08/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama: Is it Time to Give Up? (Part III of a Series)

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.