Monday, March 31, 2008
Barack Obama, American fundamentalist
I think I've discovered something about Barack Obama and I'm ready to share this discovery with the rest of you. It's not a secret exactly. It's really obvious when you actually listen to the things he says. I know you're not supposed to do that without proper inoculation first, but I have and I've come away from the experience with this observation, an observation that I hereby share: Barack Obama is a fundamentalist, an American fundamentalist.
I'd had my suspicions along these lines for a while, now. That speech from 2004 Democratic Convention, that disturbing way he described being an American more vividly than he described being a Democrat, his books and his campaign and the speeches he has given along the way —they all have this habit of examining America, it's history and documented ideals, for enduring meaning.
Two recent examples: his speech on race and his speech on the economy.
Obama had a political mess on his hands with the Rev. Wright controversy. Pundits who supported him and those who didn't argued about just what ritual sort of renunciation would suffice. Should Obama throw the reverend off the bus, under it, or drag him behind it on a rope? Instead Senator Obama chose to respond with the kind of political speech that is more rightly referred to as an address. He actually chose to address a larger issue than the political damage of potential guilt by association. He didn't start his speech with some list of his own exculpations or counter accusations against his electoral rivals. He would speak to the reality of this country's problem with race, but he started with what he saw as a core virtue of this country, as he described it, "written into its DNA" at the founding, the notion of a "more perfect union" —one that must continue to be "perfected."
As such, the speech didn't completely cure the country, or even his campaign, of all ills and flaws. But it did give us an indication of Barack Obama's thinking.
Just a week later he was speaking to the country's economic situation, he spoke at Cooper Union about the need to see "Main Street and Wall Street" as operators in the same universe. He talked common sense (at least to me) about linking government insurance of investment banks with oversight and accountability. He cautioned against over-managing the economy, while acknowledging the past damages and potential dangers of deregulation taken to the extreme of obliviousness as government policy.
What struck me about the speech, beside the common sense, was the way he once again framed a realistic —even pragmatic— policy speech in a longer historical perspective. He pointed to Jefferson and Hamilton and their differing ideals about the young American republic. He pointed to the reasoned balance they and the country struck in defining freedom in economic terms. Obama argued that this definition wasn't a static formulation, but rather that it was and is an ongoing balance between between ideals and practical effect.
America as something always ready to be made "more perfect," as an ongoing experiment in practical idealism: That's an understanding of this country that inspires and informs at the same time. It's a thinking that embraces pride in this country, as something opposed to complacency with what it has accomplished —that rather sees pride in that American idea as a willingness to contemplate what it might still accomplish —perhaps, even what it must.
There are, of course, negative connotations to the term "fundamentalism" —it can refer to a rigid exclusivity in thinking where it doesn't belong. It can be born of a wrong headed pride in narrow understandings. But that's not the fundamentalism I am describing here, that I am celebrating in Barack Obama's politics. Among other definitions for the term, Merriam-Webster also describes fundamentalism as an "adherence to basic principles" —that's more like it. It also defines fundamental as being "of central importance" and "belonging to one's innate or ingrained characteristics."
What Barack Obama has shown again and again, in his speeches and writings in the conduct of his public life and in the course of his campaign, is that he thinks in terms of those "basic principles" involved with being an American, that he is aware of their enduring "central importance." He challenges others in the public debate to reason in these terms, and he tests his own thinking that way, too.
That just might be the kind of fundamentalism this country needs.