April 1, 2011

We Lead And Are Led

At some point in the nineteen nineties I was registered for a political science class at Mesa College in San Diego. I don’t remember any thing I learned from my time there besides how to consume large amounts of alcohol on a very limited budget. I was little more than a ghost hunched in the back corner trying to stay awake. I am not sure why I ever went to class, as I do not remember ever taking a single note, doing any assignments, or even paying for classes. I was on the winning side of my twenties and fueled by a rage I could not name.

I only bring this up because at some point during the haze that was my experience at Mesa College, I remember the professor, or whatever you call people at community college said, “Politics is the study of power.” That simple statement has stuck with me ever since. Through all my years of schooling that is the first statement that comes to mind when I recall what I have learned. Years of my own experiences later I have also learned that politics on any given level is the ability of one person to exert his or her power to make another person or other people to do something. So in this sense the human experience is a series of political experiences. The constant shifting and balancing of power- within a psyche, a relationship, a marriage, a family, a school, a community, states, nations, the world.

By understanding politics on such an intimate level, I feel I have been better able to understand politics on a larger scale. I do not understand people who claim not to understand or be interested in politics. To utter such a statement is to claim not to be interested in or to feel one is affected by the movement of power. We are all constantly perpetrators of political jostling from the moment we are born till we die. We begin as children, and depending on which set of cultural baggage we are forced to carry, are given a small amount of political capital. 

As we grow older, we challenge, fight back, acquiescence. We rebel and conform. We are schooled. We are broken. We are radicalized.  We are jailed. We are taught. We lead and are led. Life is nothing more than our individual balancing act of political clout. We join together in unions to demand better wages. We join together to stop wars, or we stand alone to stop abortion with a gun. A single gun can carry more political punch than a well-organized herd.

We marry. We divorce. We raise families. We join school boards. We tune out and shop and give our power away. We demand it back when left holding a heavy bag of emptiness. We are all political. We have no choice. There is no reason why we should shy away from politics. There is no reason why we should feel it is beyond us, or that we are not involved. You are either pushing or being pushed. That is politics, either way you are involved. I am involved.

Sorry for this lengthy introduction, but I needed to clear my head a bit before I jumped into my Audacity of Hope post. Yes, I have finished the eloquent manifesto written by Barack Obama, and I am proud to say that I am a better person for having done so. I would recommend this book to every American, or person trying to understand America in the modern age.

There are so many directions I want to take this post, but my eagerness and lack of focus will force me to take you on a somewhat wild ride of thoughts, ideas, and epiphanies. I apologize in advance. If you are looking for a well-organized five-paragraph essay, I suggest you look elsewhere. I do, however, hope that you will join me as I work through some ideas through text.

Let’s start with values. We have them. We lose them. We need them. Everyone…wait, let this post not deal with grand ideas of you and them and everyone else, let it simply deal with me. I like to think I have a core set of values that guide my life. I like to think that these values are clear and that I stick to them. I like to think that I am a moral man and that I am passing my values onto my family, my friends and my students. I begrudge others when they “sell-out” or turn their backs on their values, but the truth of the matter is, if asked to name my values I am not sure what they are. I have not thought deeply enough about them. Of course there is a loose cloud of ideas that I hold dear.

I am a big fan of the Golden Rule. I believe in treating others, regardless of their class or status with respect, honesty and trust until they prove unworthy. I believe in honesty, fairness, self-reliance, self-improvement, risk-taking, creativity, personal responsibility, humility, kindness, and compassion. The list could go on and on and for me it seems to do just that, but what does it mean to say you value humility? What does it meant to claim to be a compassionate person? Is it responsible of me to continue behaviors I know are causing damage to my environment? Which values are most important to me? How am I making sure that I am not simply paying lip service to this nebulous list of values? (There will be an upcoming series of post that explore my values which may be the backbone of my memoir)

This close look at my own personal values is the single biggest lesson I learned from Obama’s book. It is easy to stand on a soapbox and begrudge a politician for not doing the “right” thing. Who hasn’t acted the hypocrite when they judge the actions of others before looking closer at their own actions and deliverance of values?
I would often challenge leaders by asking them where they put their time, energy, and money. Those are the true tests of what we value, I’d tell them, regardless of what we like to tell ourselves. If we aren’t willing to pay a price for our values, if we aren’t willing to make some sacrifices in order to realize them, then we should ask ourselves whether we truly believe in them at all. 
My first reaction was that of glass-house stone-thrower. “Come on Obama! Where have you been putting you time, energy, and money?” The cynic in me could list page after page of incidences when Obama has betrayed his values through his actions, but as Ari reminded me last month, who am I to speak on the actions of others before I have put my own house of values in order. What are my values? What do I sacrifice? Where is my time, my energy, and my money being spent?

Suddenly, I am the blowhard anti-corporatist who works at a profit driven corporate school educating the very class I so often deride. Suddenly,  I am the environmentalist who travels by airplane three or four times a year. Suddenly, I am the compassionate person who drives by street kids in Jakarta hoping my daughter doesn’t ask me why. Suddenly, I am the vegetarian making ice cream using eggs and milk. Suddenly, I am the sell-out. It is much easier to project our values on politicians only to attack them when they let us down, then to look hard in the mirror and make sacrifices and choices that truly reflect for our values.

This simple realization made me see Obama as a human being. I put myself in his shoes and wondered how I would be attacked for my shortcomings. Before reading this book, I saw him as a shrewd manipulated/manipulative brand designed to assuage the left wing of American politics, and while this may still be true, I now see that beneath the veneer of the messiah is a man. A man who seems to share many of my values. A man who is on a similar path of growth and understanding. A man who may have chosen the wrong profession.

I will save that for next time. This book has made me think that perhaps the American political system is beyond repair, that perhaps a new form of government is needed, but that train of thought must leave a different station. For now, this book has me seriously rethinking my own values and politics. I will continue to use this space to work through my journey. Thanks for listening. Got any ideas? Share’em below.

No comments:

Post a Comment