down platform that said one thing and meant another. And the platform I did run on and was elected on went straight down the line on civil rights.


People said I ought to pussyfoot around, that I shouldn't say anything that would lose the Wallace vote and nothing that would lose the Southern vote.

But I didn't pay any attention to that. I said what I thought had to be said. You can't divide the country up into sections and have one rule for one section and one rule for another, and you can't encourage people's prejudices. You have to appeal to people's best instincts, not their worst ones. You may win an election or so by doing the other, but it does a lot of harm to the country.
I want to be clear that I'm not for sentimentalizing people any more than I am for marginalizing them. Sometimes eggheads are wrong (or are right for the wrong reasons!) and sometimes outwardly unsophisticated rural people or blue-collar people are wrong. And when unethical media consultants want to sway these different audiences, they can use different counterfeits for different audiences. So you talk about Hillary's "cojones" to the Reagan Democrats, to choose one particularly idiotic example, or you hint that Obama, judged by the company he keeps, is "too radical "for our kind of people.

But I think Obama put it very well on Tuesday: "...while we may have different stories, we hold common hopes. We may not look the same or come from the same place, but we want to move in the same direction...." Counterfeits have to be calibrated for the audience; an authentic message, as Truman implied, will be the same everywhere.

I don't know whether it is useful to extend these reflections into the Quaker arena. Certainly no politician is trying to divide us (at least not in the USA--Kenya is a different story). But counterfeit Quakerisms do exist, and they come in many boutique varieties--from individualistic New Age spirituality make-overs with selected antiquarian accents, all the way to cliche-ridden generic evangelicalism. But the genuine thing is the same in every culture, every worship mode, every language, every socio-economic class: "Jesus Christ has come to teach his people himself."

Was the previous statement too categorical? I admit it; I do believe in the reality of error. Not wrong people so much as distorted or dead-end ideas. Or am I in error about that?

Righteous links:

Veteran political observer Joe Klein reinforces some of what I said above (or vice versa...) in his Time magazine commentary on the Clinton/Obama campaign, and what it may mean for the upcoming presidential contest. "In the end, Obama's challenge to the media is as significant as his challenge to McCain."

Presidential campaign politics sixty years ago: The Truman Library's online documents treasury from the 1948 campaign. And a Helen Thomas book review provides more pithy quotes.

Speaking of inaugurations: Moscow, Kremlin, May 7.

Joe Volk writes to President Bush concerning "this use of airpower against a civilian population" in Sadr City.

Are you spending or wasting your cognitive surplus?

Should the Christian Peacemaker Teams stay in northern Iraq? Some visionaries weigh in.

Ekklesia: Christian leaders mark Israel's anniversary with 'just peace' call. (Related text and signers.)

"Christian leaders are catching a vision that group discernment is an integral congregational skill for the empowered work of the church. At George Fox University, May 19-23: Leadership Institute for Group Discernment.

Laugh and cry at these Postcards from Yo Momma. Having had a very disconnected mother (to put it one way...), I read these "postcards" with a wistful sort of reverse nostalgia--for the mother I never had. (Thanks to the Newsweek Web site for the reference.)

Basic blues: Floyd Lee at Full Moon Lightnin's Clarksdale sessions. For more session clips, click on the poster's link below the player.


Anonymous said...

dear Johan

only somewhat related to this blog post, but from following your blog I know you read a lot, was wondering if you have read this and what you think

Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World by Paul Hawken

Chris M. said...

Thank you for the link to Clay Shirky's essay on cognitive surplus. Possibly the best piece on 21st century post-industrial, post-modern society I've read. And, now I can use a fancy term to justify the fact that we don't have a tv...