January 22, 2007

The Audacity of Hype

There is a tendency in this country to over-inflate the importance or impressiveness of everything from movies to the latest diet fads. Thanks to the capitalist need to sell, sell, sell, we are a nation of hype. For the next two weeks, we will endure the – pardon the metaphor – super bowl of hype, as we learn more than we ever needed to know about the teams, players, coaches, fans, owners, trainers, etc. involved in the Super Bowl itself.

Most Super Bowls, and indeed most anything that receives such extreme promotion, cannot live up to the hype. Expectations are set so high that it is nearly impossible to meet them. So when an event or individual delivers to meet towering expectations, it is truly remarkable. Barack Obama is a truly remarkable individual.

If you are paying attention, you know Barack Obama because he is currently riding one of the most extreme waves of hype a politician has ever ridden. He has appeared on Oprah and Monday Night Football. He has a new book (The Audacity of Hope) that is #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, and an old book (Dreams from my Father) that is also doing very well, thank you (#5 for paperback nonfiction). And, oh yeah, last week, Obama took the first steps toward running for president.

I remember the first time I heard of Barack Obama. In the summer of 2004, when Obama was just a law professor and Illinois state senator (I use “just” very respectfully), I read a magazine profile on him and thought to myself, “Wow! This guy, however you pronounce that name, says exactly what I would want a leader to say.” Several weeks later, even though I was taking the bar the next morning, I waited up to watch Obama’s speech to the Democratic National Convention. Honestly, I was expecting to be disappointed – there was no way he could deliver on the expectations I had for him after reading that article. Then I watched Obama deliver the most impressive and finely-presented speech I have ever seen live. Both the substance of what he said and the way in which he said it captured my precise feelings, a mixture of criticism of the present and hope for the future.

Over two years later, the hype that began the moment Obama finished that speech seems to know no bounds, yet Obama continues to deliver. Even as he seems to be everywhere, he has remained humble. Even as he works in a partisan Congress and has entered what will be a bruising campaign, he has remained convincingly positive and collegial. Even as the media compels sound bites over substance, he has remained thoughtful and rational. And even as his own previous performances demand consistently inspiring oration, he has consistently risen to the challenge.

For his own part, Obama has said he is “suspicious of hype.” (Of course, he said this at a press conference in New Hampshire where he was both promoting a book and feeding speculation about his presidential ambitions.) He explains his prolonged 15 minutes of fame as a result of Americans being “interested in being called to be part of something larger than the kind of small, petty, slash and burn politics that we’ve been seeing over the last several years. And to some degree, I think I’m a stand-in for that desire on the part of the country.” Thus, even as he feeds his own hype, Obama reminds himself and us that he is merely the vessel onto which many Americans have projected our hopes.

Barack Obama certainly will not be the most experienced candidate running for president. He is unlikely to be the best funded. At this point, it remains too early to tell if he is the best person for the job. But, more than any candidate I can remember, Obama has an opportunity to shift the way we do business in this country simply by having the audacity to be himself.

January 15, 2007

In the Words of Dr. King

Last year, I celebrated Martin Luther King Day by sharing words from Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I still believe that no one captures the spirit of this day better than Dr. King himself. This year, I’ve chosen passages from a speech Dr. King delivered to a church conference in Nashville on December 27, 1962, as the country was still grappling with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Since I’ve been writing on desegregation and integration a bit recently, I thought this speech, “The Ethical Demands for Integration” was appropriate. (for last year’s passages, click here)

On the difference between desegregation and integration…
“We must always be aware of the fact that our ultimate goal is integration, and that desegregation is only a first step on the road to the good society……Desegregation is eliminative and negative, for it simply removes legal and social prohibitions. Integration is creative, and is therefore more profound and far-reaching than desegregation. Integration is the positive acceptance of desegregation and the welcomed participation of Negroes in the total range of human activities. Integration is genuine intergroup, interpersonal doing. Desegregation then, rightly, is only a short-range goal. Integration is the ultimate goal of our national community. Thus, as American pursues the important task of respecting the “letter of the law,” i.e., compliance with desegregation decisions, she must be equally concerned with the “spirit of the law,” i.e., commitment to the democratic dream of integration.”

On the danger of desegregation without integration…
“We do not have to look very far to see the pernicious effects of a desegregated society that is not integrated. It leads to ‘physical proximity without spiritual affinity.’ It gives us a society where men are physically desegregated and spiritually segregated, where elbows are together and hearts are apart. It gives us special togetherness and spiritual apartness. It leaves us with a stagnant equality of sameness rather than a constructive equality of oneness.”

On the lack of freedom in a segregated society…
“A second ethical demand of integration is a recognition of the fact that a denial of freedom to an individual is a denial of life itself…The absence of freedom is the imposition of restraint on my deliberations as to what I shall do, where I shall live, how much I shall earn, the kind of tasks I shall pursue. I am robbed of the basic quality of man-ness. When I cannot choose what I shall do or where I shall live or how I shall survive, it means in fact that someone or some system has already made these a priori decisions for me, and I am reduced to an animal. I do not live; I merely exist…I cannot adequately assume responsibility as a person because I have been made a party to a decision in which I played no part in making.”

On the failure of American leaders to fully embrace the spirit of the Brown decision…
“It is sad that the moral dimension of integration has not been sounded by the leaders of government and the nation. They staunchly supported the principle of the Court’s decision but their rationale fell short of being prophetic. They sounded the note that has become the verse, chorus and refrain of the so-called calm and reasonable moderates – we must obey the law! The temper of acceptance might be far difference if only our leaders would say publicly to the nation – we must obey the mandate of the Court because it is right!”

On the difference between enforceable obligations, such as desegregation, and unenforceable obligations, such as integration…
“[U]nenforceable obligations are beyond the reach of the laws of society. They concern inner attitudes, genuine person-to-person relations, and expressions of compassion which law books cannot regulate and jails cannot rectify. Such obligations are met by one’s commitment to an inner law, written on the heart. Man-made laws assure justice, but a higher law produces love. No code of conduct ever compelled a father to love his children or a husband to show affection to his wife. The law court may force him to provide bread for the family, but it cannot make him provide the bread of love. A good father is obedient to the unenforceable.”

On the limited, but important role the law can play in achieving integration…
“Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless. The law cannot make an employer love an employee, but it can prevent him from refusing to hire me because of the color of my skin. The habits, if not the hearts of people, have been and are being altered everyday by legislative acts, judicial decisions and executive orders. Let us not be misled by those who argue that segregation cannot be ended by the force of law. But acknowledging this, we must admit that the ultimate solution to the race problem lies in the willingness of men to obey the unenforceable…A vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws will bring an end to segregated public facilities which are barriers to a truly desegregated society, but it cannot bring an end to fears, prejudice, pride, and irrationality, which are the barriers to a truly integrated society…True integration will be achieved by true neighbors who are willingly obedient to unenforceable obligations.”

January 08, 2007

Modest Hopes for the New Congress

The political world is abuzz that the Democratic takeover of Congress signals the coming of a significant shift in Washington. Although I’d like to be hopeful, I recognize the many barriers to entrenched politicians acting too quickly or boldly. Still, I have a few modest hopes for the Democratic-led 110th Congress.

Perhaps the least tangible thing I’d like to see is a shift in the way business is done in Washington. I’d like to see a city where the main business is governing rather than merely politics. This means less focus on winning elections and more on seeking workable and moderate solutions to the country’s problems.

- As far as specific policies go, I’d like to see a shift in the government’s apparent priorities toward helping those who need help rather than protecting those who do not. This means a commitment to lifting the less fortunate to a more stable place. In the six years of Republican-monopoly government, increases in wages have not kept pace (not even close, really) with increased productivity, rendering moot the maxim that harder work can lift an individual or family. Meanwhile, a combination of tax cuts and salary increases has put the wealthiest even further into the economic stratosphere. I don’t really have a problem with some people being obscenely rich. What I have a problem with is some people getting obscenely rich thanks in part to government policies while others get stuck in a cycle of debt or poverty while the government does little to help. On this issue, I’ll be looking for a push on the minimum wage and a tax program that allows the government to provide effective programs to those who need help.

- Health care: Why are 47 million Americans – almost all of whom are the least equipped to cover medical costs – left to fend for themselves when it comes to health care? Although universal coverage could be something I would support, I recognize that such a drastic change isn’t likely in the next two years. Instead, I’d modestly like to see steps toward increased coverage, beginning with universal coverage for the most vulnerable – children.

- Education: This year, Congress will have the opportunity to re-authorize the No Child Left Behind Act, President Bush’s signature education law. It has become somewhat fashionable to bash this law, but there are many good provisions within it and the law’s overall spirit – accountability for educational outcomes – is in the right place. I hope the Democrats on Capitol Hill will recognize the valuable parts of this law, such as measuring schools’ performance based on how each individual group (black, white, Hispanic, etc.) does, while adjusting the bad ones. This issue provides the greatest opportunity for bipartisan work toward a national goal. Both sides must seize it.

- Iraq: Even if continued chaos in Iraq may be good for Democrats, it is not good for the country. I hope the Democrats in Congress can find an appropriate balance between holding the Administration accountable for its mistakes and working with the Administration toward a resolution. Democrats must resist any temptation to exploit the current quagmire for political gain and engage in the type of intense problem solving Iraq requires. This means not dismissing outright Administration proposals simply because the Administration has made mistakes in the past, but also putting the Administration’s feet to the fire to come up with credible answers. I don’t think harping on the past few years’ errors (and there have been plenty to harp on) will be particularly useful. Rather, I’d like to see the Democrats use their newfound oversight and subpoena power to ensure that proposals for the future are well thought out, realistic, and effective.

The unifying theme of my modest hopes for this Congress is one of leadership for the nation rather than loyalty to a party. Unfortunately, such a strategy requires a willing partner from the other side of the aisle. If the Administration or congressional Republicans are unwilling to budge from their current agenda, it will be left to Democrats to assert their congressional power in a more partisan way. If that happens – and it is entirely possible, perhaps even likely – than it is unlikely any of my hopes for this new Congress will be realized.

January 07, 2007

Blood Diamond

When you have a child that is less than one-year old, you don’t have that many opportunities to go to the movies. And when you do get to go, you usually want to see something light-hearted and fun since you are probably exhausted and just happy to have a couple of hours with no responsibilities. Thus, it was somewhat of a tough sell to get my wife to agree to see Blood Diamond last weekend even with Leo headlining.

But we went and I couldn’t help but agree midway through when she turned to me and said, “We should’ve seen Happy Feet.” It wasn’t that Blood Diamond isn’t a good movie, it was just that we are parents and rather than two hours without responsibility, Blood Diamond provided two hours of unrelenting intensity that made us think critically about the world we live in. That, of course under normal circumstances, is a good thing. And even for exhausted parents, I must admit, Blood Diamond was a worthwhile experience.

I was struck by several aspects of the movie. First, without giving too much away, the movie puts the viewer smack in the middle of a civil war in Africa, complete with images of atrocities – villages destroyed, innocents maimed. I always appreciate the ability of movies to bring these scenes to the average American viewer who may know vaguely that there are wars in Africa, but who does not appreciate the horror such wars cause for the majority of the populations there.

While Blood Diamond clearly depicts some of the warring African factions in a negative light, it presents a very strong indictment of the viewers themselves by bringing attention to the messy underbelly of the global diamond industry. If this indictment awakens the conscience of 1% of those who see the movie, it will have achieved its apparent goal.

Perhaps most interesting to me, the character played by Jennifer Connelly, a western journalist tracking the diamond industry in Africa, raises many questions about the role of western activists in foreign settings. Writing about the conflict, she feels a personal empowerment, but harbors no illusions that her words will really stop anything. She laments that perhaps her stories may induce a few sympathetic (and guilt-ridden?) westerners to write a check or two to an organization working in Africa, but that it is not possible to spark any real outrage. Discussing her own dissatisfaction with her western life and her inability to keep a boyfriend, she wonders if something is wrong with her, but concludes, “Maybe I just give a shit.” The implication, of course, is that the rest of us do not. And maybe she is right. How can one truly “give a shit” about the kind of terrible things we all know happen in Africa and go on with a normal American life? Unfortunately, this kind of attitude discourages those who care, but are not willing to put their life/family/career on the line to confront crises elsewhere, from acting at all. Certainly, there must be room in the activist community for those of us who “give a shit,” but on a less committed level. If activists cannot accept this reality, they threaten to make themselves irrelevant.

Based on this review, you may think Blood Diamond is simply a preachy plea to help Africa. What makes the movie so enjoyable, however, is an incredibly compelling story acted magnificently by Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Honsou. This is either a wonderful movie hidden inside an important message or an important message hidden inside a wonderful movie. Either way, Blood Diamond is a fine example of movies at their best – the art of telling a story while revealing a new perspective on the world such that the viewer must think about the world he returns to outside the theatre.

January 01, 2007

New Year, Old News

There are only so many different ways that you can write: Genocide is happening!!! We must do something!!!

In contrast, there are an endless number of ways to put off doing something. If you are a country – let’s say the most powerful country in the world – you might be distracted while your resources are monopolized by other wars or you might find it inconvenient to confront an emerging global rival (China) who effectively nips all diplomatic efforts in the bud.

If you are the president of that most powerful country, you might be unwilling to spend any amount of your dwindling political capital on engaging in a crisis only a small, if noisy, constituency would recognize – especially when that noisy constituency would then simply push for you to do more.

Most of us are not a powerful country or its president, but we are capable of coming up with plenty of wonderful excuses of our own. “I don’t have time” is a favorite. “I don’t really know what’s going on” works just as well. There is that most tempting “There are lots of other problems closer to home – crime, poverty, etc. – that more directly impact my life.”

But perhaps most usefully, there is “I know what’s going on and I’m not happy about it, but what difference can I really make?” It is this excuse, the excuse of paralysis due to the magnitude of the problem that explains why a country filled with people who are sickened by genocide cannot muster the will to effectively stop one as it unfolds.

If you have read my column before, you know about Darfur. Here is what is going on there now – seven months after a “peace agreement” was signed by many of the parties involved. Jan Egeland, the recently-resigned UN humanitarian chief was expelled from Sudan and has described the expansion of the conflict and humanitarian suffering into neighboring Chad and Central African Republic as a “free fall.” Meanwhile, as fighting has reintensified, humanitarian operations are being scaled back and the UN has pulled many workers out of the region. On the peacekeeping front, the UN has approved the deployment of a peacekeeping force, but that deployment has been held up indefinitely due to an unwillingness on the part of the Sudanese government to accept them. In this bizarro world, it appears that the perpetrators of genocide get to decide for themselves when they will be confronted.

As this African tragedy drags on into a fresh new year, it is time to dust the confetti off our shoulders and re-deliver an important message to anyone who can hear: Genocide is happening!! We must do something!! The message is not new, but it is as critical as ever to deliver it again and again as global leaders wait for Darfur to slip back off the radar.

Today, you can contact members of the spanking new Congress and tell them to put Darfur high on the agenda by pushing for a NATO-enforced no-fly zone over Sudan. (you can check how your representatives score on Darfur by visiting http://www.darfurscores.org/) You can contact local and national media to tell them it is as much their responsibility to keep the public informed about unfolding genocide as it is to sensationalize the information that passes for news on many stations. You can contact your friends, keep them informed, and encourage them to contact their own representatives. You can sign up to receive updates from anti-genocide advocacy groups, like www.savedarfur.org and www.genocideintervention.net, to help them build a larger lobbying constituency.

These actions may seem feeble and insignificant in the face of the depths of suffering in Darfur, but they are the small acts upon which bigger acts must be built. No single call will end the genocide. Even a million calls may not press our government to act. But each call builds momentum toward action and action must be taken.

After all, Genocide is happening!! We must do something!!