Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The America I Want To Belong To

Barack Obama gave the commencement speech at NU a few days back. It wasn't Gettysburg address or anything--more of a kind of revamped JFK inauguration speech. But it spoke to things I have not heard this administration which gave us the Abramoff lobbying scandal, the Iraq tragedy/travesty, the antigay marriage amendment, the bullshit flag amendment, and the most divided America I’ve seen since the Viet Nam era, consider, much less address. Obama’s speech is about thinking of others not as people you conquer or ignore, but try to understand.

Some excerpts:

“Cultivate empathy: There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit, the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.

As you go on in life, cultivating this quality of empathy will become harder, not easier. There’s no community service requirement in the real world; no one forcing you to care. You’ll be free to live in neighborhoods with people who are exactly like yourself, and send your kids to the same schools, and narrow your concerns to what’s going on in your own little circle.

Not only do we live in a culture that discourages empathy. A culture that too often tells us our principal goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained. A culture where those in power too often encourage these selfish impulses. They will tell you that the Americans who sleep in the streets and beg for food got there because they’re all lazy or weak of spirit. That the inner-city children who are trapped in dilapidated schools cant learn and won’t learn and so we should just give up on them entirely. That the innocent people being slaughtered and expelled from their homes half a world away are somebody else’s problem to take care of.

I hope you don’t listen to this. I hope you choose to broaden, and not contract, your ambit of concern. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, although you do have that obligation. Not because you have a debt to all of those who helped you get to where you are, although you do have that debt.

It’s because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. And because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential and become full-grown.

Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a poverty of ambition. It asks too little of yourself. And it will leave you unfulfilled. I often think about the young Americans, teenagers and college kids not much older than you from all over the country, watching the Civil Rights Movement unfold before them on their television sets.

I imagine that they would’ve seen the marchers and heard the speeches, but they also probably saw the dogs and the fire hoses, or the footage of innocent people being beaten within an inch of their lives; or heard the news the day those four little girls died when someone threw a bomb into their church.

Instinctively, they knew that it was safer and smarter to stay at home; to watch the movement from afar. But they also understood that these people in Georgia and Alabama and Mississippi were their brothers and sisters; that what was happening was wrong; and that they had an obligation to make it right. When the buses pulled up for a Freedom Ride down South, they got on. They took a risk. And they changed the world.

So don’t let people talk you into doing the safe thing. Listen to what’s inside of you and decide what it is that you care about so much that you’re willing to risk it all.”

I’m not one of those who think Obama should be our next president. Hes too untested, but I like hearing from someone who tells us that we are in deep shit instead of telling us comfortable lies. I like hearing from someone who talks about unifying people instead of characterizing as enemies anyone who disagrees with him.

I want to live in the America the Obama describes, not the America Bush has reduced this country to.

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