March 19, 2008

A Critical View Of Obama's Speech, And, A Thought About Love

This editorial from the Dallas Morning News expresses as well as I think need be expressed the sentiments of those who, unlike me, hold on to their cynicism about Barack Obama's remarkable speech on race yesterday. It contains disbelief that Obama could have absorbed "only" the nice positive messages and disagreed, silently, with the racial hatred of Jeremiah Wright; it contains the money quote "hate is not to be endlessly analyzed, it is to be rejected without reservation"; it points out that Wright is not the only figure close to Obama who has made remarks suggesting a mindset that America is not worthy of praise, respect, and love, citing in particular Michelle Obama and her remarks about withholding her pride in her country.

One wonders what the Dallas Morning News would have found satisfactory in Obama. The author of the op-ed states that "we need only one thing from Barack Obama - the strong message that [no one] is well served by the spreading of racial hatreds." Throw Wright under the bus, the paper urges. This Obama refused to do. He refused to do it because he loves Rev. Wright.

As I've written before, I cannot find comfort with a mindset that America is unworthy of love. America is a remarkable place unlike anywhere else on Earth and despite whatever mistakes have been made in our history, our nation has earned the respect of the world as a beacon of liberty, a stalwart defender of humanity, a nation that has earned its prosperity through hard work, and a generous neighbor consistently willing and eager to share of its blessings with others.

And as I've also written before, a patriot's duty includes calling his country on the carpet when it falls short of the ideals that have inspired patriotism in the first place. America is yet an imperfect place and daily falls short of living up to the noble principles that underlie our founding.

Which brings me to my other subject for this post -- love. Not romantic love, which sees no fault in its object. A deeper, more mature sort of love.

Let's say you have a young single friend. Let's call him Romeo. He's twenty years old. He meets Juliet, a young single woman who is his age. He falls for her. Really, deeply, intensely, and joyfully falls for her. To year your Romeo talk, she is the greatest thing ever. There is no woman more beautiful on earth than his Juliet; nor any more clever or funny; nor any with whom he would rather spend his time. And best of all, Juliet feels the same way about Romeo. When you meet up with Romeo and Juliet in a social situation, she has her hands all over him, they are kissing and holding hands constantly, and their cheeks flush red when they make eye contact (which is quite often).

Annoying, isn't it? But at the same time, you're happy for your friend Romeo because surely you know he is enjoying a very pleasant moment in his life. We've all been there. We would say they've fallen in love. But is "love" the best word to use here? I would suggest "infatuation" is more precise. They've only just met, after all.

Now, let's say you don't particularly like or trust Juliet. You might want to say to Romeo, "Dude, I think she's only dating you for your money." If you did so, you would expect a defensive reaction like, "No she's not!" Romeo would see this as an attack, even if that wasn't your intention.

After all, you have a perspective on the situation Romeo does not. You know that when the first flush of infatuation leaves a relationship, that relationship goes through a crisis. When the infatuation evaporates as it inevitably will, will Romeo still want to be with Juliet? Romeo and Juliet have that yet in their future, and if their relationship doesn't survive that critical phase, then you have no need to confront him. So you might choose to not raise the issue and adopt a wait-and-see attitude and reserve the confrontation until a later, more opportune date.

Sadly, not all relationships create a foundation of mutual respect and acceptance during the phase of infatuation, which often results in one or both partners realizing that without that irreplaceable rush of new attraction, there really isn't much there. In fact, the partners are sometimes repelled to notice in one another things that were really there all along, but to which they rendered themselves blind earlier. Such relationships fail, because there is no love. (Heartbreak typically occurs when one partner moves into this phase faster than the other.)

The relationships that work for longer amounts of time are the ones in which the partners become clear-eyed and understand that their partners have faults, but find the good in one another anyway. The faults are forgiven and that which is good becomes the foundation for something which endures. This cannot happen, by the way, without recognizing one's own imperfection and receiving forgiveness. So I distinguish "love "from "infatuation."

Love is unconditional and unqualified. But "unconditional" is not necessarily "uncritical." Unqualified acceptance does not exclude the idea that the one who accepts must also withhold criticism. It means that one accepts the other despite the flaws.

A personal example: several years ago, a friend disclosed to me participating in an extramarital affair. I told my friend that the right thing to do was to end the relationship, but my friend was infatuated with the partner and would not. Instead, in response to my insistence that this was a morally wrong thing to do, my friend accused me of being a bad friend because I was not expressing support "no matter what." But to this day I think I was still being a good friend because I maintained the friendship without stepping away from my criticism of what was going on. It seemed imperative on me to challenge my friend to act morally, and I could not do that by simply turning my back entirely by dismissing the matter as none of my business. (I suppose it was none of my business initially; but when my friend had sought my blessing, that was deliberately putting the "approval" ball in my court and I could not find it in myself to return that serve as requested). The extramarital relationship did eventually end, when the glow of infatuation faded, and we remain friends to this day, a friendship I value very much.

So I am impressed by Obama's finding this same line, by rhetorically pulling off the balancing act of simultaneously expressing love for America while yet challenging us to improve. I am impressed because I can see that if one criticizes America, that does not diminish one's love for it. Love does not demand withholding criticism -- sometimes, love demands that one offer the criticism. What distinguishes this from an attack is that love criticizes from a place of acceptance and with a constructive attitude. If Michelle Obama had said, "If we elect another Republican, I'm moving to Canada," that's not love or acceptance. (Which is why the Che posters -- being revolutionary propaganda, after all -- remain a bit disturbing.)

I love my wife; I love each member of my family; I love my friends. None of them are perfect, but I love them all the same. If my wife or my father or my very close friend were to say or do something that I thought was morally bad, my love would not change. Just as with my friend who had a fling with a married partner, though, my love would not blind me to the gravity of what was going on, or prevent me from urging my friend to make the bad thing stop.

What Obama did in his speech was to affirm that indeed he does love his wife. He loves his pastor, a man who has been a very close friend to him for much of his life. And he loves America. America, at the end of the day, is the sum total of its citizens, and we its citizens are all of us imperfect people who every day realize our own failures but try to do better. You cannot express love for such a people without also challenging them to do better than they have in the past.

Hate is not to be endlessly analyzed, but neither is it to be simply dismissed and ignored. It is not enough for a parent to tell her child to "ignore" the playground bully, because the bully will force his will upon his victim if ignored. We understand that terrible things like 9/11 happen because other people hate us -- and it is useful in responding to such events to understand why they hate us. So we do not dismiss the hate-filed ramblings and screeds of an Osama bin Laden; we should instead understand what he says, identify where and how we can prove him wrong, and fashion a response to him that not only protects our people but maybe removes the cause of the hate and thus prevent future attacks. Understanding (without agreeing with) what bin Laden says about America can be a tool we might use to disarm him, if only we can use that knowledge properly.

What is disappointing to read in things like the Dallas Morning News editorial is an inability to distinguish between criticism and attacks. The op-ed is a wordier version of a bumper sticker that reads "America: Love it or leave it!" That isn't love -- it's infatuation. Love is deeper and more complex than that. America: Love it by making it better.

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