Friday, July 11, 2008

A Dip Into Politics

Everyone else is writing about politics, so it must be my turn (though sensible parents everywhere will bristle at that kind of logic).

I've been following this election more closely than others in recent years. I suppose partly it's because I'm living out of the US now, and so all things American are catching my eye. But from what I hear, interest in this campaign has been more intense even back home, and I think that's a great thing.

One obvious issue this time around has been the very touchy topic of race. Barack Obama has proved--even if his candidacy ended today--that a black man of substance can compete for the presidency and run a decent campaign. That ought not to be news, but there it is. Obama may not be everyone's cup of tea, but that's the point: he's in the mix, proposing policies (both wise and daft) and making the case that he'd be a good president.

Because I think neutrality may be one of the most boring traits imaginable, I'm going to say what I think about the presidential race from the point of view of an American news junkie living abroad. The 'living abroad' part is important because I'm seeing the election through the lens of a different form of democracy. Here in the UK, for example, they have a head of government (the prime minister) and a head of state (the Queen, for now). Having them separate means that the nuts and bolts of leadership and policymaking stay distinct from the person whose job it is to be the face of the nation. In the US those roles are blended into one. That may be a sign of wisdom or lunacy on the part of our Founding Fathers--frankly after only 232 years it may be too soon to tell. One thing it does mean, though, is that it is exceptionally difficult to find candidates who do both equally well.

In the current race I think John McCain is certainly the stronger and most experienced when it comes to policy and government leadership. His resume is simply longer and more varied--from military heroism to senate service to bucking his own political party--and that counts for something. Obama, on the other hand, strikes me as someone who can singlehandedly transform the image of America both at home and around the world. Just imagine a time when people can no longer talk with any credibility about the pervasive racism in America. An Obama victory means we can finally address the places where serious racism still exists, instead of painting an entire nation with the slander of that charge.

So in the end, for me anyway, the choice is between someone who leans toward being a stronger head of government, or someone who will be a stronger head of state. Living in the UK, where the image of the country I love has taken a beating lately, I'm opting for the head of state. But today I realized that there's more to my growing support of Barack Obama than just that simple choice.

What I'm writing today was prompted by the spat between Jesse Jackson and Obama last week. Actually, it wasn't a spat as much as an unveiling of the anger many old-line black leaders feel toward Obama and his candidacy. If you haven't heard, Jackson was being interviewed on TV and didn't realize that his mic was on when he attacked Obama for 'talking down to black people' when he criticized some for not being responsible fathers. Building in his anger (and brace yourself here), Jackson said of Obama: 'I want to cut his nuts out.'

Now I've written positive things about Rev. Jackson in these pages, especially after his graciousness when he preached at my church last fall, but his rage at Obama points to several things we often can't say out loud.

First, that Obama was right to criticize black fathers--or any fathers--who neglect their children and make hard lives even harder by their irresponsibility. Seriously, if we can't say that we can't say much that matters in addressing the serious problems in the world today. It's not judgmental or condescending if you're right.

Second, I'm so tired of important issues being reduced to color. Jackson built his career on the foundation laid by Martin Luther King, Jr., but he consistently misses the point of King's message. It seems so obvious to write--we all tell it to our kids (and ourselves, occasionally): It's what's on the inside that matters, not the outside. My parents taught me that the content of our character matters more than the color of our skin...I know someone else said that, too.

Finally, what this showed me about Obama--what really sways it for me--is that he seems to be thinking like a candidate for all people and not just one group of people. That's key, because an American president has to deal with a greater level of diversity among the citizens in his country than any other leader in the world. The UK is diverse, it's true, but they either ignore it or pander to it here...they certainly don't engage it and strive to pull it together. The best American presidents have represented all of the people while defending the idea that American democracy embodies.

So how do we account for the depth of anger and viciousness toward Obama by Jackson and others? It's important to realize that an Obama victory will put a segment of the civil rights lobby out of business. Not everything is about money and status and market share, but this one certainly is. A lot of people might lose their jobs or livelihoods or political power if a black man becomes the president of the United States of America. What makes me sad about it is that this should be a time of rejoicing, a time of celebrating that the brave, prophetic work of people like King and Marshall and, yes, even Jackson--that their hard work paid off in a big way. Doctors don't curse patients for getting better, and the civil rights leaders of the past generation shouldn't attack Barack Obama for being this close to what they fought for all along.

So...I suppose it's fair to say that I can't wait to see how this race turns out. Both parties are represented by good, competent people who love their country. My nod goes to the one who can do the heavy lifting of changing the way Americans see themselves, and the way the rest of the world sees America. I feel blessed to be able to see Dr. King's vision bear such amazing fruit. I hope King's followers can do the same.

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