Monday, July 6, 2009

Obama: Is It Time to Give Up?

This is the sad--and sadly serious--question I'm asking myself today.  Is it time to give up on a political system that is now so irremediably broken that it has become impervious to our needs and irrelevant to our lives?  Do we just leave those we elected as our representatives to get on with their incessant partisan blather while we get on with our lives?   Is it time, as Voltaire suggested at the end of "Candide", to "cultivate one's garden"?  Many friends have taken this path ahead of me, good-hearted and intelligent people who are no less concerned than I about the quality of our lives and our common future.  I have understood and respected their choice without, myself, wanting to make the same.  

I'm not sure what, right now, may have triggered this question.  Perhaps it was watching Future By Design, the film about Jacque Fresco, who advocates a (quietly) revolutionary approach.  He sees no beneficial outcome for the human species in adhering to outworn habits of thought and action; as he sees it, the old model of corporate, economic and political power is serving to get us only deeper into the mire we have already created.  What's needed now, he says, is a whole new model, a whole new way of thinking about ourselves, the way we live with each other, the way we make decisions...

I have been clinging on to the notion of hope.  I think I will still cling to it, when all's said and done, for at least a while longer--perhaps for long enough to see what happens with the health care legislation this year.  But I have watched with increasing dismay as "the system" manages to re-establish itself after the ripple of the Obama election, which I had seen as a greater disturbance than it seems, from our current perspective, to have been.   It has not taken long to return to the depressing, circular cliche of "politics as usual."  I have watched a mind I still consider to be superior and visionary constrained by political and social contingencies that stubbornly reject the possibility of change--out of fear, our of habit, out of ideologies long since proven to be barren.  I have watched the ranks of the nay-sayers grow serried on both left and right.  I have watched the failure of a social system born out of a belief in the rights of the individual, as the individual grows more strident in demands whilst the larger needs of society are buried in the resultant discord.  I have watched as once-great states--most notably our own, California--become ungovernable and jettison even the safety net that protected the children of the poor.  I continue to watch as the world goes mad with greed and commerce and the obsession with "growth," on the one hand; and with need, hunger, war and pestilence on the other.  I watch as the world's population continues to grow beyond our ability to cater to the needs of all, or even most of its inhabitants.  And I watch as those in power stand idly by and bicker over trivialities as the planet speeds on toward its possible destruction.

So is it time to give up?  Not on humankind, for God's sake, no.  But on the system we have created in order to govern ourselves and serve our common interests and our common goals?  Last summer I visited a friend in Oregon and was disappointed in his lukewarm reaction to Obama.  He had already given up on the old, and was embarked on the search for something new.  Perhaps out of despair, but not despairingly.  His wisdom was/is to see stalemate for what it is, and to test the potential for salvation in small groups gathering together to cultivate individual integrity and responsibility, and to take action in the world in the context of a communal good.  He was, as I see it, beginning to "cultivate his garden."  He calls it creating sacred lifeboats.

I have been telling myself that I'm not that far along that I need to jump overboard.  I have been persisting in the hope that things can change within this broken system; that this Barack Obama can change hearts and minds, as a preliminary to making those significant changes in health care, the economy, the environment, world peace... the changes that we sorely need.  Call me quixotic, naive, gullible, but I want to hold on to that hope a while longer yet.  Which is why I have been posting these Obama pieces in the past couple of weeks, in the attempt to get my own head straight--and convey something of my personal struggle with others who may share my views.  

The fact that I have received so much response in bringing up these matters suggests that there are many who share my doubts as well as my by now somewhat desperate hope.  I'm particularly saddened that there are those who have read my words as a dismissal of the importance or urgency of gay rights.  I understand, I think, where they're coming from, but that was far from my objective.  It's one, only, of many points on which I personally disagree with the President without dismissing him, and without using my disagreement to withdraw my support or undermine his efforts.  As he has often said, it's not about him; it's about us.  He needs me, as he needs all of us who seek to bring about serious change in America.  I was talking with a gay friend at the gym today, who said this: "I need to believe in that man."  We agreed that Obama is having to walk a crooked path, not the straight (no pun intended) line that those who hew to a straight (ditto) ideological path would have him do.   For now, I'm choosing to believe that he's playing a canny game to reach goals that we share.  And unlike Rush Limbaugh, I do want him to succeed.

So my answer still is No, it's not yet time to give up.  It's a time to be pragmatic rather than ideological.  Time to push forward, against the deadwood opposition.  Time not to let personal needs and anger get in the way of a last chance to return to sanity.   It's no sacrifice of principle to recognize that uncompromising adherence to principle can sometimes serve only to achieve the opposite of its goal.  As Shakespeare cautioned us in one of my most frequently used quotations, it's sometimes necessary to follow the crooked path in order to find our way: "by indirection," Hamlet said, we "find directions out."

That said, and while I understand the caution of his approach, I would wish that our President could see his way to be more bold in word and action, and take more risks than he has been willing to do thus far.  So far as I can tell, the worst is already happening.  We have nothing left to lose.  


Twilight said...

Please don't give up yet. So many writers I've followed and respected have let Obama down - and so soon. You are probably my last hope of....well, hope!

As I see it, Obama knows far, far more than we do about every situation facing the country and the world. We only know what we surmise and can glean from the tidbits offered.

If we assess Obama as highly intelligent, shrewd and generally on the side of the people (as I have to beleive he is) we ought to be able to trust him, for some time longer. He knows everything - we know only the very margins of it (if that).

roger said...

i would put it the other way...obama has let us down.

on financial change yet.

on torture and the rule of change yet.

on the "unitary executive" and signing change yet.

on gay change yet.

i could go on. whether it is his failure of nerve or the "system" blocking his desired changes the result is the same. no change in who runs everything. no change in the rascals in charge of the economy. "crimes were committed" but no one is held accountable and the new admin keeps the secrets of the old.

man the sacred lifeboats 'cause the ship is sinking fast.

thailandchani said...

Well, in all honesty, I've always thought "cultivate your own garden" is a good way to go. I don't have much faith in "groups" and "collectives". Ideally, sure.. but not in practical application.

As we do "cultivate our own gardens", we naturally begin to give more good things to those around us.

As far as Obama, I think the expectations of him were far too high and too unrealistic. Short of a revolution, he would not be able to change things that substantially and certainly not that quickly.


robin andrea said...

I think what has truly been a staggering realization for me is just how entrenched and powerful the powerful really are. Not even this magnificent mind and spirit of Obama can blow against their winds. It occurred to me the other day that Bush was able to get things done with a 52 vote senate "mandate" when the democrats are quivering with their 60 vote majority. But it wasn't because Bush was powerful, he wasn't, he was a swaggering fool. It was because he did the bidding of the powerful, and he performed willingly and accomplished what was expected of him. The democrats have no excuse, except the truth that they are owned by the same powerful forces, but have campaigned under the overarching myth that they are not. Is it worse to be a hypocrite or an unapologetic thief?

It's always important to have hope and to cultivate the garden. The small spheres in which we can make change.

PeterAtLarge said...

Twilight, thanks! Though you give me a heavy responsibility! As I say, I'm sticking with Obama... though not without critical judgment.

Roger, I grant you, change has not yet been accomplished on these front. But that's not to say "No change." Insufficient, perhaps. But at least there are some steps in the right direction, and recognition of the need to make those changes. The pile of manure is towering, the shovel pathetically small.

Chani, thanks for checking in. I think the principle is a good one, particularly in a world that is now so crowded and so fraught with competing needs. It's really about all we can hope to do.

Great analysis, Robin! I'm sure you're right, that it's those we don't see who affect the direction of the country, more than those we do. A sad commentary on what we call our "democracy."

Cardozo said...

Let's take a minute to realize that, under Obama, we have not launched any new wars, and we have stopped torturing detainees.

Only six months have passed and steady if slow progress is being made toward health care reform, gay rights, and even the "war on terrorism," which is now quite appropriately being waged through diplomacy and a return to respectful dialog. All this while Obama has had to deal with the worst recession in decades.

It is night and day between Obama and Bush. Fundamental changes have already occurred, and with the addition of another Democratic senator, more changes are surely on their way.

Progressives have every right to push for fundamental changes that advance justice and equality, but if they do so without respect and decorum, and without acknowledging the build-in constraints preventing quick changes, they have become yet another obstacle standing in the way of the reforms they seek.

Al said...

I always find it amusing that people honestly think that the Democrats are going to change things (in comparison to the Republicans). There are only TWO entrenched powers in our political establishment and the Democrats are not going to rock the boat overly. They have to play their end of the game with Republicans as well.

The Democrats aren't going to save anyone. They have a vested interest in change being minor and only that which won't ruin their own powerbase.

As to Obama, I voted for him but he's maintaining Bush policies on warrantless wiretaps and executive privilege, which makes him no friend of mine. I had hoped for real healthcare reform but now we're simply going to force people to purchase insurance. I guess it is a good time to run an insurance company.