Bring Meaning to Work and Purpose to Spirituality
The leadership vacuum continues in American politics. By ‘officially’ declaring loyalty to political partisanship above liberty as he did in his speech on April 13, President Obama in effect relinquished his role as commander in chief of the great American experiment in democracy: sustain innovation and advance human culture against despotism and ignorance. This is not the audacity of hope that many of us expected from him when we voted him into the White House in 2008.
I realized the limitations of President Obama’s leadership shortly after he became President but still underestimated how fast he would slip down the slope of history. All human errors and tragedies start with falsehood of some kind, either intentional (despotism) or unintentional (ignorance), that people tell themselves and each other. It is inevitable that history is dominated by one or the other type of falsehood at any particular time. For most part of human history, despotism has been its most visible enemy, denying the vast majority of people the opportunities to advance and better themselves economically, socially and spiritually. By inventing constitutional democracy, our founding fathers erected an ingenious defense against despotism for posterity. We are here today free to debate on the Republican vs. Democratic deficit reduction plans thanks in large part to the foresights and sacrifices made by our founding fathers. In contrast, despite the astonishing achievements made by my birth country (China) in recent decades, democracy at such a fundamental level and scale is still unimaginable in that part of the world. Every one of us should be very grateful and conscious of the preciousness and responsibility placed upon us by this historic gift. Democracy is not an entitlement and must be continuously nourished and defended or it will be weakened or even lost. Moreover, to strengthen democracy, we need to become more conscious of the other and more pervasive enemy of humankind, ignorance, precisely because despotism has become less threatening in our time. The openness of constitutional democracy creates opportunities of growth for hubris as well as authentic happiness. The current political struggles over fiscal policy and entitlement programs are essentially about differences in value judgments with regard to what promotes happiness vs. hubris in our government. This is the kind of conversation that a society or culture must have in order to advance itself but also one that is extremely difficult and volatile since they tend to arose the deepest emotions in people and blow society off the course of civil discourse. The essential quality of a great leader is his or her ability to create the vision and space for authentic dialogues between people of diverse circumstances and dispositions in seeking negotiated and constructive outcomes for themselves and their children. Certainly, Paul Ryan’s plan is not perfect or even fair to low income workers and seniors. However, in the face of the seriousness of the fiscal crisis and lack of leadership from either party, including the President himself, it has to be lauded as a courageous act and deserves the respect of every free person. Why didn’t President Obama seize this as an opportunity for dialogue instead of partisan attack? Why didn’t he act on the recommendations made by the deficit reduction commission that he appointed himself? Why didn’t he join or at least support the bipartisan efforts of the six senators to balance the budget? There can only be one answer: President Obama’s vision and leadership is too handicapped to meet the challenges faced by the nation and the world at this time of human history. So what can we do as ordinary citizens? To begin with, we must try to develop an independent mind, thus lessen the burdens of either despotism or ignorance. This is by no means ‘easy’ to do since herd mentality is both popular and coercive permeating every facet of human life (e.g. observe the way people respond to the calls of their bosses, spouses and opportunities to make a quick buck). The most encouraging sign of American democracy is the steadily growing population of independent voters in our political system. Secondly, we should try to develop compassion for our fellow human beings in their follies as well as virtues. This is not to encourage the folly, of course, but to create the necessary conditions to correct it. Human beings respond much less to logic than to emotions. Recall how many times you have resolved serious differences with loved ones through logical arguments vs. love and/or compassion. People need to feel safe and trusted before they will listen to any logic no matter how brilliant the latter might be. The most serious damage done by Obama’s retreat to partisanship is to entrench people’s emotions and persuasions deeper in their respective corners and make it much harder for this country to achieve the vision and actions of a shared and progressive future together. Third, we must learn to appreciate the beauty of a creative universe larger than any human imaginations. We need to continue to develop the arts and sciences of transforming human ignorance and fear into cultural diversity and creativity. Failure to do so result not only in depressed economies but also corrupt political systems and ruined civilizations as history has repeatedly demonstrated. Fortunately, the opportunities for creativity are not limited to the political elites who as a rule are most compromised or even corrupt. The real seeds of authentic living are more often sown at the fringes of established societies, organizations and families, where the forces of old immune systems are the weakest. At times of crisis such as ours, such fringes can be found at numerous places as the old order crumbles everywhere around us. The only question is if we have the courage, imagination and skills to create new orders. Temporary confusions and even wavering are human. Closed mindedness, bigotry and partisanship are not. They are the very definition of despotism, attempts to take advantage of people’s ignorance. It’s time for every freedom loving individual to stand on his or her own feet and fight such despotism from the political left and the right with conscience, courage and skill. That is the real meaning of democracy.