Wednesday, November 05, 2008

More Thoughts, Part 3

See the first two parts below (and/or above):
  1. Last night, before the 8pm returns, I spoke with my old college roommate (who I had once expected would be the first Black president) about what was happening. It also was his first wedding anniversary, so it was a nice occasion all around. Anyway, the conversation turned to why he (and I) would probably never be president: because we couldn't sit quiet at all the insane crap that Obama just took in stride. However, in deference to we mere mortals, Obama's absolute greatest skill is his supernaturally cool temperament. It is the very definition of 'cool.' That slang term has been around for a long time and hasn't fallen out of use for a good reason: there's a recognition that a valued quality of leadership is the ability to keep one's emotions under control. Passion is great, and I have it in excess, but for real leadership you need to be cool.

    And some people are cool because they are naturally so, and some just need to train themselves. In either case, it's a remarkably physical-mental skill and that's what sets Obama apart from the rest of us.

    Note, this quality is what got him tarred as 'arrogant.' The reason why the attitude didn't stick (as it did to Dukakis and Kerry) was that Obama's coolness seemed to come from deliberation. It reminds me of my Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Ahron Lichtenstein. One reason why I consider Rav Ahron a gadol is because he appears to deliberate and think about everything he says and does. I feel we can judge any so-called gadol by this ability: does he say things in anger or without thinking through the implications? By this I include utterances of prejudice and willful ignorance.

    Obama has this level of deliberation and I consider it to thus be even more than the mental-physical skill described above but also a moral skill. And no, I'm not saying Obama is on the level of a Gadol (for some craziness in this regard see this piece of idiocy.)

    This is seen also in Obama's ability to speak about complicated issues in accessible terms. His communication ability - denigrated by Goopers, Freepers and other crypto-racists - is more than a good speaking voice, or a trained actors ability. It comes from a thinking deeply about issues and trained skills in education. As I've said before: I am a professional public speaker, and I am praised for the same abilities that Obama demonstrates, except he is orders of magnitude better. But because we are similar, I can describe with confidence why he is great.

  2. Many commentators are repeating the idea (which, because its so popular, tells us just how boneheaded it is... I should really create a rule for this, I can do that, I'm in sociology!) that we shouldn't think that race relations are going to change immediately and irrevocably because of Obama's win. Well, no, it just has changed and the change is huge. The implications are for (a) how Blacks as individuals are thought about in America, (b) how America considers its own identity and history vis-a-vis race, (c) how America considers etc itself vis-a-vis insiders and outsiders in power/politics, (d) how the World sees America in the contemporary world, (e) how the World sees America's place in world history, (f) how the world sees Blacks (and/or other persecuted minorities) in their own countries, (g) and how Blacks (and/or other minorities) see themselves in their own countries.

    And all these implications have been called under scrutiny because of last night. And, to contradict those who want to downplay the implications, all it takes is one person to become a potent and permanent symbol. And, even if it sounds like I'm overstating this, it's actually hard to overstate this.

    Obama as the new American president is on the level of the moon landing: a fundamental change in how we understand our capabilities as humans. OK, that sounds overstated, but here's why it's not: Obama is the child of a single mother, a foreign father from a persecuted race, who through the opportunities of the American system of ideals and structure of society has just been elevated to the most powerful person on Earth. A man who could destroy the world with the touch of a button, who can impoverish or feed nations with a verbal command.

    I don't think this has happened before (others will write about this and I will check the historical knowledge) and even if there is a person somewhere (Napoleon? Genghis Khan?) the power Obama has acquired came peacefully and is more total.

    Because I am a born-American, I have learned about American exceptionalism and I believe it. In my classes in history and in philosophy, which is still largely Eurocentric, I get frustrated when the French Revolution is considered a milestone of human history. Sure, it was important to Europeans, and that's all nice if you happen to be a White Christian living in Europe (and the right Christian in the right country, at that) but in terms of World History the French Revolution is useless! For two big reasons: (1) the American Revolution was first, and (2) ours lasted! No reign of terror in the US; no return to Empire; a consistent land of freedom and opportunity. The Russian Revolution was pretty important too but, again, (1) no freedom, (2) it didn't last, (3) it was centuries late.

    America has a lesson to teach the world and world history. And it has long been incomplete. We made a great leap forward last night.

  3. I can see disagreement with my point if you deny that symbols matter that much. I insist, though, that symbols matter because they affect cognition. Our comparisons for the "man as symbol" are Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, Thurgood Marshall, etc: men, and so far it's been men, who are superlative in their quality while breaking the race barrier. We see it more with sports than with other areas of leadership, but sports are important because it's an arena of quantitative verification and because the rules are manufactured and arbitrary. When these men succeeded (and it does require success, else we'll end up with Marion Barry) it permanently changed the status of African Americans. Blacks couldn't be considered inferior if there's even one notable proof otherwise (hence why Marshall is better than Robinson). If Obama is as decent a president as Clinton, and not a Carter-Bush disaster, then it will have massive long-lasting effect.

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