There is an old story from Aesop's Fables about a traveler proceeding along a country road, watched over by the Sun and the Wind who debate which of them has the power to get the traveler to shed his coat. After wagering, the Wind goes first. He progressively escalates his force until gales are howling around the beleaguered traveler. But he only clutches more tightly to his tattered garment, until it is clear he will never let go. It is now the Sun's turn, and as he gradually warms the air the traveler delightedly takes off his coat.
In the last eight years, Americans among others have experienced, first, the intense winds of an emerging globalism and now, in turn, the first rays of its sun. The winds from the growing militancy of the globally marginalized, insisting upon a place at the table, reached their fiercest on 9/11. Not surprisingly, as the folk wisdom told us long ago, one primary result was to have Americans clutch ever tighter to their threatened privilege and to respond with fierce winds of their own.
More recently there has appeared Barack Obama in the most powerful office of the most dominant global player. Not simply a potential sun rising over the American landscape, Obama is -- symbolically at least -- a global son. He is the child of a white middle-American and a Kenyan villager who named him Hussein. He connects to Asian-Americans as a product of Hawaii and Indonesia. Some Jewish-Americans such as retired Congressman and federal judge Abner Mikva suggest he is because of his marginalized background the first Jewish president. His early message of inclusion, cross-cultural dialogue and cross-regional collaboration opens up the possibility of warming connections. To a nation and world that have retreated to separate enclaves of safety after years of vilification, division and violence, the energy of the sun appears to be spreading.
It is by no means inevitable that the Obama sun will continue to shine and allow a new global network of common problem-solving, mutual aid and cultural synthesis to thrive. In fact, ironically, the danger is that the winds of violence have so polarized regions and values that Obama's hand will be forced to respond in kind, in the Middle East and elsewhere. His harsh talk of retributive justice threatens to escalate the gales of militarism and competition for economic and regional dominance.
Regardless of the near-term outcome, the deeper symbolism of these two events will permanently transform the global configuration. The primal violence of 9/11 targeted at the central institutions of Western hegemony by those of vastly, even laughably, inferior resources irreversibly alters the world's calculus of significant players. This shift regarding who has to be counted and whose voices must be heard requires readjustments that existing systems and models of international decision-making are only beginning to comprehend. The more recent ascension of a global child to the world's highest post is nearly as incomprehensible in its long-term implications.
Acting out the folk tale to perfection, Barack tells us that as the power of the sun is unleashed, the result should not be in doubt. But if he blindly refuses to acknowledge that globalism is a dialogue between these two mighty forces, the path will be a long and costly one. These are in fact two faces of a common hunger for global equity.
Citizens of Western democracies would too quickly forget the lesson of their greatest political architect and unyielding analyst, Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes explained in his unparalleled and still immensely timely Leviathan how democratic society in the West was emerging jointly from the power of popular dreams and the vast political disruptions these were causing for established order. In his view, only the political fool would ignore their relation.
The wind is not to be denied, but it can be won over. President Obama's image in his Inaugural Address of the unclenched fist, and his stunning assertion during the campaign that national security requires global education to reduce the spaces where despair festers, are notable beginnings. As he nodded when civil rights hero Rev. Joseph Lowery spoke at the inauguration of turning tanks into tractors, just as swords can be beaten into plowshares, so too can the winds be harnessed to turn turbines and windmills, to sprout gardens where once there were only deserts.
Yet as the winds grow intermittently fiercer, the sun must recognize that its power, its unique power, originates in its ability to disarm and reanimate those clutching tightly to their wounds. It alone can provide release from the tenacious grip of despair, by offering a lighted path to human solidarity far beyond the wind's understanding.
[with special thanks to Ruth Fuerst]