Friday, August 21, 2020

Obama's prophetic "bird" call to Americans and the world

 Kierkegaard knew that he could have no friends….he loved the universal, the human in men, but as something other, something denied to him….Kierkegaard, said that he was ‘in almost every physical respect deprived of the conditions for being a whole man. He had never been a man: at very most , child and youth. He lacked ‘the animal side of humanity.’…In contrast to the abandonment, failure, and contingency of ..existence…was the growing consciousness …of the meaning, sense and necessity of all that happened to (him.) Kierkegaard called it Providence. He recognized the divinity into: ‘That everything that happens, is said, goes on and so forth, is portentous: the factual continually changes itself to mean something far higher.’ The factual for him is not something to abstract oneself from, but rather something to be penetrated until God himself gives the meaning. Even what he himself did became clear only later. It was ‘the extra which I do not own to myself but to Providence. It shows itself continually in such a fashion that even what I do out of the greatest possible conviction, afterwards I understand far better….Kierkegaard compared himself to a bird which foretells rain: ‘When in a generation, a thunderstorm begins to threaten, individuals like me appear.’…Kierkegaard repeated innumerable times that he was not an authority, or a prophet,  apostle, or reformer, nor did he have that authority of position. His problem was to awaken men. He had a certain police talent, to be a spy in the service of the divinity. He uncovered, but he did not assert what should be done. (from Karl Jaspers, Reason and Existenz, Noonday Press, 1955, p.41-44)


Why all these words, in honour and respect and remembrance of Soren Kierkegaard?

There was a line in the historic address by Barack Obama on Wednesday evening, about the nature of democracy. The transcript reads like this:

But here’s the thing: no single American can fix this country alone. Not even a president. Democracy was never meant to be transactional—you give me your vote: I make everything better. It requires an active and informed citizenry. So, I am also asking you to believe in your own ability—to embrace your own responsibility as citizens, to make sure that the basic tenets of our democracy endure.

Obama, like a burning bush, here bursts into a culture in which so much of our public discourse, and indeed our assimilated mind-set revolves around the “transactional” (what have you done for me lately?) as if in each and every encounter we are either consumer or producer, either buyer or seller, either in charge or in debt, either superior or inferior, either liked or hated, either worthy or worthless, either likeable or contemptible, either admirable or detestable.

We have fallen, often if not always, unconsciously, into a my-camp, or the enemy camp mentality, and we too often continue to dig a deeper and deeper trench around our “camp” and even build fortifications to keep those “others” out of our space. Inevitably in such an ethos, given the fear and the insecurity of each untenable, exclusive and each obviously superior side, we each gestate and then traffic in conspiracies that enhance the demonization of the other side. Currently, it seems that the ‘trump-cult’ seems far more dependent on such a stream of bile, given their leader’s overt support for such groups as Q-Anon.

Whatever the racist, sexist, or ideological basis of any group, and regardless of which social media platform has not yet banned its dissemination of hate, one of the features seems to be a fealty, indeed a fawning over a single personage, even if that personage is little more than a papier mache version of a fully-developed human being. And this sycophancy, of course, is underscored by a person whose psychological needs are so profound that “liking me” is the single criteria of acceptance and even honour.

So, ‘there were very good people on both sides’ in Charlottesville; and these people love America (commenting on QAnon) and the enmeshment of individual and cult grows inextricable, cemented, of course, by the gorilla glue of political fawning.

Into this cauldron of national, personal, political and potentially global existential threat, Obama trumpets a call to reclaim personal responsibility, through independent critical thought, investigation, and then marking a ballot. A government and an administration that behaves like an elementary school child, imposing tariffs on a whim, banning Muslims also on a whim, incarcerating children as a violent and viscious “deterrence” to others, framing COVID-19 as the “China virus” and continuing to frame opponents as sleepy, criminal, lazy, and “unwanted” simply adds venom to the already smouldering political crock-pot.

Obama asks each American, and by inference, each person listening around the world, to recall and to reflect on the fundamental nature of democracy: not merely a reductionistic transaction of a vote and a solution. Democracy is antithetical to a car or a computer purchase. It has unwritten warranties that require a critical consciousness of who one is as citizen, who one is as representative, what each can and must expect of the other and what processes exist to enable the relationship to continue to function based on mutual trust.

There are no widgets being produced, packed and shipped to a waiting consumer, who can then open and examine the quality of the product. There are no specific profits to be garnered by those engaged in the debate of public issues, the “sausage-making” of preparing a legislative bill, and then of debating the merits/demerits of that bill prior to voting. And those processes, including warranties, and boundaries, and relationships, while somewhat guarded by legalities and regulations, not merely imply but rely on a level of understanding, both cognitive and emotional, both denotative and connotative, both historic and contemporary, both philosophic and pragmatic, both conversational and communal, both sacred and secular, both immediate and long-range. And also much more than each of these either/or’s…

And to participate fully in the complexities of this democratic process, two primary ingredients are required. There has to be a highly engaged, informed and proactive mind and body and spirit among the people, that has not been contaminated by the rust of cynicism, suspicion and disengagement. And in order for that proactive and engaged person to participate fully and authentically, those in positions of leadership have to honour, respect and comply with the obvious and stringent requirements of not merely ethical comportment, nor merely public relations talking points, but the hard work of learning the fine print of each issue, the competing interests and the necessity of explaining these to as broad a range of constituents as is feasible.

Simplifying, as reducing each issue to a “right” or “wrong” as trump does with every single issue, is the kind of contemptuous patronizing his administration claims as its signature. Disregard of the details, disregard of the guardrails, disregard of the people themselves, lies at the core of his modus operandi.

And it is that ensnarement of the population by trump and his altar-boys, barr, mnuchin, dejoy, mcconnell, graham, to which Obama is singing.

There is a profound constitutional issue at the heart of Obama’s plea. There is also an equally profound human/personal/identity issue at the core of the Obama prayer. To be and to permit trump and his cult to continue to impose a patronizing, reductionistic, hyperbolic, narcissistic, and melodramatic framing of each and every person and issue on the political stage, is the monster Obama is confronting.

Of course, as a constitutional scholar and lecturer, Obama is steeped in the vernacular and the thought processes and the traditions of the democratic process as enshrined in both law and tradition. A knowledge and a basic consciousness of both law and tradition is increasingly absent from a large segment of the population. And it is this vacuum that Obama seeks to awaken, and then to enrich, for its own sake and for the sake of the republic.

Like Kierkegaard, Obama is more interested in being the ‘bird’ in the thunderstorm, in this historic (as a former president excoriates his successor) speech, than in debating the various policy proposals of his ‘brother’ Joe Biden. Obama has had his turn at the helm of the ship of state, and, not incidentally or accidentally, steered her through some very choppy and dangerous seas. His reputation, his honour and his dignity were never in question throughout his two-term tenure in the Oval Office, at least to the vast majority of Americans on both sides of the aisle.

The current administration, incarnated and embodied in a single person, seeking a single transactional exchange, with a base enmeshed in a mind-set and a cultural ethos that needs to simplify, and to reduce each and every issue to a sound-byte of their preferred ‘fast-food’ hamburg, easily and voraciously consumed and digested in contempt for all liberals and supporters of the Democratic ticket.

Clearly, it is not only the system of governance of the nation that is at risk. So too is the literal and metaphoric health of every American, seen from a physical, intellectual, psychological, emotional and especially a spiritual perspective.

And this ‘bird’ sees a thunderstorm far beyond those currently being reported by the political, the climatological, the fiscal and the entertainment forecasters. While Joe Biden says he is fighting to reclima the “soul of America” and his claim is both worthy and justified.

There might just be some uncertainty as to what is comprised in a nation’s soul.  Of course, it has to include the access to opportunity, health care, education, work with dignity and freedom from injustice, as well as a clean environment. Yet, if and when each individual loses or neglects, or walks away from the seat at the table to which all have been invited, through birth, family, citizenship, landed immigrant status, permanent work visa, or whatever legitimate ‘credential,’ because s/he has lost trust in the vision of legitimate and feasible possibilities, (that key definition of the United States for Biden himself), then the energy to continue to participate in this “relationship” atrophies.

And if you have ever been in a situation in which your whole being “knew” that you no longer had energy, commitment, hope and trust for this relationship, you know what that feels like and what is the likely, if not inevitable, outcome of that relationship.

And, tragically, for millions of Americans, who, without publicly articulating their truth, “have quit and stayed” and then turned their contempt into nationalistic venom, conspiracy-mongering, racist rhetoric, homophobic slurs, (even Amazon had to withdraw a t-shirt bearing the words “Joe and Hoe” as part of a cynical anti-Biden campaign), this ‘bird’ is cawing loudly, from the shores of the St. Lawrence River, barely a stones-throw away from upstate New York, wake up America.

To plunge your country into four more years of this debacle is not only a foretaste of your own tragic demise; it also portends a serious erosion of the planet’s capacity to withstand the pressures we are all collectively imposing on its fragility. And we are also likely to experience the spill-over of a cultural meme of hate, racism, sexism, and the importation of weapons through the underground economy, on which most criminals depend, regardless of where they live or were born.

Leadership of the kind the world has witnessed for the past nearly four years from this administration, has no respect for the human condition, for the planet’s future, for the plight of refugees encamped in tents by the millions, and for the human rights of besieged peoples in too many countries like China, North Korea, Syria, and even Russia.

When the president-turned poetic prophet sings, can the people of America hear his truth? And if they can hear it, can they discern the depth of its import? And if they can discern the profundity of its weight, can they summon the will to exercise both their ballot and their commitment to support the legitimate attempts to dissipate this engulfing thunderstorm that has a human and a vile author?

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