Sunday, January 31, 2010

Good Crazy

Many people have written extraordinary articles and diaries about Obama's performance last Friday at the House Republican Retreat. But for me, none have captured what I saw better than Melissa Harris-Lacewell in an article she wrote titled "The Obama I Remember" for The Nation.

She begins by summarizing her experience as a neighbor and constituent of his beginning with his term in the Illinois State Senate. And then she says this.

These early encounters with Obama remind me that he is President not solely, or even primarily, because of innate gifts, but because he moves up a learning curve more swiftly and fully than anyone else in public life. My consistent support for President Obama, despite my real differences with him on a number of policy issues, is deeply rooted in my understanding of his openness to and capacity for learning.

I trust that when he does not have the answer he will seek it. I trust that when he fails with one strategy, he will adjust. I trust that when he needs a new skill, he will learn it. I trust that when he needs advice, he will seek it.


This, for me, captures what I most admire in other human beings...an openness and willingness to learn. And I think it is also the quality that most distinguishes Obama from his predecessor George Bush.

But then Harris-Lacewell goes on to talk about Obama's performance at the Republican Retreat and how it reminded her of what students said about him as a Law Professor at the University of Chicago.

That Barack Obama showed up today. The President put on a clinic in public discourse, political argument, intellectual dexterity and moral courage. It was a reminder of what democracy could be if we engaged our opponents with substance, patience and civility rather than invectives, gamesmanship and boorishness.<...>

President Obama is modeling a different kind of democratic engagement. It is a model he adhered to during the election and he continues to follow it now. President Obama refuses to believe that we can have a functioning democracy if the majority refuses to speak to the minority. He takes seriously his responsibility to govern in the interest of both his supporters and his opponents. He remains committed to the possibility that he and his Party may not always be in sole possession of good ideas.


I think there are many progressives that missed this focus in what Obama said last Friday. In our enthusiasm for his intellect and the forcefulness with which he spoke, we have perhaps overlooked things like this.

And I'm not a pundit. I'm just a President, so take it for what it's worth. But I don't believe that the American people want us to focus on our job security. They want us to focus on their job security. (Applause.) I don't think they want more gridlock. I don't think they want more partisanship. I don't think they want more obstruction. They didn't send us to Washington to fight each other in some sort of political steel-cage match to see who comes out alive. That's not what they want. They sent us to Washington to work together, to get things done, and to solve the problems that they're grappling with every single day.


So no, Obama is not done reaching out to Republicans. He still believes that - even when we don't agree - the way in which we talk to one another and engage in the battle of ideas can change.

Does that sound crazy to you? Given the pattern we see with GOP leaders, it does to me. But it reminds me of something another one of my favorite writers, Ta Nehisi-Coates, wrote back in November 2008 just days after the election. He talked about his fascination with the words of Rev. Joseph Lowery about "good crazy."



"I came over here where crazy things are happening," Lowery told his audience, and then, referring to Obama and the echoes of his own history, added: "There are people in this country who say certain things can't happen, but who can tell? Who can tell? . . . Something crazy may happen in this country."<...>

Here is where Barack Obama and the civil rights leaders of old are joined -- in a shocking, almost certifiable faith in humanity, something that subsequent generations lost. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. may have led African Americans out of segregation, and he may have cured incalculable numbers of white racists, but more than all that, he believed that the lion's share of the population of this country would not support the rights of thugs to pummel people who just wanted to cross a bridge. King believed in white people, and when I was a younger, more callow man, that belief made me suck my teeth. I saw it as weakness and cowardice, a lack of faith in his own. But it was the opposite. King's belief in white people was the ultimate show of strength: He was willing to give his life on a bet that they were no different from the people who lived next door.


I agree with Nehisi-Coates. Obama is engaging in a "shocking, almost certifiable faith in humanity" and I regularly question whether that faith is justified. He really believes that its possible, as Harris-Lacewell said, to "engage our opponents with substance, patience and civility." Last Friday, he showed us how to do that - all while remaining forceful in his convictions and not compromising his own beliefs.

This is the "trust deficit" Obama talked about both in his State of the Union speech and with the Republicans. What is shocking about Obama's position on this is that he is willing to step out - in trust - and lead the way. It drives many of us crazy because we know that the other side's reaction will be to abuse that trust...just as the early civil rights leaders were abused by white racists.

But what Obama is counting on is that the American people are watching. And much like MLK believed that white people "wouldn't support the right of thugs to pummel people who just wanted to cross a bridge," Obama is relying on his belief that the American people eventually won't support the abuse of our national trust and dialogue.

I agree that its a big gamble. But I begin to wonder...if Martin Luther King could believe in white people back in the 1950's, who am I to question what other "good crazy" might be possible.

Friday, January 1, 2010

On the potential danger of progressive ideologues

As we debate strategies and tactics for many of the common goals we share, I've been thinking about passion, rage, and other emotions that inevitably become part of the process when we all care this deeply about something. I am one that believes that emotions are a necessary part of the mix. Those that seek to avoid them make me suspicious. That's because they are part of our make-up as human beings and tend to fester in ugly ways if we don't acknowledge them.

But emotions can also cloud our thinking if we let them lead us or if we try to deny them completely. I believe that this is part of the blindness referred to when Merriam Webster defines ideologue this way.

an often blindly partisan advocate or adherent of a particular ideology


We progressives are pretty good at spotting the ideologues on the conservative end of the spectrum. I'll grant that, with our embrace of science and reality, we tend to be less susceptible. But that doesn't mean it never happens, as a community in Minnesota learned the hard way about 25 years ago.

In 1984, the town of Jordon, MN - about 35 miles outside of Minneapolis and home to 2,900 people - experienced something that comes close to the Salem witch hunts of the past. It all started when a woman reported to the police that a neighbor had sexually molested her 9 year old daughter. The man had a criminal history of sexual assault and was given a reduced sentence for pleading guilty and agreeing to testify about other incidents. By the time it was all over, 24 others had been arrested, including a local policeman, a deputy sheriff, and bizarrely enough, the woman who had made the first complaint. In the end, charges of ritual sexual abuse and the alleged murder of several children were part of the story.

Just imagine how something like this affected a small midwestern rural town. Here's how it was written about at the time.

Jordan, Minnesota is a town with three streets, four churches, a championship high school football team—and an atmosphere heavy with fear. It is a town where people shun old friends, where mothers forbid their children to enter the homes of neighbors, where parents have stopped taking their kids to baby-sitters, because they don't know whom to trust. Jordan is a town that buzzes with a cacophony of charges and countercharges, talk of sex rings and witch-hunts, and rumors of acts so dark, so vile, that they are merely hinted at. It is a place where the fear is so pervasive and so deep that some parents admit sadly that they are afraid to show affection for their own children lest they themselves come under suspicion of unspeakable acts.


The prosecutor in the county at the time was a woman by the name of Kathleen Morris. She was charged with investigating the original complaint and it was her office that interviewed witnesses, defendants, and the children identified as victims. After the original perpetrator pled guilty, she managed to try one couple who were exonerated in a jury trial. Here is her reaction.

That verdict infuriated Morris and she responded with tears and an unprofessional outburst. "This means we live in a society that does not believe children," she said, violating the unwritten rule against criticizing juries. Raging at what she saw as the injustice of the acquittal, Morris even attacked a cardinal tenet of the judicial system, telling the local media, "I'm sick to death of things like the presumption of innocence."


Subsequently, Morris dropped all of the remaining charges and MN Attorney General Skip Humphrey took over the investigation and produced a report.

At the conclusion of their investigation, the FBI/BCA agents submitted their investigative findings to Attorney General Humphrey. Those findings are as follows:

There is no credible evidence to support allegations of murder, which arose during the sexual abuse investigation.

There is insufficient evidence to justify the filing of any new sex abuse charges.


The report goes on to detail how, in her zeal against child sexual abuse, Morris had done things like offered exoneration to defendants to testify against others, removed children from their homes and repeatedly questioned them for months until they admitted to abuse, and told children what other victims had already reported and/or interviewed groups of children together.

In the end, this is what the report found:

In the Scott County cases, however, something clearly went awry. This is not to suggest that the objectives of Scott County authorities were improper. There is no evidence that the Scott County authorities were motivated by anything other than concern for the protection of children. That concern is shared by the Attorney General and by everyone involved in the investigation. That legitimate concern, however, must be balanced against the rights of accused individuals. That balance can be best maintained when such cases are investigated and handled in a manner which results in the development of credible evidence. The best way to protect children is to conduct investigations in a responsible manner, in a way that will lead to discovery of what really happened and lead to convictions, if justified by the evidence. It is in this regard that the Scott County cases foundered.


I was living in the Twin Cities at the time this happened and was a family therapist working with many children who had been sexually and/or physically abused. As the story unfolded, it became clear to me that Kathleen Morris had noble motives but let the horror she felt about child sexual abuse cloud her judgement and her practices. The people of Jordon were left with the consequences of suspicion and distrust of their neighbors - never knowing who was guilty and who was innocent. Many people had their lives and families torn apart needlessly and many children were abused by a system that was supposed to be designed to protect them. And you better believe that it made me angry.

I recognize this is an extreme case. But in its extremity, it demonstrates the damage that even good-intentioned ideologues can do. The minute we consider ourselves the "savior" in any cause we're fighting for, let our emotions lead us without weighing the consequences, and start demonizing anyone who gets in our way...we're at risk of doing the same kind of damage to ourselves, our community and the very ideals we're fighting for.