In a recent piece longtime activist Bill Fletcher Jr. contends that Sen. Obama "permits people to see and assume in him what they want to see and assume." He goes on to compare the Senator to a certain Star Trek creature, the kind that appears to the viewer as he wished to see it.
I see where Mr. Fletcher is coming from. Every time I've heard the Senator speak, or have read his work, there seems to be food for everyone. I read Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope back-to-back, and I noticed a certain pattern emerge. He would take a tough subject, such as immigration (as he does in the "Race" chapter in The Audacity of Hope), and allow all parties to sit at the table. He states one case, tells us why they have a point, moves on to the next party, tells us why they have a point, until he gets all the way around the table, without taking a stand that excludes or shames anyone seated.
He does not say everybody is right. He lays out their arguments, giving validation in the process, so that hotheads can cool down and common ground can be sought.
He does not absent himself either; he interjects personal observations and anecdotes liberally. He lets you know that he's willing to walk in your shoes, and yeah, those shoes can be painful.
For those of us who feel passionately about one principle over the other, this can be maddening. We want someone to say that we're right and they're wrong. This may be soothing for the ego. But is this good for progress?
Sen. Obama's way is how conflict gets diffused and consensus gets built. Sen. Obama was clear to say this morning on This Week that he is not naïve to think that he's going to get the whole country to hold hands and sing Kumbaya. Instead, these are the skills he needs if and when he brings warring DC parties to the table -- a table that, as things stand now, is practically burnt to the ground.
I would argue that Sen. Obama's desire to damp-down difference is part of the peacemaker's way. The leader who brings adversaries to the negotiation table is smart to validate points of each argument, to give confidence that she or he knows opposing concerns are legitimate and worthy of discussion. The leader instills confidence that everyone will get a fair hearing. We've had six years of my-way-or-the-highway. A strong peacemaker stands the best chance of creating progress at home and salvaging what's left of our good name abroad.
Yet, we demand a president to be someone who will say "I am this, and I am not that." We demand the candidate to differentiate himself or herself deeply, to cut connections from others so there is little ambiguity, so that the candidate goes from being a complex individual to an icon we can hang on the wall.
This need to sell a candidate in shorthand is not going away anytime soon. However, I ask that the thoughtful among us take the time to consider that Obama's way is the way to peace, the way to growth on every level.
I am from Detroit, a northerner by birth. I remember my first trip to Mississippi two years ago. I spent a weekend in Jackson, often at tables of people I've never met before, people of deep religious faith and conservative belief. We told personal stories. The workings of God's love and spirit came into conversation often. I felt common ground, for I believe in a loving God and a sweetly responsive universe. When we talked like that, the best of our hearts was in communion. But the minute someone asked us to define our politics -- "yes, I'm a Democrat...yes, I'm a Catholic" -- then poof, there it went. I became "this" and they became "that" and suddenly our differences loomed larger than our commonalities and inside I could feel us retreating to our corners.
I've experienced this in my churchgoing as well. I think of myself as deeply spiritual, but I am not committed to any organized religion. I was raised Catholic, and I sometimes go to Mass. But if given the choice, I'd often prefer to spend Sunday in a loving Baptist or Pentecostal service, because among those worshipers I feel the Holy Sprit in a vibrant, passionate way that I don't often do at Mass. Now, if the pastor decided to use the sermon to go political, chances are I would grow anxious or angry. And I know if I sat down and talked belief structures with the worshipers, and we started talking about "I believe this but I don't believe that," -- well, the "don't believe that" is going to get us in trouble. But for that hour+ we were focused on love, on cooperation, on opening our hearts to something greater than ourselves, we were all connected. We were all capable of working in concert. It is in that space -- the space a great leader can summon -- that we can make great changes in our own life and in the lives of others.
This morning on This Week, the Senator said himself that he has "the capacity to get people to recognize themselves in each other." I was reminded of something President Clinton said in the closing remarks of last year's Clinton Global Initiative conference. He told of when the human genome was finally mapped, scientists discovered that 99.9 percent of the human genetic structure is identical for everyone. Yet, he argued, we spend much of our energy focused on the 0.1 percent, and that we need to concentrate on our shared humanity. I remember clapping hard at those lines. I felt a true love and pride for a statesman who would put his strength and gravitas behind the continued building of community, when everything in our culture conspires to keep us atomized and weak.
While Sen. Obama must continue to show us the details of what an Obama presidency can look like, let's hope we have the wisdom to know the difference between shape-shifting, and what is simply a peacemakers's desire to damp-down difference. Your average peacemaker doesn't spend much time beating his chest and harping on differences that can't be overcome.