Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Words and Statesmanship

One of the mounting criticisms of Senator Barack Obama is that he is full of nice sounding words and inspirational and erudite speeches, but that he lacks substance. The merit of that argument is weak at best, but it overlooks the significance of his words. The argument overlooks the fact that the spoken word of a leader is part of their representation of the people. What Obama’s critics fail to see is that one of the principal pillars of statesmanship is the ability to demonstrate intellect, insight and class – in the form of manners and sense of occasion - in the spoken word. These critiques of Obama are distinctly American. They are reflective of the degree to which manners, refinement and a sense of what is appropriate have degenerated in American society. The popular conception of Americans as crass and crude people is confirmed in our criticism of Obama’s ability to communicate tastefully, thoughtfully, correctly and effectively.

The enormity of the difference between Obama the statesman and all others was highlighted again today. In response to Fidel Castro’s yielding power in Cuba, Mike Huckabee said that,

Until Fidel Castro is dead, there can be no significant movement towards reform in Cuba. Raul Castro has proven that he’s as much a tyrant and dictator as his brother Fidel.

That language is crass and unbecoming of a candidate for the presidency of a nation. There are innumerable ways to convey the same sentiment with language that is worthy of a head of state. Huckabee’s statement exemplifies the demeanor of President Bush and the decline of American class. Referring to the terrorists in the aftermath of September 11th, President Bush said that, “we’ll smoke ‘em out” and that, “we want ‘em dead or alive.” By contrast, the language of the statesman Tony Blair was that, “their barbarism shall be their shame for all eternity.” One is the language of a local mechanic after a car has been stolen from his shop, the other is the language of a head of state.

The ability to communicate effectively with the masses does not require speaking and behaving like the masses. The president need not be viewed as a common man or woman in order to be able to communicate with common men or women. The ability, as Rudyard Kipling put it - to walk with Kings nor lose the common touch – is indeed an ability. It indicates that they are two separate skills. Being a statesman requires both, in addition to the ability to know when each is appropriate.

Obama represents what has become elusive in the American political landscape. He is a statesman. He stands head and shoulders above the coarse and derisive language of the media and other politicians. Not only is his oratory appealing and effective, it rests on top of a giant intellect which is guided by his real concern for the well being of common people. That concern is the all important link with the common man and woman, not a folksy swagger with street talk. Statesmanship is the bundle of communicative abilities, vision, intellect and human compassion. Obama has them all and his words serve as a window for us to see them.


Friday, February 15, 2008

John Lewis Sees the Light

An excerpt from, “A Letter to John Lewis”….

Your public support of Senator Clinton was not especially linked to specific thematic differences between her campaign and Senator Obama’s. Rather, it was based on your belief in her ability to lead. If their political differences are slim, then you ought to lend your support to Senator Obama. It is a logical continuance of our support of you. Again, the possibilities that you always speak of are made real because we believe in each other, because we have believed in you. Your leadership opportunities were born in the black community embracing you and willing you forward, bolstering the “courage” that is so often attached to you. Leadership is only partly innate. We also bestow it upon each other by believing in one another. For you to deny Senator Obama that belief and the force of your will in his support is a contradiction of identity. Even more unsettling, it is a violation of the basic trust between you and the community of people like me who have supported you.

I hope that in the spirit of other iconic Movement heroes like Malcolm X, you would reflect and reconsider. Feeling that you have to prove to white people that you are not bound by race by supporting Senator Clinton over Senator Obama is not courage, it's cowardice. Senator Obama’s political skills and intellectual acumen are obvious. His agenda is in keeping with the best tradition of the Democratic Party and its support of the common citizen. People like you, better than most, can deeply appreciate what he means; what this moment means. We are indeed well past being asked how many bubbles are in a bar of soap and all things are possible, provided we believe in each other.

An excerpt from, “Black Leader Pulls Support from Clinton”…

Representative John Lewis, an elder statesman from the civil rights era and one of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s most prominent black supporters, said Thursday night that he planned to cast his vote as a superdelegate for Senator Barack Obama in hopes of preventing a fight at the Democratic convention.

“In recent days, there is a sense of movement and a sense of spirit,” said Mr. Lewis, a Georgia Democrat who endorsed Mrs. Clinton last fall. “Something is happening in America, and people are prepared and ready to make that great leap.”

Mr. Lewis, who carries great influence among other members of Congress, disclosed his decision in an interview in which he said that as a superdelegate he could “never, ever do anything to reverse the action” of the voters of his district, who overwhelmingly supported Mr. Obama.

“I’ve been very impressed with the campaign of Senator Obama,” Mr. Lewis said. “He’s getting better and better every single day.”

His comments came as fresh signs emerged that Mrs. Clinton’s support was beginning to erode from some other African-American lawmakers who also serve as superdelegates. Representative David Scott of Georgia, who was among the first to defect, said he, too, would not go against the will of voters in his district….


Friday, February 1, 2008

Meanwhile in Kenya

Tomorrow is my daughter’s fourth birthday. She laughs more often than she smiles, she sings more often than she talks and she cries about twice a month. My wife and I relish in the obvious fact that she is fundamentally happy and we give thanks for that. One of the challenges that we face, alongside all parents, is trying to navigate the developmental path that keeps her identity as a child safe and her psyche and fundamental happiness protected. In thinking about that, I am concerned about the images of African and Pan-African people that she will be exposed to.

In the last few weeks it has dawned on me that my own psyche requires some protection from exposure. I can feel that my defenses are being worn down. The story and the imagery of Africa and African people that I grew up with do not match those that I am being bombarded with now.

I grew up reading about freedom fighters and Pan-Africanists – the heady and courageous days of Dedan Kimathi, Patrice Lumumba, Leopold Senghor, Kwame Nkrumah (Osagyefo) and Nelson Mandela (Madiba). I read about their intellectual fortitude, their courage and their visions of Africa and African people. I read about their influence on Caribbean leaders like Eric Williams, Walter Rodney, C.L.R. James and Michael Manley.

Conversations about them, their influence on the world and the identity of black people within it were an integral part of my household growing up, a part of the development of my identity. My own name, Kamau, is a Kikuyu name. I suspect that my parents were inspired by the Kenyan Mau-Mau rebellion and thought that a Kikuyu name, meaning quiet warrior, would forever connect me to this formidable Pan-African identity. What my parents did was to choose a developmental path that hardened the walls around my psyche, my humanity and my identity as Pan-African person.

Now I find myself besieged by images of African barbarism with white celebrities like George Clooney, Mia Farrow and Bono raising the flag on behalf of African humanity. The leaders and images that were the cornerstones of Pan-African identity are gone. What is emerging is an image of black people as fractured. We are victims of each other and of a global system in which we have precious little influence. The constant slaughter of black people by other black people, across Africa, in Jamaica, in Haiti, in Baltimore is becoming too much to bear. It is becoming difficult to protect my own psyche against those messages that say that we are a fractured people, somehow less than that oft referenced Other.

I learned my lessons from Minister Farrakhan and Malcolm X, indeed from the very leaders that were part of my growing up. I know the barbarism and deceit that white people can exact on each other and certainly on the rest of us and I would not reference my humanity against them. That isn’t the problem that I have. I find no solace in comparative suffering or joy in pointing out the weaknesses of others. I have a problem finding the far reaching examples of humanity coming out of the African world that originate and are articulated by African people.

These kinds of examples of African and Pan-African intellect and humanity are simply gone or are very difficult to find. They have been replaced by the images and realities from Kenya, from Sudan, from Liberia, from the Congo, from Haiti, and from Rwanda. In light of the pictures just from the last few weeks, I am searching for the developmental path. I am searching for the armor for my daughter’s psyche so that her identity can be linked to a broader Pan-African identity that is rooted in faith, intellect, courage and fundamental human decency.

It is a growing challenge….