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The Obama Phenomenon

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The Phenomenon is not Barack Obama. Senator Obama is a masterful organizer and teacher. But this editorial is not about Obama as much as about what he elicits in others, and should not be read as an endorsement of him.

The energy, hopefulness, and excitement that manifests in Obama's campaign has shown up before in the last fifty years, only to quickly be crushed. It was there in the 1960s and 1970s in the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement, the women's movement, the environmental movement, and the movement for gay liberation. One felt it flowing at rallies and demonstrations at which Robert Kennedy, Cesar Chavez, Betty Friedan, Isaac Deutscher, Joan Baez, and Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated their visions. It was there again in Earth Day, in the anti-nuclear movement, and in the movement against the war with the Contras. It was there during the campaign of Jesse Jackson in 1988 and the Clintons' campaign in 1992. And it has been there-dare we say it-in the growth of the religious right and the Campus Crusade for Christ.

What is that energy and excitement, and why does it touch people so deeply?

Since Tikkun started in 1986 we've been trying to convince the political leadership of the liberal and progressive forces that they needed to understand this phenomenon and speak to it. Sometimes we've written about it as a hunger for meaning and purpose, and prescribed a "politics of meaning" as the way to respond politically; in the last few years we've written about the need for a spiritual progressive politics to bring this energy into the public sphere.

The phenomenon in question is this: the intense desire of every human being on this planet to overcome and transcend the materialism and selfishness that shape the global economic arrangements and permeate the consciousness of all people, to overcome the looking-out-for-number one consciousness that divides us and the technocratic language that shapes our public institutions and denies us access to our common humanity, and to overcome the alienation from each other that this way of being has created so that we might once again recognize each other as embodiments of God or Spirit (or however you want to talk about the force-field of goodness, generosity, kindness, justice, peace, nonviolence, and care for each other and nature and the entirety of all that is).

We Avert Our Eyes from One Another

Every gesture, every word, every deed, every political act, every interaction with others, every message we give ourselves all combine to either reinforce our separation and estrangement from each other or to reconnect us in a deep way that allows genuine mutual recognition, the seeing and hearing of who we really are, the contact we have with the sacred in ourselves, in each other, and in the world.

We live in a world that is humanly deadening. It's not just the actual murders committed in our name. I picked up the newspaper this morning and read that U.S. forces barged into a home in the village of Door, 100 miles north of Baghdad, and began to fire at the family living there, killing four, including an eleven-year-old girl. Perhaps tomorrow they will issue a statement acknowledging that this was a mistake, as they did today about the killing of nine Iraqi civilians in Iskandariya a few days ago, and the death "under mysterious circumstances" of an Iraqi militiaman who died "in custody after being held for three days on a Baghdad arrest warrant" as a result of a bullet in the head. At some point they'll
acknowledge that the U.S. invasion let loose dynamics that have led to the deaths of over one million Iraqis, and that the "surge" could only be described as "working" because it accelerated the process of some 3 million Iraqis leaving their homes while neighborhoods were being surrounded by concrete walls to provide protection to one ethnic group while the other groups fled to "safety" elsewhere. But today, most Americans remain in a state of zombie-like denial of what this country continues to do.

Nor is the deadening process confined to the various ways we deny our involvement in the world and what is happening therein. For example, our refusal to acknowledge that paying the taxes to keep the war going is part of what makes it possible; and our refusal to acknowledge that the 20,000-30,000 children who die (on average) every single day around the world because of inadequate food and healthcare are directly connected to our global economic system in which we participate daily and which we accept as "inevitable"; and the distance we maintain from those who seek fundamental change, whom we reject as unrealistic.

No, it's not just these large systems of oppression and manipulation that deaden us. It's also our own withdrawn and depressive certainty that nothing much can happen in the world of politics and economics, or even in our interactions with each other. We walk down the streets or ride the buses, subways, or airplanes, averting our eyes from the others who share our circumstances. We are certain that if we start talking to others that they will feel that their privacy has been invaded and will resent it, suspecting that we are out to sell them something or take advantage of them or manipulate them. Instead, as Tikkun associate editor Peter Gabel has so frequently articulated on these pages, we stay inside ourselves, offering ourselves to others only in tightly controlled roles, the dimensions of which have been carefully constructed to ensure that we will not awaken in the others their own hunger for love, friendship, recognition, or aliveness.

And so we deaden ourselves and deaden each other. Each time we avert our eyes, each time we pretend not to see the homeless person, the fellow worker getting into trouble, the neighbor who needs our help, the car stalled on the freeway, and each time we tighten our face and muscles to give to the other the message of "don't go there" where "there" means "don't try to force me to be real with you when I'm scared to do that," we manage to convince the others that nobody gives a damn, that they, too, are alone, and that they would be making a huge mistake to try to break out of their isolation or to think that their own desires for connection are shared by billions of others and are not simply a manifestation of some private inadequacy or pathology.

Recently, some columnists have compared Obama to a rock star because his supporters seem to treat him more like that than like a politician. They are only partially mistaken. What the best and most fulfilling rock concerts of the past several decades have offered one generation is what other multi-generational mega-churches or Super Bowls and World Series' offer to others: a chance to momentarily experience a transcendence of all those feelings of loneliness and alienation, a momentary ability to be part of a "we" that reminds us of what it feels like to be less alone. For a moment we experience a community of shared purpose, and no matter how intellectually, psychologically, or spiritually empty that moment might be, for that moment we get a distorted but, nevertheless, powerful way of reminding ourselves of how much more we could be than when we are alone and scared.

The problem, of course, is that these moments are often based on an us-versus-them vision of the world: our community requires that some other people be the bad guys. As contemporary psychodynamic psychotherapists like to point out, we are often engaged in splitting our own internalized image of ourselves as fundamentally good and decent from another part, which we see as dirty and unacceptable and hence not really part of us at all but rather part of some "evil Other," which in the West, through history, has been the Jew, the Black man, the feminist, the homosexual, the communist, the terrorist, the illegal immigrant, etc.

The Effectiveness of Not Demonizing

Obama's appeal starts from his insistence on not demonizing the Other-the very point from which Tikkun started as a project of the Institute for Labor and Mental Health (ILMH) twenty-two years ago. At ILMH we learned-through conducting an intensive study of working class consciousness-that people moving to the Right politically were not primarily motivated by racism, sexism, and hatred, but by the spiritual crisis in their lives that the Left failed to address and the Right spoke to (albeit with distorted solutions).

Obama avoids detailing his political programs precisely because he knows that in so doing he would shift the discourse from how to break through the fear we have of each other and our "certainty" that we are condemned to be alone and alienated, back to the old discourse about point X or point Y in his health care or environmental program, leaving most people behind in despair. Instead, he confronts that despair straight on.

Obama knows that most people want a very different world, but don't believe it is possible unless someone else makes it happen. He challenges his audience by telling them that there is no one else, that they themselves are the people who must make the world different. To quote Obama from his Super Tuesday speech: "So many of us have been waiting so long for the time when we could finally expect more from our politics, when we could give more of ourselves and feel truly invested in something bigger than a particular candidate or cause. This is it. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."

In short, Obama is telling his supporters, we are not in need of some magical leader, not even Obama himself. Rather, what we need is the confidence in ourselves to reclaim the public space, to break down our fears about ourselves and each other, and to recognize that it is only when we move beyond our personal lives and work together for our highest vision that anything substantial will change.

Obama has used his campaign to teach us that we actually can emerge from our frightened, withdrawn state, and enter into a public community and affirm each other's humanity, whether that be through our foreign relations, in our approach to immigration, in our economic lives, or, even, in overcoming the ossified categories of "the Left" and "the Right." And Obama presents himself with a sense of certainty that helps us overcome our own uncertainty-he is determined to win the election because he thinks we can do this if we are willing to "declare that we are with each other."

It is precisely this striving to create a transcendent experience of connection without demonizing the Other that has been the important element in the Obama phenomenon. Although the criticisms of his seeming inability to recognize the depth of the struggles that must be waged against the entrenched powers of global capital are well-founded, the Obama phenomenon promises to accumulate the power to challenge the powerful precisely by rejecting the demonizing of the other and following a path of nonviolence, not only in actions but also in words. This kind of nonviolent communication, a powerful extension of Gandhi's and King's methodology, may actually, in the long run, prove far more effective than pointing out the cruelty and hypocrisy of those who will not challenge the existing systems of militarism and global economic and political domination.

This is About Us, Not About Obama

Surely, one might object, we are giving far too much credit to Obama himself. After all, many on the Left argue, Obama is just a consummate politician, and not one committed to the programs that we all need. Obama voted against the war in Iraq, but he does not advocate the kind of withdrawal that we at Tikkun believe is the necessary precondition for any real healing in that country, namely a total and complete withdrawal not fudged by turning our military into "advisors" who could then stay in the country until it is stabilized. (Our troops are still in Germany and Japan sixty-three years after the end of the Second World War, so we know how hard it is for any government to acknowledge that "stabilization" has been achieved.) Obama does not support a single payer health care program of the sort that the NSP supports, and his ideas on health care have been less plausible than those of Hillary Clinton. Obama has not supported a serious tax on carbon emissions and his environmental programs have not challenged the global corporate polluters and exploiters of the earth, nor is he likely to support the kinds of radical changes in our Western levels of consumption necessary to save the planet from destruction. Obama has not been on the forefront of struggles against poverty and for the empowerment of workers. And Obama does not yet advocate for a Global Marshall Plan or for the Strategy of Generosity that has been central to this magazine and the NSP's approach to transforming the world.

All of the above would be relevant points if we were discussing whether to endorse the candidate Barack Obama. But we are not. We have never endorsed a candidate, despite the many who misperceived our enthusiasm for the language being used by the Clintons during the 1992 campaign and for Hillary Clinton's spontaneous speech when she explicitly endorsed our "politics of meaning" and then invited us to meet with her and strategize together in the White House in 1993. The truth is that even beyond the legal prohibitions that make endorsement impossible for a 501c3, we actually don't see any political party or candidate who fully articulates a spiritual politics of the sort you'll find in our Spiritual Covenant with America at So while some of us may endorse a candidate in 2008 as private citizens, in no way does this extend to an endorsement by the magazine or the Network of Spiritual Progressives. Nor are we surprised to find that members of the NSP differ sharply in who they would endorse.

These Dead Bones Shall Yet Live

What we are talking about is the phenomenon of hope and the coming back to life of the spiritually dead. This is the good news of Spring, with nature blooming; the good news of Passover and its message that no system of slavery or deadness is inevitable because there is a Force in the universe that makes possible the transformation from that which is to that which ought to be; and the good news of Easter with its message that even the dead can be resurrected, or as our Jewish prophet Ezekiel put it, that "these dead bones shall yet live."

Or to put it another way: no matter how spiritually and emotionally dead the majority of people on the planet may appear to be, no matter how lost in their pursuit of money and fame and sexual conquest and me-first-ism and don't-bother-me-ism, the truth is that the resurrection of the dead is always at hand, always a possibility. Human beings can always be awakened again to choose life, to choose love, to choose kindness, generosity, ecological sensitivity, and awe and wonder at the grandeur of creation. That capacity of human beings is what it means to have a soul, though in my view it might be better to say that all human beings participate in the soul of the universe, which is the God of the universe.

The big task for spiritual progressives is to keep the Obama phenomenon alive whether or not he becomes the next president of the U.S; either way, the challenge is substantial. In the early days of the Clinton presidency when the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal were describing me as Hillary Clinton's guru, and Bill Clinton was steadily reading Tikkun, Hillary told me a
powerful story that has stayed with me ever after. She told of a meeting that FDR had with leaders of the labor movement who were trying to convince FDR to support the Lehman Act (to grant legal status to union strikes and organizing). After four hours of discussion, FDR summarized this way: "Gentlemen, you have totally convinced me that you are right. Now, go out there into the world and force me to do it" [emphasis mine]. His point, Hillary explained, is that even as president, the forces pushing in the direction of the status quo are potentially overwhelming unless countered by a well-organized popular movement, and she and Bill did not feel that they had enough of a movement behind them to push for their most visionary ideas.

That's why the movement is so very important.

The Living Movements We Need

It matters, however, what kind of movement. The Left and the liberal progressives have not been particularly effective in building a transformative movement in large part because they've been stuck on the level of "policy and program" while ignoring the spiritual hunger for meaning and purpose, for connection and mutual recognition, that we've been talking about in Tikkun all these years.

All of the movements and campaigns that were mentioned above were originally embodiments of that larger set of spiritual concerns, and they drew their energy precisely from their ability to reconnect to the deep and abiding hunger, often well-hidden below the surface appearance, for a return to life, to the spirit, to God, or however else you choose to express this. When that hunger explodes into life, when people are resurrected from their spiritual death, everything becomes possible. And that itself can be overwhelming, as we can see from reading how scared the people were at Mt. Sinai when God revealed Herself to the people. It feels so much safer if people can find a way to turn that energy into something not quite so revolutionary: into commandments, social programs, rituals, legislation, political platforms, or concrete demands. And there's nothing fundamentally wrong with this as long as one keeps the fires burning inside, the connection to the loving and awesome energy of the God of the universe, or of the power of staying alive to each other and to oneself at every moment.

Unfortunately, what often happens in social change organizations is that the fear becomes so great that it overwhelms the hopefulness and the love, and so they barely keep alive the pale shadow of that hopefulness, and instead try to prove that they are "realistic" by focusing their energies on struggles for this or that specific program, now increasingly out of touch with the underlying desire which led them and their supporters into these struggles in the first place. And without that desire and the contact with the
aliveness that it first evoked, these struggles become deadening and people drop away, and then they are lost. Washington, D.C. and many of our major cities around the country are filled with people who are involved in these liberal or progressive organizations that have lost their fire, and many more who have dropped out because the experience was no longer humanly satisfying or sustainable.

It's not enough to conclude that one should keep the movement alive after the campaign is finished. That was the promise of the McGovern campaign in 1972, the Carter campaign in 1976, the Kennedy campaign in 1980, the Jesse Jackson campaign in 1988, and the Clinton campaign in 1992. This won't happen unless the people work to make it happen during the campaign, right now, in the midst of the struggle. And it must be done in such a way that people are not re-privatized, passivized, and then eventually demobilized. It has to be planned regardless of what happens in the actual horse race for the presidency.

And this year there is a special challenge, because the people who have returned to life and energy are not just in the Obama campaign but in the Clinton campaign, and in the Green party, and in other political parties as well, and they need to be welcomed into an ongoing movement that keeps this energy alive, without facing recriminations for not having backed whoever others think that they should have.

Win or Lose: What Obama Needs to Do Right Now

Obama himself seems to recognize, at times, that what really counts is not the horse race or even who wins the presidency, but the creation of an ongoing movement that will last. Unfortunately, he does not take the next, absolutely necessary step of telling his supporters what they can do to keep the movement going right now and endow it with the energy to last beyond the November elections. So, for example, the people in New York, California, Massachusetts, Iowa, New Hampshire and all the other states that have voted are implicitly being given the message that there is nothing for them to do right now except to donate more money to the campaigns of their candidates.

Imagine how different that could be if Obama were to ask people to meet weekly in their neighborhoods in small groups to begin to build ongoing projects of social change that would embody their highest ideals. Groups could be organized, for example, around universal health care, environmental sanity, the Global Marshall Plan as the path to homeland security, corporate social responsibility, and electoral reform. If the millions of people who have been touched by the campaigns (and yes, not only by Obama, but by Hillary Clinton, John McCain, etc.) were to begin working now for the changes they want their candidate to bring to the country, then these campaigns would stop resembling horse races and start resembling the building of mass movements and the reclaiming of social space from all those columnists, politicians, and public opinion leaders whose impact historically has been to deaden our hopes and convince us that we should just attend to our own personal lives.

This is where the NSP comes in. We are not of any particular candidacy, and not feeling conflicted about people who didn't back Obama but backed Clinton or even Huckabee or McCain or Nader or whoever. We see the big picture. We know that the key is to keep the hopeful energy alive, regardless of the outcome of the election, because that is the energy that will set the contours for what elected officials do once they have won.

That is the challenge, and for that, we need a way for people to become fully engaged in the electoral arena, and yet to recognize that what moves them is something far bigger than a great speaker and dynamic politician, but rather the goodness within them and within everyone else that has momentarily been allowed to reveal itself through the legitimating framework of an electoral campaign. But far too few people know about the NSP, and unless you help us change that (e.g. by inviting friends to a weekend afternoon or weekday evening gathering at your apartment or house and showing them the NSP video and then discussing with them our program and ideas) people will not know where to go or what to do, and instead will simply be waiting for the next round of the election from September to November, and after November will feel lost and powerless and may even feel that they've been used and tricked once again.

It has always been that way after elections. But it doesn't have to be. The movements that have been generated by Obama, Clinton, McCain, Huckabee, and others could remain alive if we choose to make them such-alive, and able to transcend sectarian political boundaries. We at NSP will do our part to make that happen, but we can't do it without your involvement.
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Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun and national chair of the Tikkun Community/ Network of Spiritual Progressives. People are invited to subscribe to Tikkun magazine or join the interfaith organization the Network of Spiritual Progressives-- "both of which can be done by (more...)
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