Saturday, March 1, 2008
Michelle Obama and the Dream of Empathy
I took the Bear out of school on Thursday afternoon to go see Michelle Obama speak at the university's Memorial Auditorium. Lucky me.
The Bear and I waited outside for an hour in the sunny cold. The line wrapped thickly all the way to the edge of campus a couple blocks away and then disappeared into obscurity. The crowd was electrified. I'm normally a terrible wimp about the cold but I swear the crowd's energy kept us warm. Once inside, we waited for an hour in the auditorium (his dad had joined us by then). Surprisingly, the Bear only complained a little about the wait. He could see that if we'd arrived until the last minute, we might not have gotten in. As it was, we had decent seats – not quite front and center, but about 15 rows back – in a hall filled to its capacity of 1600. The crowd was mostly college-aged and it tilted female, for reasons that escape, though I also saw quite a few older adults too. (Only one other kid the Bear's age, though.)
Michelle was magnificent. Not having seen Barack in person, I guess it's theoretically possible that he has more charisma than her, but boy did she hold her own. Her demeanor was by turns serious and compassionate, wry and slyly funny, and always warm. Her delivery was flawless. She knows how to wear a navy dress and pearls without looking like she's playing dress-up in her mother's clothes (a trick I'm sure I couldn't pull off). As the student who covered it for the university's website put it: "Will I vote for Obama? I don't know. Is Michelle running?" (For more on one student's perspective, see Breanne Smith's piece in the OU Outlook.)
While the atmosphere is much of the fun of seeing a Famous Person live, I don't want to get fixated at the Maureen Dowd level. So let me say I thought the substance of Michelle's talk was heartening and inspiring, even though her central metaphor was how the bar keeps moving for people who are trying to get ahead economically – or merely stay in place. Not an inspiring theme on the face of it, yet I'm encouraged because naming the problem is the first step toward addressing it. It made me think the Obamas are serious about embracing the critique of inequality that was the centerpiece of the Edwards campaign.
The second thing I appreciated was Michelle's emphasis on empathy. She said that we've allowed ourselves to become atomized and isolated from one another, everyone just looking out for his or her own, and that a President Obama would challenge us to break out of our little bubbles. This obviously links up to the inequality theme and shows the progressive dimension to Barack's call for "unity." I've had some misgivings about this in the past but I felt like she put them to rest. This is not about capitulation to the right wing or even the Liebermans of the world. It's about invoking basic values of community and mutual aid and thus winning over Americans in the mushy middle, whether they consider themselves independent, apolitical, or even Republican.
Third, Michelle bluntly stated that an Obama presidency would be the beginning of citizen involvement, not the end of it. She expressed a commitment to democracy as a way of life, not just a slightly aberrant media event that comes around every four years. If she and her husband can use the White House as a bully pulpit to call forth grassroots activism and initiatives, they could transform the political culture of this country.
Fourth, Michelle spoke of her husband's unconventional upbringing as a powerful asset in rebuilding bridges abroad. Her positive and assertive framing of his years in Indonesia very much paralleled the way Barack has begun to redefine patriotism as a commitment to the common good, both nationally and internationally. They'll have to keep doing this – and be better at it than the Republican spinmeisters – if they hope to not just prevail in the primary and the general election but also govern in a way that leads us out of our current morass. Here too empathy is a driving force.
She assured us that he's not intimidated by the Swift Boaters; he came out of the harsh crucible of Chicago politics, after all. I think our political culture confuses negativity and pandering with political viability. What would happen if a candidate didn't pander – if he stuck to his convictions – if he didn't stoop to mudslinging? Is it possible that the American people are hungry for a candidate (and president) who takes the high road? It worked for Barack when he publicly opposed invading Iraq during his hard-fought Senate campaign in 2002. Can it work on a national scale? I guess we're soon to find out.
Afterward, I asked the Bear what he thought. I was afraid he might have been bored or even disturbed by her comments about crumbling schools and kids with no future. His response? "Great!"
So then I asked him why he'd like Obama to become president, well aware that political awareness at age eight is not so different from brainwashing. "Because he wants to bring the troops home from Iraq, Mama." I'm sure I've said that to him, sometime in the distant past. But I haven't lately, nor did Michelle dwell on the war. It gives me hope that he's learning to make his own judgments and apply his own values. I am so pleased about this – even though it means he might very well cancel out my vote someday. I told him so, and I think he got that, too.
MLK Day kittehs from I Can Has Cheezburger?