Historic moments can look like a lot of things, but they have one thing in common – they are not neutral. Significant change is generally for the better or the worse, and which you think it is depends on your particular perspective. From my perspective – and here we get to the root of my analogy – the better are those which tear down walls between groups of people, and the worse are those which raise new barriers. Throughout the endless variety of human affairs, we must move in one of two directions: toward one another or away from one another. The truth of humanity is that there are a billion ways we differ from one another – in our genetics, our beliefs, our preferences, our experiences – and yet we are all still made of the same basic stuff. We still live enmeshed with one another. And though we are all both different and the same, in our interactions we must privilege one of those truths over the other. Inclusion or exclusion. “Us” or “them.” Unity or division. And when I say that all progress is progress toward unity, I don’t mean the kind of forced conformity which tries to scrub away our differences. I mean the kind of unity that accepts differences, but firmly believes that they are outweighed by what we cannot help but have in common, that – correctly understood – our self-interest must encompass (to varying degrees) the interests of virtually everyone else in the world.
So to return to the original topic, I found Obama’s speech historic because it was the event that – at least for me – crystallized and articulated what it is that his candidacy and the entire movement around it actually mean. He said, toward the end, “Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.” It wasn’t his most eloquent line, and it doesn’t say anything not implicit in his other arguments as well. I haven’t seen it quoted in any analysis or editorial. But it is the most concise statement of why he is important. Not because of his background or his proposed policies or his rhetorical talents, though all of them are impressive. But deeper than any of those things is the fact that he is the lone voice in our political sphere who argues that we are all more similar than different, and our fundamental interests are both alike and entwined. That before we are Democrats or Republicans or faithful or faithless or blue collar or white collar or black or Latino, we are Americans. Or possibly even just people. So we don’t have to change each other or ignore each other or beat each other. We can just talk to each other. And the other important thing is this: not only is he saying these things, repeatedly, on national television, but also people are listening. Millions of people. He has gotten more votes than any other candidate in these primaries. Five years ago no one had heard of him. Today over a million people have contributed to his campaign. And I don’t think it’s just because they like his health care plan, or even because he knows how to turn a phrase. What makes him different is this core belief in our shared humanity, which has implicitly informed nearly everything about his career in general and his campaign in specific. And I find this extremely hopeful, because it means he may not just be a man with a good idea. He may be a man with an idea whose time has finally come.
Interestingly, it is exactly this underlying faith in our fundamental similarity that explains Obama’s relationship with Reverend Wright. The view of his critics, that to love the man must be to condone or at least accept his opinions, stems from a fear that people are essentially different and incompatible. If our underlying nature does not connect us, we must form bonds based on more superficial similarities. We must associate with (and thereby include in our self-identity) only those who are like us – who think like us, and act like us, and agree with us. We either accept the natural boundaries of this grouping or expand our circle by persuading or forcing others to adopt our point of view and way of life. But if you think that people are inherently and inescapably alike, there’s no reason to exclude someone who disagrees with you. Neither of you must give up your distinct viewpoints in order to understand and value one another. You can accept that someone else may be wrong without having to correct or abandon him, or politely pretend he is something he’s not. You do not find opposing opinions inherently assaultive and threatening. You can, in other words, befriend and work effectively with people you vehemently disagree with. It’s not a bad skill to have.
This belief in the possibility of unity is also a powerful source of hope. When people who are profoundly different from us are seen as outsiders, as potential enemies, globalization and the increasing complexity and interconnection of our world feels like increasing vulnerability. Safety is found in the past, which by definition is enclosed and predictable. But if the interests of all peoples are naturally intertwined, and if contact with new cultures promises opportunity as well as challenges, it is possible to look forward and hope that the future will be different than the past, that there may be a path beyond conflicts as well as a path through them.
It is this hope that conflicts can be overcome not through force but through building an understanding of mutual interests and shared values that enabled an African-American candidate to give an honest but optimistic speech on race in a country built on the backs of slaves. To say that the anger and resentment of both blacks and whites may be justified, but it isn’t productive. To say that in order to move forward, we must look around and recognize one another as real people who share many of the same hopes and concerns, and have the potential to give each other more than we take.
This is why, when I heard that speech, I felt that somewhere a wall was being knocked down. Because finally, maybe, after all the years of blame and threat levels and pointing guns at anything that moves, America is learning that we have to admit we’re all in the same boat before we can row ourselves back down this creek. And even if Obama doesn’t win the presidency, even if this campaign goes down in flames, it will still matter that someone stood up and said those things, and we as a nation listened.