Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The hardest part of following President Obama's example

Many of us have watched President Obama's brilliance over the last 5+ years. We appreciate his pragmatism, intelligence, compassion and commitment to the long game. But there's one part of his message that remains difficult for many of us. That would be his refusal to demonize his opponents.

When it comes to political debate in this country, that tendency to demonize the opposition is almost a knee-jerk reaction. If someone disagrees with us, it MUST be because they are evil - or at least have evil intentions. This is why political debate - whether its Democrats vs Republicans, Obamarox vs Obamasux, or any other variation - becomes so personal and toxic. It is assumed that we not only disagree, but that our opponent exhibits moral failings that must be called into question.

Once that kind of discussion gets going, our job is to find as much evidence as possible to caricature our opponent's moral failings and put as much distance as possible between them and us. Our ultimate goal becomes to defeat them by any means necessary. We are justified in doing so because our cause is righteous.

Almost as much as teapublicans, the folks that ignite this kind of reaction from me are the ones I sometimes call the "dudebros"....Glenn Greenwald as exhibit A. Of course Greenwald's stock-in-trade is the demonization of his opponents, so its almost impossible to not respond in kind. But take a look at how President Obama responded in his interview with Charlie Rose at the height of the controversy over the Snowden/Greenwald revelations.
I've got to tell you though Charlie, I think this is a healthy thing because its a sign of maturity that this debate would not have been taking place 5 years ago. And I welcome it. I really do because - contrary to what some people think - the longer I'm in this job the more I believe on the one hand, that most folks in government are trying to do the right thing. They work really hard, they're really dedicated...On the other hand, what I also believe is its useful to have a bunch of critics out there who are checking government power and who are making sure we are doing things right so that if we've triple-checked how we're operating any one of these programs, lets go quadruple-check it. I'm comfortable with that and I'm glad to see that we are starting to do that.
To those of us who not only disagree with Greenwald but fantasize about him going up in flames, this is pretty maddening. It reminds me of how Ta-Nehisi Coates talked about his feelings about Martin Luther King, Jr. during his younger days.
King believed in white people, and when I was a younger, more callow man, that belief made me suck my teeth. I saw it as weakness and cowardice, a lack of faith in his own. But it was the opposite. King's belief in white people was the ultimate show of strength: He was willing to give his life on a bet that they were no different from the people who lived next door.
We all know that MLK's belief in white people NEVER meant that he accepted their racism. What we're talking about here is not appeasement or simply giving in to their arguments. I'd suggest that its all about that "bet that they are no different" from us that is the point. And no matter how much we disagree, we all share this in common.
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

- Alexander Solzhenitsyn
And so, what President Obama (and MLK and Mandela) know is that no matter how strong our disagreements are with one another, we not only share the capacity for evil deeds, but for good as well. Here's how James Kloppenberg described what President Obama does with that awareness.
Although Obama’s reform agenda echoes aspects of those advanced by many Democrats over the last century, he has admitted—and this is the decisive point in understanding his outlook—that his opponents hold principles rooted as deeply in American history as his own. “I am obligated to try to see the world through George Bush’s eyes, no matter how much I may disagree with him,” he wrote in Audacity. “That’s what empathy does—it calls us all to task, the conservative and the liberal … We are all shaken out of our complacency.” Obama rejects dogma, embraces uncertainty, and dismisses the fables that often pass for history among partisans on both sides who need heroes and villains, and who resist more-nuanced understandings of the past and the present.
Just as demonizing an opponent puts more distance between them and us, empathy looks for common ground. In one of my favorite speeches that President Obama has ever given, he laid out the challenge to an audience of primarily black people at a celebration of Martin Luther King's birthday.
But of course, true unity cannot be so easily won. It starts with a change in attitudes – a broadening of our minds, and a broadening of our hearts.

It’s not easy to stand in somebody else’s shoes. It’s not easy to see past our differences. We’ve all encountered this in our own lives. But what makes it even more difficult is that we have a politics in this country that seeks to drive us apart – that puts up walls between us.

We are told that those who differ from us on a few things are different from us on all things; that our problems are the fault of those who don’t think like us or look like us or come from where we do...

So let us say that on this day of all days, each of us carries with us the task of changing our hearts and minds. The division, the stereotypes, the scape-goating, the ease with which we blame our plight on others – all of this distracts us from the common challenges we face – war and poverty; injustice and inequality. We can no longer afford to build ourselves up by tearing someone else down. We can no longer afford to traffic in lies or fear or hate. It is the poison that we must purge from our politics; the wall that we must tear down before the hour grows too late.

Because if Dr. King could love his jailor; if he could call on the faithful who once sat where you do to forgive those who set dogs and fire hoses upon them, then surely we can look past what divides us in our time, and bind up our wounds, and erase the empathy deficit that exists in our hearts.
Yeah, all that sounds nice and pretty...until you ask me to apply it to someone like John Boehner or Glenn Greenwald, then it makes me "suck my teeth." It's so damn hard. But its also what made people like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela such great leaders. And I suspect its also at the heart of what makes President Barack Obama one as well.

10 comments:

  1. For those of us in the progressive faith community, this is a stunning reaffirmation that President Obama is EXACTLY who we thought he was. It will, I hope, set a tone and standard for political and human engagement that will alter the ways we create policy and interact. Finding common ground does NOT mean capitulation, but it does mean trying to respect the other person's humanity. It is NOT easy. Sometimes it mean simply being civil when you're seething. But the President's lead on this is profoundly important to our youth and to our nation to find ways to respect our neighbors even in strong and principled disagreement. Thank you Nancy for showing us again why we voted for this man.

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  2. The need to demonize the opposition is why I've generally moved away from toxic environments like DailyKOS. For many on that forum it's not enough to simply present a better solution to our problems than the other side, it is also a requirement that you humiliate the other side while doing so.

    I first came to notice this during the healthcare debate (I've since realized it existed even earlier, I was just not self-aware enough to notice it). Those who railed against Obama's plan weren't satisfied with simply demonstrating that their ideas were better than his (and had a better chance of actually making it into law). They also had the goal of portraying anyone who sided with Obama as corrupted. They weren't satisfied with simply establishing a better system. They wanted Obama to *punish* those who they perceived to have been hurting people (such as insurance companies). And if Obama didn't do just that then the only viable conclusion for them was that Obama was a tool of the insurance industry.

    It's not enough to prove your opponents wrong with these people. You have to prove that they are evil. Anything less is a sellout.

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    1. I totally agree with how you've characterized the dialogue at DK. That's also why I quit posting there. But for me, it was more about how difficult it was for me to avoid "giving as good as I got" in that kind of environment.

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  3. I love it that Obama can do this with all his heart and soul. What I like about it is that he's unflappable. No matter what, he keeps his cool and stays on the beam. I take pleasure in the schadenfreude and am not sorry for it. There are Republicans trying to make changes that can be described as "evil" in my book, no matter what their intentions. Greenwald is a rat. Personally, I see no reason to think anything about them or say anything about them, other than what I do.

    But in a POTUS, who is not actually "caving" like so many people think he is, and who is not even dictatorial like so many people think he is, his evenness is remarkable.

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  4. It's not clear to me why you are demonizing Glenn Greenwald, or why you assume that your readership must loathe him as well. The only hint of explanation here is your application of the term "dudebro," which... well, I don't have any idea what you mean. To me a dudebro is a recent college graduate who is still living a fraternity-esque lifestyle. To my knowledge that is not an apt description of Mr. Greenwald.

    I think Obama's handling of national security is by far the biggest mark on his presidency -- and the thing that *I* find maddening about Obama's quote is the last part: "...I'm glad to see that we are starting to do that." Who is this "we"?? I do not see Mr. Obama taking any action to curtail or add transparency to the NSA, despite some apparent illegalities. Does not the buck stop with him?

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    1. That your conclusion after supposedly reading this is that I'm demonizing Greenwald speaks to the fact that you don't understand a word I've written.

      What it comes to NSA transparency, it is simply wrong to suggest that Obama isn't taking any action. As just one example, check this out. Its the latest FISA ruling on meta data collection. That site is full of documents that have recently been declassified. So make your argument about specifics you want to see, but don't go around spreading lies.

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    2. Greenwald does lie, he's not a journalist, his libertarian view is sectarian, he and Snowden have no idea what they've published, but feel free to interpret it according to their anti- U.S. government paranoid whims.

      Radical transparency is not an idea that is worth serious consideration. The NSA has a job to do that is sanctioned by the Constitutional mandate to provide for the common defense. Of course, oversight is necessary and should always be open to review, but the idea that anyone can evaluate the NSA fairly according to their limited understanding of the technology and the structure of the NSA and the courts, is simply flattering themselves.

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    3. You said you "not only disagree with Greenwald but fantasize about him going up in flames." Hyperbole, i'm sure, but it clearly qualifies as demonizing.

      As for the information released, I suppose it's better than nothing, but I have difficulty trusting Clapper et al to make a judgement about what can and cannot be declassified given that he has already lied outright to Congress and the public about what NSA is doing. He could simply publish the info that has already leaked and the stuff that is legal, while calling everything else "sensitive to National Security."

      Yesterday a federal judge ruled that the NSA program is likely unconstitutional. A little bit of selective transparency will not be enough to correct it, and I eagerly await additional action from Obama.

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    4. If all you pulled out of what I wrote was that quote about Greenwald, then either your reading comprehension is problematic or you're fishing.

      What Clapper did/didn't say to Congress has zero to do with the declassification of the FISC ruling on the meta data program. So yeah, I'll go with fishing.

      When you can make an actual argument based on facts, please come back. Until then any subsequent posts like this one will be deleted. My place...my rules.

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  5. http://dish.andrewsullivan.com/2013/12/19/telling-the-nsa-whats-good-for-it/

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