Monday, December 20, 2010

"Me-We" - Obama and the passions

A great essay by Mark Lilla (Humanities Professor at Columbia University) in the NYTimes Sunday magazine. The conclusion:
...the shape of American politics over the past half-century has been determined by two great waves of passion: the first running from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations through the ’70s, the second running from the Reagan administration to the departure of George W. Bush. What dominated during the first wave was excitement about a New Frontier, hope for a just and Great Society, fear of nuclear war, a desire for greater social freedom — and confidence that government could accomplish much. In the next era the same passions, nearly as intense, would be successfully redirected by Ronald Reagan. Now the excitement was about privatization, hope was invested in economic growth, fears centered on the family and the greatest desire was for freedom from government.

The Great Recession and the Tea Party’s ire, directed at Democrats and Republicans alike, suggest that this second political dispensation is coming to an end and that Americans’ passions are ready to be redirected once again. Having been dealt a bad hand, President Obama may have only a slim chance of doing that, but he has absolutely none if he limits himself to appealing to people’s interests. That’s not been the American experience of change. In our politics, history doesn’t happen when a leader makes an argument, or even strikes a pose. It happens when he strikes a chord. And you don’t need charts and figures to do that; in fact they get in the way. You only need two words.

George Plimpton used to tell the story of Muhammad Ali going to Harvard one year to give an address. At the end of his speech, someone called out to him, “Give us a poem!” He paused, stretched out his arms to the audience and delivered what Plimpton said was the shortest poem in the English language:

ME [pause]


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