Friday, May 3, 2013

Who is to blame? (updated)

That's the question that consumes us when something goes wrong.

Right now the truth is that our government isn't working. And so the finger-pointing begins. Hundreds of thousands of words are being written about who is to blame. Of course the man in the spotlight is President Obama. So whether out of ignorance or to capture political points - its big business these days to blame the President.

But there's also been plenty of ink (including my own) that has been spent on blaming Congressional Republicans who happen to be in chaos at the moment. When we've covered that one, there's always the media - most of whom never tell the story the way we want to hear it, whether we're liberal or conservative.

We can find some comfort in the fact that many of these attributions of blame carry the weight of truth. Even those of us who strongly support President Obama know that he is not perfect. As he said in his speech at the 2012 Democratic does he.
And while I'm proud of what we've achieved together, I'm far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, "I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go."
But the question arises - even if we've adequately assigned blame, then what? To have simply identified someone as responsible for our plight doesn't change anything. And to simply inhabit the world of blame leaves us powerless victims. I'm afraid that our culture is currently immersed in being satisfied with that state of affairs. As a matter of fact, sometimes I think that most of our energies these days is spent on trying to outpace each other with contests of who is the most aggrieved victim.

If we are going to move out of that position, the only way to do it is to shine a spotlight on ourselves rather than trying to find the appropriate target elsewhere. It means owning the responsibility for the failure rather than trying to find someone else to blame. But the flip side is that it is also the only way to embrace our own power - and that can be a truly heady thing.

Now, you may ask yourself how you personally have any power to change the dysfunction that we're seeing at the highest levels of our government. What I would answer is that you can't - at least not alone. That's why I think so many of us get stuck in feeling powerless. To actually do something about what's going wrong we're going to have to work together. In other words, we have to reclaim our form of government as a democracy. We own it!

I believe that this is the central message of Barack Obama's presidency. Here's what he said back in January 2008 at the Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Unity is the great need of the hour - the great need of this hour. Not because it sounds pleasant or because it makes us feel good, but because it’s the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that exists in this country.

I’m not talking about a budget deficit. I’m not talking about a trade deficit. I’m not talking about a deficit of good ideas or new plans.

I’m talking about a moral deficit. I’m talking about an empathy deficit. I’m taking about an inability to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we are our brother’s keeper; we are our sister’s keeper; that, in the words of Dr. King, we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny...

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 scapegoating, 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.
He revived that same message with a little different language in his speech at the 2012 Democratic Convention.
We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk- takers, the entrepreneurs who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system, the greatest engine of growth and prosperity that the world's ever known.

But we also believe in something called citizenship — citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations...

We, the people — recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only, what's in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.

As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us, together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That's what we believe...

If you turn away now — if you turn away now, if you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn't possible, well, change will not happen. If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void, the lobbyists and special interests, the people with the $10 million checks who are trying to buy this election and those who are trying to make it harder for you to vote, Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry or control health care choices that women should be making for themselves. Only you can make sure that doesn't happen. Only you have the power to move us forward.
In the end, this isn't about what President Obama does/doesn't do - whether you love him or hate him. And it isn't about Congress or the media. Its about whether or not we - as a people - are going to act as responsible citizens and take back the power that democracy puts in our hands.

UPDATE: OK, I'll be honest...I have a hopeless crush on Jon Favreau. But really - I wrote this before I read his article in The Daily Beast today. I promise.
The president and the Congress are responsible for the decisions that this country makes or doesn’t make. But as citizens, so are we. We can complain about what’s happening in Washington for the next year, or the next four years, or the next 10 years, or we can do something about it...Whether or not we support this president’s agenda, we can rise to the challenge he laid out on the night of his reelection:

“The role of citizens in our democracy does not end with your vote. America’s never been about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating, but necessary work of self-government. That’s the principle we were founded upon.”

As we’ve seen over the past few months, it’s a tough job. But we all have to do it.


  1. Your post reminds me of a line that writer Issac Babel once wrote: "Whenever you point a finger, remember that three other fingers are pointing back at you."

  2. SMARTYPANTS, I haven't read this post yet, but I wanted you to know that Andrew Sullivan has reference you again. He did it at least once before. You are probably aware of this, but I wanted you to know that your wisdom is being noticed beyond your usual commenters.

    Oh yes, his post is about the same subject as this one.