America's Capacity for Change

Peggy Noonan wrote a lovely few paragraphs celebrating America, in the middle of an otherwise somewhat nasty editorial about Hillary Clinton.

A friend sent, by instant message, the AP flash that ran at 16:56 ET on 06-03-2008. There it was suddenly on my screen:

“*** WASHINGTON (AP)—Obama clinches Democratic nomination, making him first black candidate to lead his party.”

A great old-school bulletin, and of course it carried a huge and moving message. It is good when barriers fall; it’s good when possibilities seem to open up to more people, especially the young, who are always watching….

But what I thought of when the friend sent the flash was something another friend told me months ago. It was the night Mr. Obama won Alabama. My friend was watching on TV, in his suburban den. His 10-year-old daughter walked in, looked, saw “Obama Wins” and “Alabama.” She said, “Daddy, we saw a documentary on Martin Luther King Day in school.” She said, “That’s where they used the hoses.” Suddenly my friend saw it new. That’s the place they used the water hoses on the civil rights marchers crossing the bridge. And now look. The black man thanking Alabama for his victory.

What kind of place makes a change like this? Only a great nation. We should love it tenderly every day of our lives.

I was having a similar thought the other day, but not about the evolution of our consciousness of race in America, wonderful though that is. I was delighting that, however far we swing from the center, the fact that our presidents can only serve two terms gives us a fresh start. In the dark days of the past seven years, when the possibility of stolen elections as well as misguided policies and even lies leading us into an unnecessary war might lead anyone to think that democracy was on its last legs in America, one might never have thought to be where we are today, with the real possibility of change in Washington. Even on the Republican side, the party outsider, the voice of criticism (at least initially) has become the candidate. How great is it that we allow ourselves to change direction like this?

The momentousness of change in leadership every eight years has been on my mind recently as a result of reading Jay Winik’s book, The Great Upheaval, about the simultaneous change of political consciousness that wracked the world in the US, France, and Russia (though there it didn’t prevail) in the late eighteenth century. One of the most stirring moments was the story about how George III reacted when he heard that George Washington was stepping down after leading the Continental Army to victory: “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

If those words don’t help you to “see it new,” I don’t know what will. That a conquering general didn’t seize power was once remarkable. That, when called once again to serve, he stepped down after eight years as president, setting a precedent that was eventually signed into law, was an amazing breakthrough. It’s hard to remember that it wasn’t always this way, anywhere in the world, (and still isn’t, as events in Zimbabwe and Burma remind us so painfully right now.)

There’s a lot wrong with our country. But there’s a lot right, and looming large on the list is our capacity to change, to reinvent ourselves, to rise to great challenges and surmount them. The words of the Constitution (which were echoed by Barack Obama in his speech on race), “to form a more perfect union,” remind us that perfection is a journey, the act of improvement, not an end-state. It gives me hope that we’ll be willing to rediscover our idealism and tackle hard problems like global warming, global poverty and income inequality, rather than focusing on the banalities of consumer culture.

I’m reminded of a wonderful poem by Rilke, as translated by Robert Bly, The Archaic Torso of Apollo, that touches on how all greatness, all beauty calls forth from us our own aspiration:

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We have no idea what his fantastic head
was like, where the eyeballs were slowly swelling. But
his body now is glowing like a lamp
whose inner eyes, only turned down a little,

hold their flame, shine. If there weren’t light, the curve
of the breast wouldn’t blind you, and in the swerve
of the thighs a smile wouldn’t keep on going
toward the place where the seeds are.

If there weren’t light, this stone would look cut off
where it drops so clearly from the shoulders,
its skin wouldn’t gleam like the fur of a wild animal,

and the body wouldn’t send out light from every edge
as a star does… for there is no place at all
that isn’t looking at you. You must change your life.

I remember hearing Bly read that when my daughter Arwen was a tiny baby nearly thirty years ago. The power of the unexpected turn at the end – “You must change your life.” – has stayed with me ever since.

The change we seek in America starts with us. (That’s why I was moved to end my talk at ETech, Why I love Hackers with another Rilke poem, about the Old Testament story of Jacob wrestling with an angel. I intended it as a kind of introduction to my son-in-law Saul Griffith’s talk about the engineering challenges involved in climate change. Saul made clear just what a big job we’re in for, but also grounded the scale of the required change in very personal terms, showing for example, that the amount of aluminum required to produce enough solar thermal plants is similar in scale to our current industrial production of soda cans. He did an amazing job of showing the deep relationship between global scale and personal impact.)

Bringing it back around to politics, next up on my political reading list is Susan Griffin’s Wrestling with the Angel of Democracy. I was delighted to see that wonderful image of Jacob wrestling with the angel that I used in my ETech talk, the struggle with hard problems that may defeat us yet strengthen us nonetheless, applied in a political context.

I guess this Sunday ramble is a bit of an appeal to all of you, whatever your political persuasion, to wrestle with the angel of democracy in the coming election, to learn about the issues and the candidates, to make your voice heard, and to play your appointed role in the future of our government.

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