Theodore Roosevelt once said, “The United States of America has not the option as to whether it will or it will not play a great part in the world. It must play a great part. All that it can decide is whether it will play that part well or badly.”
If this is to be believed and I believe it is not only true of the US but virtually every capable nation in the world than this November 4th may mark a great turning point for not only the US but the world entire.
Barack Obama’s second book, The Audacity of Hope, is one part memoir, one part political infomercial. The subtitle he uses is “Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream”, and although the specifics of the book are of his experience as an American politician and address American culture and politics only, many of his insights and messages can be applied far and wide, in the same ways that the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Nelson Mandela (to name a few) reach and effect change in the furthest corners of the globe. Perhaps it seems like a bit of a stretch at this point to couple Obama with such great thinkers, activists and human beings. But so many parallels can be drawn between the way Obama thinks, speaks, writes and above all the way he is beginning to inspire, and that of the most influential figures of the last century. Of course there are large differences: he is not a spiritual leader (specifically) or an advocate for non-violence exclusively (he believes in force when necessary). And of course, action speaks louder than words and time will tell.
I want to look at The Audacity of Hope and suggest that others do the same because I think that if offers a great glimpse of not only what Barack Obama may bring to American politics, the future internal success of the US and its role in the world, but also how it asks each of us to step our of ourselves and see the world through the eyes of even individuals with which we so greatly differ in our views and perhaps even despise. Obama notes George W. Bush as a specific and important example of this, but he does not, of course, regard the President as someone he despises. In fact, he makes it clear how important it is to get beyond this kind of negative associating. Or perhaps disassociating is a better way to put it.
Obama believes that we are suffering from an empathy deficit. He states, “I believe a stronger sense of empathy would tilt the balance of our current politics in favor of those people who are struggling in this society. After all, if they are like us, then their struggles are our own. If we fail to help, we diminish ourselves” The book, and perhaps much of Obama’s approach to politics, is based on an idea that has been echoed and reverberated over the last century from Gandhi to King to Mandela and many, many other spiritual and political leaders: the idea that we are all in this together, that that which affects me directly, affects you indirectly and vice-versa. Obama puts it this way, “We have a stake in one another, and that what binds us together is greater than what drives us apart.”
Obama relates this idea to the American experience citing that at the core of the American dream are a set of ideals that stir our collective conscience; a common set of values that bind us together despite our differences; a running thread of hope that makes our improbable experiment in democracy work.
And this is the goal of Audacity of Hope and perhaps the over-arching goal of Obama’s quest to be president: to bring together the great power of democracy and the great gift of humanity as they are meant to be bound through peace, community, selflessness and understanding. By breaking down labels conservative or liberal that hinder progress and are, at the very least, inadequate to address the problems we face and rarely track people’s personal attributes.
Obama tries to breakdown the concepts of for-or-against politics, rigid doctrines and a slash-an-burn style that have all become cornerstones of the Bush administration and typical of US politics in general. He recognizes the smallness of this kind of politics and the inability of it to tackle our very large challenges as a nation. He states, “It’s precisely the pursuit of ideological purity, the rigid orthodoxy and the sheer predictability of our current political debate that keeps us from finding new ways to meet the challenges we face as a country. It’s what keeps us locked in either/or thinking.”
Throughout the book, Obama tracks from the Declaration of Independence to 911 and its aftermath how US politics have arrived to this point. He is critical but steadfast in the belief that democracy is, in all its imperfections, the best way to benefit humanity as a whole and to bring peace and prosperity to the world. And he believes that the US has a great and positive role to play in the development of the world, but understands that ideas of manifest destiny and nation building must be left behind. Multilateral cooperation amongst every nation in the world, the sharing of ideas and values, and a shared stake in the global order are in his eyes the steps to peaceful progress for everyone, not just Americans.
Audacity of Hope offers that very thing, hope, and applies it to a seemingly failing and weakening nation. The United States is more divided now than any time since our civil war and the concept that United We Stand, Divided We Fall is an idea that applies more now than ever, and not just to us, to every individual throughout this world. More and more everyday as this world becomes smaller and smaller we see in very relatable truth that that which effects be directly effect everyone else indirectly and often times in a very direct and real way as well. Some may argue that the weakening, even the downfall of the United States as a world power (some say empire) will ultimately benefit much of the world in the long term if not immediately. I cannot entirely disagree, considering the amount of wealth the US holds and the amount of energy, food and natural resources we consume compared with our population not to mention our tendency to bully, control and manipulate much of the rest of the world for our own selfish interests.
That said, the immediate negative impact of a failing US economy cannot be ignored. The impact is far and wide and it goes without saying that the global economic downturn is a direct result of that of the US. I will argue, as an extension of Obama’s argument within and specific to the United States, that it is of dire importance that Americans come together to save ourselves so that we may engage our strength and needs with the strength and needs of the rest of world so that it may as a whole keep spinning round, least we see the darker prophecies of myth and religion come true. Obama states, America could best serve the cause of freedom by concentrating on its own development, becoming a beacon of hope for other nations and people around the globe. There was a time when this message did not ring so falsely, with such negative connotations around the world. Where it didn’t come with the fear of forceful invasion and taking with want and want without giving. There was a time when the peaceful progress of the United States inspired people all over the world and inspired that same peaceful progress in nations all over the world. This time may yet come again.
The interest while reading Audacity of Hope to non-US readers may be sporadic throughout the book as it looks very specifically only at the United States in terms of politics and culture, but the broader message cannot be ignored by anyone who holds the values of human dignity, community and democracy dear to heart. I don’t agree with every word Obama says or each of his policy issues. I don’t agree with much of what the United States has stood for over the last eight years or even throughout much of our existence (God knows we have made major, lasting mistakes). Our constitution and the so-called American Dream are flawed, but serve as great examples of one of the most constant human virtues: our undying desire to find and spread peace and prosperity, as imperfect as they may be, to anyone willing and able to accept, work and fight for them.
Like any religion, political document, individual or organization nations are flawed and open to critical interpretation, even harsh judgment. But in each of these things are great aspects of humanity bursting at the seams, waiting, wanting nothing more than to be valued and enacted. I believe the United States is no exception. Seek the good in anything and you will find it. Then spread its wealth far and wide. Don’t fear flaws and imperfections or even evil. Overwhelm them with kindness, good and peace. Audacity of hope is a start what we need is an audacity of action.
Obama believes that In a democracy the most powerful office is the office of citizen. We have the ability to exercise that power on a daily basis, not just on November 4th, and we have an obligation to do so, because not everyone can.