So, I'm glad I did this blog. It was a real lesson in writing, politics, policy, and so forth. I miss the writing side of it--though I'm not sure I'd jump back into such an intense election cycle any sooner than necessary.
I hope this post can bring a measure of closure to this effort of mine (I've definitely had pieces of it in mind for a while, and will be happy to have finally put it all to, ah, paper, so to speak). As long as Google's blog platform doesn't kick me off, I'll hope the blog will provide me, and perhaps others over time, with a sense of time and place surrounding this point in history--along with specific reminders of the serious issues that were at hand: tragic health care disparities, gaping income differences, over-dependence on oil, and so on (issues that we'll hopefully only know as history at some point).
As I bring this to a close though, I want to do so by voicing a concern that comes to mind in seeing and participating in the phenomenon Obama brought about (a phenomenon other great leaders also encourage at times). I'll voice the concern in the form of a question: Will the movement Obama built lead us to place too much dependence on him, a single leader, shirking our own, individual responsibility to bring about change?
Over the years, as many who know me can attest, I've been progressively drawn to everything "community." This has led me at once to various community involvement and a related discontent with the state of community in America. In turn, I've developed a growing interest in mechanisms for building more substantive community (incidentally, I've pursued these interests down a variety of paths, recently discovering the area of community psychology, which I intend to go on and study). I bring these interests of mine up though, because they include a similar discontent with the state of civic engagement in America (thus tying into my above concern about placing too much emphasis on a single leader).
There has been a severe decline in civic engagement over the last several decades. One of the most prominent individuals documenting this decline has been social scientist Robert Putnam, author of a number of research-intensive studies on the subject, his 2000 publication Bowling Alone being the best known of the bunch. In it, Putnam methodically lays out evidence of decline in most forms of political participation (along with a litany of other areas of waning community involvement). This plunge in engagement is not lost on our now President; as I've noted in the past, Mr. Obama was part of the Saguaro Seminar, a group of 33 civic leaders who Putnam himself gathered together for a series of sessions in the late 90s, with the goal of discussing this very issue: declining citizen engagement in America.
What does that mean for our present situation then, with a President in office who is apparently aware of this drop in the people's involvement in politics? Only good things? I hope. Certainly it holds great potential, as Putnam and others have pointed out at various times throughout the past election cycle (here, for example). On the other hand, many have opined over whether the impassioned civic activism of Obama's supporters will sputter and die now that he's in office--indeed, Obama himself has rightly zeroed in on the possibility, leading to his Administration's many efforts to avoid that type of fall off. Most visibly, of course, this is manifest in the repurposing of the Obama campaign into Organizing for America (OFA). Other Administration efforts include a consistent push for town hall-type engagement, the utilization of online participation mechanisms like "Open for Questions" and Facebook, and the formation of the White House "Office for Public Engagement" (President Obama referred to the latter as an office meant to "engage as many Americans as possible in the difficult work of changing this country, through meetings and conversations with groups and individuals held in Washington and across the country").
As I said, these efforts are ripe with possibility, for sure. Paradoxically, however, one of the main obstacles to an engaged populace seems to be Obama himself. And, to restate, therein lies my concern: Will the majority role in our country be that of actor, or passive recipient? Do we determine our future, or do we receive it from on high (read: Obama, courtesy of the sometimes messianic lens through which we view him)? I've wondered about this on and off over the last two years or so, as our country has been swept by Obamania (some as participants, some as onlookers, myself as much an Obamamaniac as the next guy).
One evening, back in March of this year, I felt my concerns somewhat vindicated as I watched a commemorative interview with historian and author, John Hope Franklin; the interview, recorded in mid-2006 prior to Obama's announced run for president, was being re-aired on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer (just a few days after Franklin's passing). The excerpt below is clear enough, in large part, but a brief preface: Franklin had a view that may sound controversial at first, in terms of his perspective on another prominent African American, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Franklin observed that leadership is needed, but couched that in a broader warning:
"[W]hen you place all of your stock on a particular person or even a group of people, then, I think, you are failing to see what the ordinary person's role is in the transformation of society and the changes that can take place. If we depend on a person, whether it's Martin Luther King or someone else, to lead us out of the wilderness, so to speak, our dependence is going to betray us because somewhere along the line we might lose that leader, as we did in 1968 with the assassination of Martin Luther King."The context for that excerpt follows:
GWEN IFILL [with the NewsHour]: I want to ask you about something else which you mentioned in your book, which I found just got my attention. You were talking about Martin Luther King, who for so many Americans personifies what the civil rights movement was, beginning, middle and end. But you wrote that you thought that there was an unfortunate cult of personality that was built up around Dr. King.As a quick aside, Franklin did have the chance to witness and comment on the potential and gradual rise of Obama; see this video for a brief interview on the subject.
JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN: Yes.
GWEN IFILL: Tell me about that.
JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN: Well, that view or that practice is a part of American confusion about what brings about change. We do need leadership; I'm not questioning that. But when you place all of your stock on a particular person or even a group of people, then, I think, you are failing to see what the ordinary person's role is in the transformation of society and the changes that can take place. If we depend on a person, whether it's Martin Luther King or someone else, to lead us out of the wilderness, so to speak, our dependence is going to betray us because somewhere along the line we might lose that leader, as we did in 1968 with the assassination of Martin Luther King. Where would we be then? Where are we now without him? We were stumbling around, fumbling around in the wilderness. No, I think that we must not place so much emphasis on a person or a leader and think about the responsibility of all of us. And if we need to keep our counsel and define what our role is, that's all right, but we have a role. Everyone has a role in improving our society and transforming it. And if we depend on one person or even a small number of people, then I think we're gambling on an eventuality that might be unfortunate.
As a quick follow-up on the above though, I basically think the balance between leadership and individual responsibility is crucial, and that there are, in my view, mechanisms worth exploring to make that balance more realistic for everyday citizens; I also feel these mechanisms will have to come from sources outside of any one party, to a significant degree (though the Administration's efforts seem utterly important, with many exciting ideas surely still to come). These perspectives of mine definitely play into my draw towards community psychology that I mentioned above, as I believe there is some monumental work to be done in this area of civic engagement (among other interests that draw me to the field).
As a sidenote, in terms of these issues in general, they're ones that I was thinking about in a radio piece I was able to do in January; it might give anyone reading a rounder sense of my views on all this, if interested. With all that said, I feel content retiring this somewhat brief run of mine in the blogosphere--hopeful that engagement will end up being more common than apathy, while at the same time intent on finding my own role in that struggle.
Photo credit (love that shot).