By Judith Gayle | Political Waves
We are all teaching ourselves something, every moment of every day. Richard Bach put it squarely on the table in my old favorite, Illusions: Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah
: "You teach best what you most need to learn." At any given point, the thing we seek enlightenment about is in front of us, under our nose, absorbing our attention; if we're listening to ourselves, we'll hear echoes of both the virtue of our quest and the holes in our understanding.
What we've been teaching ourselves for quite some time now is how all the things we thought were going to keep us plump, content and safe were a big, unworkable lie. The whole mindset of 'more, more, more' has finally caught up with us. We live on a finite planet, and we cannot continue to consume it mindlessly without plundering and fouling it irreversibly. We cannot continue to venture out with our big guns and bully attitude to take what we need from our neighbors. What made us think we could? (That is a rhetorical question, of course, and I'm assuming you've instructed yourself well enough in the last years to know the answer.)
I've written over the last months about connecting dots; that is, noticing that one story or bit of news is directly related to another, showing movement toward something happening in our peripheral vision. I've encouraged you to follow the dots to define the bigger picture in your own lives and help demystify your challenges. Following the dots is a critical skill.
Last week, I caught a little bug that sent me straight to the couch with blankie and Kleenex box for a few days; I watched a lot of television, choices made for pure entertainment value, the kind of mindless stuff you can doze through without missing much. But you can't escape the flags: you know, the ones that are constantly waving and telling us, "Look here, look here -- this means something!"
Have you seen the commercials urging you to buy groceries with your MasterCard? The car ad promising that if you buy their new car and lose your job in the first year, your default won't go on your credit record? We are suddenly preoccupied with tiny little hamburgers instead of big ones: dollar menus instead of steak and lobster. The onslaught of advertisements for sexual performance aides like Viagra, Cialis (Google that and get an unbelievable 48,000,000 hits,) penis pumps and various lubes -- some on primetime TV that will bill you for an exposed breast or curse word -- have become tedious to the point of laughable. Flags, all.
When dots become flags, they aren't taking us somewhere -- we're already there. Just this week, I've received over 200 spams offering me free Viagra. Sex as narcotic, to kill the pain. That's it, America! The nation, the economy is flaccid -- but you don't have to be, Joe Six-Pack! We know how to make you feel better!
There are adult voices out there, if we choose to listen to them. This week we got a big, free Grand Slam breakfast of a presidential address offering us a way forward; if you didn't watch, you'll find it here
. And if you didn't watch, you missed what academics are calling a speech that may well be quoted 50 or 100 years from now -- in short, a game changer.
The President -- and no one can call him anything else, after that performance -- received 37 standing ovations
. I was momentarily confused when they seemed to come from all over the floor of the congressional hall; in the era of Bush speeches, the Right spent much of its time on its feet, while the Left sat stoically. For the first few moments of Obama's speech, I wondered if they had not seated themselves in traditional party blocks; that was cleared up later when Obama left the stage to greet, first, an array of Republicans, causing Conservative pundit (and old foof) George Will
, to comment, "I don't know when men started to hug each other."
David Gergen, moderate Righty pundit for CNN, summed up the impact of the moment most succinctly, when he commented, "This was the most ambitious president we've heard in this chamber in decades. The first half of the speech was FDR fighting for the New Deal. The second half was Lyndon Johnson fighting for the Great Society and we have never seen those two presidents rolled together in quite this way before." That sets the tone of Obama's agenda -- now all we have to do is make it happen.
Historians agree that if we can actualize this template, Obama's speech will mark a philosophical turning point in American history. I keep saying 'we' because Obama is inclusive in terms of who has responsibility for this reconstructive experiment -- both the government, working for the public; and the public, working toward restoration. Both of us, said the President, will have to make sacrifices for the betterment of the whole and work together to provide equal opportunity for the totality of the nation. Can you hear the low hum of Saturn and Uranus, working in synthesis?
Volumes have been written about Obama's oratory skills; he has also been pointed to as something of a propeller-head -- a professor, lecturing his students. In this week's teachable moment, he used both skills to make winning points about American values; what they are, and what they aren't. To those citizens battered and bleeding from circumstances beyond their control, he made the promise of a life preserver; to those who feel they may lose something in transition, he offered incentive.
With precision and confidence, he rebuked the theory, proposed by Ronald Reagan decades back, that government is unworkable and unnecessary: there is a generation out there, and more, that believes precisely that. He proposed an activist, accountable system of governance to catalyze private enterprise, encourage public leadership and provide for the public good. Millions of our citizens have no idea that government is capable of playing this role in their lives; they've never seen it before and do not understand its historical value. In an awe-inspiring 50 minutes, Barack Obama laid out a plan for this nation to which no fading Flower Child, such as myself, could do less than thrill.
There are those who choose to see Obama as just a politician playing establishment games on the chessboard of big power; me, I watch this man carefully and see someone whose political position seems entirely organic to his spirit. I have made an effort over these last years to connect the dots between the political and the spiritual so that we might better understand that there is no separation between them in the landscape of our souls; they are us as we are them, and we are all together.
Obama appears to be that synthesis, inviting us to help recreate the nation with a progressive center
of equality, justice, compassion and commonwealth. The man seldom wastes time arguing the rightness of his position; he, instead, engages our hearts to join his in righting the wrongness of our course. This is an example of overlaying old worn ideas with new, better ones; the actual catalyst of change. He was given a mandate by the people to do just that; by those of us who made it through the Bush era aware that our empty wallets and disappeared prospects are emblematic of all else that was squandered, but who have never lost the vision of America's essential promise.
Bobby Jindal, who has operated as a moderate Republican Governor with clear presidential ambition, was chosen to give the Republican counter-address; his selection said more than he did, in his short and badly-received speech -- one which Republican pundit and New York Time's
columnist, David Brooks, referenced as, "unmitigated disaster."
Jindal has refused the approximately $100 million
in unemployment assistance offered by the stimulus, even though his state, Louisiana, loses somewhere in the neighborhood of 430 jobs
each day. The irony of this man, facing down the failure of rebuilding New Orleans despite taking billions of taxpayer bucks, speaking for less spending and more bootstrap alternatives seemed surreal. But then so does the entirety of Republican philosophy in this time of crisis.
Governor Sanford of South Carolina, for instance, is also refusing stimulus money, and has, instead, announced that he will pray for the unemployed
. And while I appreciate a good prayer, I'm pretty sure his constituents would rather have the money; pointing out, in yet another teachable moment, that the 'small government' Republicans are bankrupt in the brainpower department. Surely by now we know bankrupt when we see it; we've gotten a lot of experience with that lately. Jindal and Palin, by the way, are the current odds-on choice for Republican presidential ticket in 2012. Jindal represents, sad to say, the intellectual component that is seen to complement Palin's spunk; both embracing the far-Right wing of their party, which currently serves as its base. Moderate Republicans have yet to find their voice and leaders.
To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; the movement with the most followers takes the lead. The dark years of George Bush have given us a man such as Obama, even though on some levels we still aren't ready for all he offers. While the Left has decried his reaching out to the Right as a waste of energy, that has successfully painted them into a corner of obstructionism and lost them public support
. His post-racial persona has exacerbated racist rhetoric; that has also given the Right a black eye.
His default philosophy of collaboration, rather than competition, has won him fans on all sides of the political spectrum, eager to own a part of the future. He remains an enigma to the fighting Left because he is inclined to kill his opponents with kindness, and surprise us all with his in-depth deliberations that seem more like chess moves than simple political calculations. His skill at framing the progressive message as the innate values of the American experience continues to awaken those who have never thought of government as anything but an obstacle.
Ralph Waldo Emerson had this to say about life's process: "All our progress is an unfolding, like a vegetable bud. You have first an instinct, then an opinion, then a knowledge as the plant has root, bud and fruit. Trust the instinct to the end, though you can render no reason."
We were working on instinct when we chose Obama for this place and time; many of us have softened our opinion as we ponder his actions, perhaps connecting the dots back to our own personal challenges that require moderation and a bit of sugar to help solutions go down. Obama has planted a seed for the still-fragile knowledge that we can change, we can grow and we can recreate ourselves into the people and the nation we are meant to be.
If the ambitious agenda of this President can be met by the extraordinary commitment of the public to co-create, together, we will have put into place everything we need for a future growing season and ultimate harvest. The times ahead, we've been assured, will be difficult -- but the dots are connecting to point the way forward to only two options: life or nihilism
, as Brooks assesses the message of his own party.
Obama's goals have been pronounced lofty; not too lofty for the 21st century, I'd think, even though we've been swirling in a vacuum for almost a decade of it. Forget the fear-talk about money, money, money and think: energy, energy, energy. Where will we put it? Will we allow it to expand or contract? Will we get cozy with it or remain afraid of it? We are teaching ourselves to think of this differently, and we have everything in place to take us through this process.
Maybe the dots we've been connecting define an even wider picture than we suppose; perhaps they start way back when the founders wrote the Constitution, when the Emancipation Proclamation opened the path for equality, when the end of the Gilded Age met accountability. Democracy is messy, progress is slow but our country is young; it seems to me that our intuition has brought us to the perfect place for the next leg of this adventure.
Our new president has offered us change we can believe in because it echoes our own hearts' desire. It's as big and ambitious as an American dream can get, but a lot more realistic than, for instance, the 'ownership society' rhetoric that found its way into every Bush speech, but is now being blamed for the nation's downturn. It is the accountability of Saturn and the Uranian signature of change come calling.
It remains for each of us to look at what we're teaching ourselves about the synthesis of the American experience and its historical leaps forward in times of crisis; each one has fine-tuned our society and created us as better people. Note the flags, follow the dots and know that the following words, delivered by Obama to a nation seeking solutions, spoke about you:
As we stand at this crossroads of history, the eyes of all people in all nations are once again upon us -- watching to see what we do with this moment; waiting for us to lead.
Those of us gathered here tonight have been called to govern in extraordinary times. It is a tremendous burden, but also a great privilege -- one that has been entrusted to few generations of Americans. For in our hands lies the ability to shape our world for good or for ill.
I know that it is easy to lose sight of this truth -- to become cynical and doubtful, consumed with the petty and the trivial.
But in my life, I have also learned that hope is found in unlikely places; that inspiration often comes not from those with the most power or celebrity, but from the dreams and aspirations of Americans who are anything but ordinary.
We are leaping forward because that is our intention, collectively -- some of us full-throated and dancing, some of us white-knuckled and limping. But good ideas are powerful; they multiply enthusiasm like the inevitable crop of baby bunnies in spring. The degree of blessing available will be directly related to the amount of energy we invest in the possibilities. I think the thing we need to teach ourselves next is the obvious: yes, we can.