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May 6, 2008

No More False Dichotomies : Too much like right?

That Jeremiah Wright is something else, isn’t he? What is he thinking — it’s as if he wants to take Obama all the way down.Or maybe he wanted to give Obama a chance to stand up and prove he really is different. To say, “Well, sure I knew he was out there, but there were enough good things to the man that I could understand his ‘extreme’ side and agree to agree where we agreed and disagree otherwise. Because none of us, and I mean no one in this world, is, or should be, in lockstep with another human being when it comes to the deeply personal aspects of being alive in our own skin. We each take the whole of any situation, and act accordingly.”That, as they used to say on the dryer line at General Electric, would be too much like right.Obama’s portrayed himself as different, hinged his whole political existence on it, even shown himself to be different in some significant ways, and it would have been truly different if he’d stuck to his guns on the Wright controversy. But he does want to be elected, and so we found out where his line is, how different he thinks he can be and still win. But, interestingly, many people I’ve spoken to who were buying the different shtick raised an eyebrow at that one. They wanted him not to cave.Words do matter, but so does context. Isn’t it true that people in certain situations say things for effect, to prod loved ones, or co-workers, or an audience, to make a point? Certainly there is such a thing as demagoguery, and it should be described as such and roundly smitten. Maybe suggesting the Rev. Wright was simply trying to prompt his “political” protégé too generously excuses the reverend for his malevolent ego. But isn’t it so convenient to loathe strong assertions out of hand, to let someone else tell us when to become indignant? How can we be so comfortable in reflexively writing off a whole situation without checking for possible truth hidden in the strata? Remember, the name of this column is focused on calling out the false choices that too often define our reactions to events large and small. It’s easy to succumb, and much more challenging to reserve judgment, seek deeper truth and, foremost, to heartily check our own bullshit.I thought of that when I read the cover story in the current New York Times Sunday magazine, which details efforts to intervene in gang violence by training people to read the tea leaves, then sending them into the fray to confront the impulse to always get even. It takes major fortitude to acknowledge that revenge only compounds the problem, and to act accordingly.I thought of it when I read Bill Doolittle’s column, in this issue, about the deceased filly Eight Belles, and how we need the courage to find facts and then have a grown-up discussion about them. That’s hard.And I thought of it when I worked through the transcript of my conversation with Kevin Phillips (also in this issue), whose sober look at our current reliance on debt is not the kind of happy news we like to ingest. Again, hard stuff.If I could give one bit of advice when it comes to stomaching our American politics and soldiering on, it would be this: Let go of your illusions. Don’t let them get your hopes up,  but don’t let them get you down. Politicians at the highest levels are scarcely different than prepubescent kids cajoling their parents for something they “really want” while promising to clean their room on Tuesday. See it for what it is.Obama tells us he had no idea about his preacher. Hillary tells us a pittance will take the edge off our gasoline woes, then on election eve in Indiana, she says the federal government really should be helping us build these bridges. We eat it up and want to believe it (or at least that the feds would invest in light rail), but then we realize, isn’t cutting the gas tax at cross-purposes with infrastructure funding?Kentucky and Indiana have been in the middle of significant national news lately. There are the presidential primaries, of course, and the states also figured into two landmark Supreme Court rulings, Indiana on voter IDs and Kentucky on lethal injection.Heady stuff, the American political system at work. Many people question both decisions — myself included — but what an opportunity to let go of illusions and work for the things we want to see.It’s hard — and completely worth doing. Contact the writer at cstemle@leoweekly.com