I was going to write this essay earlier this month, probably after a GOP debate. But, life intervened, and I set it aside.
I certainly wasn’t expecting the Paris attacks. But I should have expected the reaction among most everyone on the Right.
While Parisians are crowding outdoor cafes and continuing with their lives as a raised fist against the fear which Daesh wants them to live under, conservatives in this country are running around flinging fearful fecal matter in every direction, warning that Daesh is under your bed, or that the orphaned refugee could be a sleeper agent ready to detonate a bomb at your nearest NFL stadium.
However, I’m not going to say that this is against American tradition. The fact is that the United States has always had a very vibrant Party of Fear.
Even at a ripe 45, I have some of the sense of invulnerability that I had at 25. There is no good reason for me to be so confident; I have the physicals and admonitions from my doctor to prove so. But, I guess it’s better than being like some people, who treat every errant mole as a sign of the Grim Reaper’s impending visit.
However, everything ends. The one surety in life is that your time on Earth is short an precious. Would we appreciate life if we somehow discovered the fountain of youth? I don’t know. But the short lives we have now make every moment unique, of a singular nature, whether in joy or sorrow.
As life is short, something which always informs my decisions is the question: Am I making the world a better place. I’m not talking about great, macro-historical acts. I’m talking about the little things, the everyday kindnesses, the quotidian miracles which will not make it to the history books, but which may change a person’s life in innumerable ways for the better.
It’s a question by which I try to live. But it’s also a question which too few of our fellow citizens ask.
Something about President Obama in the video that surfaced from a gym in Poland this past week struck a chord with me. It was his groggy ordinariness as he peered mouth agape at the dumbbells possibly trying to mentally convert the metric weight measurements into our familiar imperial system. You could tell that he too like many of us was trying hard to drag his body kicking and screaming to do what his mind told him he MUST do – exercise for body and sanity’s sake. President Obama is no superhuman. The grimace on his face as he performed his routine in the gym told us that. Like us, he’d rather be doing something else. Mortal. Aging body.
The difference? He stuck with and plodded through his mission in the gym. No fanfare. No frills. Just keeping body and bloodstream functioning. Thirty minutes, we’re told he stayed there. Then next, he was suit-clad meeting European leaders. Meanwhile, all hell was breaking loose back stateside with GOP wingnut feral dogs viciously hounding a POW’s family with death threats, and an “all American” hometown into canceling a soldier’s homecoming celebration. A fashionably cynical postmodern schlock might probably find some grizzly irony in the juxtaposition of dumbbells gripped by a President’s sweaty hands in a Polish gym, and celebration buntings for a soldier’s return hurriedly torn down in an Idaho town scurrying into hiding as it is gripped by fear of the frightwing mob.
This is our globalized world now of instantaneous communication, of a cacophony of events, vignettes and frozen images, of picture-snapping presidential oglers, and armed lynchmobs prowling for blood who’ve been set loose by hate-jocks saturating our airwaves — all jostling for our attention. All at once.
How does one stay true to a moral compass in the midst of this din, and extremes? How does one exercise strategic restraint in the face of blatant rightwing provocation? Difficult of all, how does one do all that AS LEADER of a diverse nation whose only glue is the pledge of CITIZENSHIP and creed – “all men (and women) are created equal”?
In the run-up to the 2008 election, when so much hyperbole and thrills were running up some media legs (nothing sincere except to milk the rising African American political whiz for ratings gold), Candidate Obama modestly saw himself as a “transitional leader”. What did he mean? Few paid attention at the time, yet the clues lie in his book “Audacity of Hope” in which he described America reaching critical crossroads at which she either soars or fragments. To set this country soaring, Obama believed the toxic gunk that had trapped our nation in a thicket of policy, structural, and ideological dysfunction needed to be cleaned out. His Mama had taught him that when you see a problem you tackle it and not wait for someone else to solve it.
President Obama’s moving remarks last Friday July 19, 2013, that Trayvon Martin could have been him 35 years ago took me back to another high note in his presidency – the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo, Dec 10, 2009.
Nobel Prize acceptance 12-10-2009
Both the polite audience seated in the cavernous Norwegian auditorium, as well as a global audience of admirers and skeptics all listened with rapt attention. President Obama could have chosen to deliver saccharine pabulum about ideals of peace as gloss over his global superstardom. He didn’t. Instead he punched his audience in the gut with uncomfortable truths about:
Pres. Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize Speech 12-10-2009
1. Fundamental difference between his responsibilities as head of a state embroiled in 2 wars who must deploy military force when needed to protect his nation, and those of other Nobel Peace Prize recipients such as Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. who served as conscience leaders and advocated non-violence as means to achieve justice.
2. The Niebuhrian concept of Just War, which stipulates that there IS evil in the world that does not disappear through diplomacy, prayer or concession. It must be fought with blood and treasure.
3. An active peace that requires that we all EXPAND OUR MORAL IMAGINATION, or else the assurance of human dignity and societal growth will be stunted
Pres Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize Speech 12-10-2009
From the 29:10 minute mark, Pres. Obama described the concept thus: “Agreements among nations. Strong institutions. Support for human rights. Investments in development. All these are vital ingredients in bringing about the evolution that President Kennedy spoke about. And yet, I do not believe that we will have the will, the determination, the staying power, to complete this work without something more — and that’s the continued EXPANSION OF OUR MORAL IMAGINATION; an insistence that there’s something IRREDUCIBLE THAT WE ALL SHARE.
As the world grows smaller, you might think it would be easier for human beings to recognize how similar we are; to understand that we’re all basically seeking the same things; that we all hope for the chance to live out our lives with some measure of happiness and fulfillment for ourselves and our families.
And yet somehow, given the dizzying pace of globalization, the cultural leveling of modernity, it perhaps comes as no surprise that people fear the loss of what they cherish in their particular identities — their race, their tribe, and perhaps most powerfully their religion. In some places, this fear has led to conflict. At times, it even feels like we’re moving backwards….”