Saturday, January 15, 2011

Liberals and Cynicism

I've seen evidence that Obama's speech this week has affected people - on both the right and left of the political spectrum. But as soon as you hear folks acknowledging that what he said has had an impact, they will most often follow that by saying "but it won't last."

Of course, they're right. And to feel the need to say that indicates an unrealistic view of change and how it happens. The vitriol in our political discourse will not be dealt with by one good speech. For some, it will spark a backlash. We've seen that from many on the right. And for others, its hard to change patterns of behavior. That will take time and practice.

I suppose its a good thing that people even want this kind of change to happen. But we're so infected with this idea of instant gratification, that we often get discouraged too easily and then become cynical.

Tim Wise wrote beautifully about this a while ago in an article titled The Threat of a Good Example: Reflections on Hope and Tenacity.

Sometimes I think we both oversell and undersell the notion of fighting for social justice. Oversell in that we focus so much on "winning" the battle in which we're engaged, that we often create false hope, and when as often happens, victory is limited or not at all, those in whom we nurtured the hope feel spent, unable to rise again to the challenge.

Yet we undersell the work too, in that we often neglect to remind folks that there is redemption in struggle itself, and that "victory," though sought, is not the only point, and is never finally won anyway. Even when you succeed in obtaining a measure of justice, you're always forced to mobilize to defend that which you've won. There is no looming vacation. But there is redemption in struggle.

We are so caught up in a culture of competition that sometimes we can forget that very little of this kind of change comes with a "win" and miss the lessons of the struggle. I have a hard time with this myself. That's why for years my blogging sig line was this quote from Gandhi:

Almost everything you do will seem insignificant, but it is important that you do it.

This is why its important to recognize Obama's long game and why he keeps reminding us that change is hard. Very often since his speech this week I've remembered this simple and yet profound poem.


To laugh often and much;
to win the respect of intelligent people
and the affection of children;
to earn the appreciation of honest critics
and endure the betrayal of false friends;
to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others;
to leave the world a bit better,
whether by a healthy child,
a garden patch
or a redeemed social condition;
to know even one life has breathed easier
because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.

If each one of us could embrace the truth of those words, we would "be the change we want to see in the world."

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