Sunday, February 24, 2008

Cindy McCain's America is not Michelle Obama's, and it's Probably not Your's

An essential component of effective leadership is the ability to step outside of your own viewpoint, if only momentarily, to better understand the position of another. This is what is referred to as being "open-minded." Of course, being open-minded doesn't mean that you have to adopt the view of the other, but you need to be able to understand the roots of that other party's actions and views.

An anti-example of this open-mindedness is found in the reaction of many U.S. citizens' to suicide bombers. Rather than try to understand the life circumstances of these desperate individuals -- exploring the role poverty, political repression and foreign intervention played in their decisions-- closed-minded individuals attribute it to a religion and culture which they do not understand, and do not attempt to understand. Dismissive terms like "satanic," "barbaric" and "bloodthirsty" are attached to Islam and that, for many people, is explanation enough; suicide bombers = evil believers in an evil ideology.

That sort of thinking, most often displayed by the right in U.S. politics, extends beyond the "War on Terror," and pervades issues both domestic and international. In its zeal to defend America against its "enemies," both internal and external, it latches onto the quickest, easiest interpretation. A recent comment made by Harvard Law alumnus and model U.S. citizen Michelle Obama, and the subsequent reaction to it, offers a domestic example of this closed-minded approach, substituting political opportunism and jingoism for rational thinking.

The comment from Michelle: "For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country. Not just because Barack is doing well, but I think people are hungry for change."

The reaction was hostile, with many right-wing pundits denouncing Michelle, and by extension her husband, as unpatriotic. The implication is that no true America-loving, God-fearing individual could ever be anything less than proud of America.

Cindy McCain affirmed that when she stood before the cameras and said "I have, and always will be, proud of my country."

Cindy McCain, born into affluence, helped finance her husband's first successful bid for congress, in 1982, with money from her trust fund. In other words, she was born into the (white) world of power and has rested comfortably within it since her birth.

Michelle Obama is an African American female, and based on that alone her relationship to her country is a more complex one. Without a doubt, the roots of Michelle's comment went far beyond the government's treatment of African Americans, but that alone would be grounds for righteous indignation. Should she be incessantly and automatically proud of a government that only in the last 40 years has begun to move towards the self-evident truth that all men are created equal?

The obvious answer is "absolutely not," and that extends to any individual, regardless of their heritage. Those who unquestioningly accept that "U.S. government = Good" not only show an inability to open their minds beyond a narrow world view, they reveal the incompetence of their mental processes.

If Cindy McCain has always been proud of the country, it's because she doesn't know the country. She knows the U.S. that George Bush knows, or that Ted Kennedy knows. The difference between her and Ted, however, is that she is unable, or unwilling, to put herself in the position of others who may not have enjoyed the same privileges. Her life's trajectory has presented her with one side of America, the sunny side, and she either A) hasn't thought to look around the corner, or B) looked around the corner and processed nothing of what she saw.

Anyone who deals in absolutes is either naive, or lying. With Cindy's recent statement "I have always been proud of my country," , and John's promise "I will never, ever let you down," we know that they both fall into one, or both, of those categories.

What I want in a leader, a first lady, and in each and every citizen, is a critical mind, one that does not accept party lines and national mythologies. I want someone who is able to transcend their race, their religion, their political ideologies, if only briefly, in order to get a better understanding of the situation at hand. Our misguided foreign policy over the last 8 (last 150?) years shows the need for exactly that.