President Obama

Though I share in the jubilation at Obama’s election, I find I’m also a bit guarded. Holding back, as if afraid to get “fooled again” by the promise of new leadership.

To be sure, it’s going to feel good and be good for America to have a potential world leader as our president – someone who, instead of bringing himself down to the level of the least common denominator, actually demands that we raise ourselves to his level of discourse and sophistication. Friends are asking me what words like “bipartisanship” mean – a sure sign that they are actually, finally interested in how government functions and what it is Obama might do to change it.

But I’ve also got the nagging sense that too many of us are still hoping and waiting for what Obama’s going to do. As if the president somehow enacts policies or spends money in a way that makes everything better. This is not what a president does. Yes, there are certainly public works programs Obama can promote, to rebuild highways or develop alternative energy technologies while giving jobs to more Americans. These are potentially great top-down stimuli for a failed economy and neglected infrastructure – but they do not rebuild a society ravaged by runaway deregulated capitalism and military misadventure.

That part is up to us. And in this sense, we must take Obama at his word: the moment is now, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. The election of Obama is itself a cue. It’s a cue that America can elect a smart, capable, and caring person as its leader. That we are capable of transcending the logic of short-term self-interest, fear, and even racism. And if we are capable of doing this, it means we are better than we act most of the time. This moment is the bang of the starter’s pistol – an awakening, an opportunity.

When there’s a big blackout in New York, especially during the summer, some people take it as a “cue” to start looting. It’s not that the blackout itself makes it significantly to break down store fronts; it’s not that the police are so very busy with the blackout. The lights going out is a cue to behave differently – to release the hidden potential for vandalism and long-repressed rage.

Likewise, the election of a black man to the presidency is a cue that something has changed. As my friend, Ari Wallach explained to me on my new radio show last night, it’s a kind of “shock and awe.” There’s a thoughtful, progressive and black president-elect on the cover of the New York Post. The cognitive dissonance this generates is an opportunity to reprogram. It’s what advertisers and social programmers try to do in pretty much every communication they make. It’s as big a disconnect and reconnect as 9-11 was, only constructive instead of destructive. A narrative is broken; another is born.

But this new narrative is not the story of how we are led by some new person. It’s the story of how we lead ourselves. It’s about how we accept the cue to act.

Everyone I know in my own circles is obsessed with creating the next big Internet phenomenon or organization to marshall all this energy and help people do their own bottom-up activities. I’ve been invited to a few dozen meetings already for such projects, and I’m happy to see everyone so enthused. But if everyone wants to do the “meta” job of creating a brand or utility through which activism happens, then there will be no one left to do the actual organizing.

No, the opportunity is not to create the next great website for modeling bottom-up community activity, but to go and actually do the stuff. It is to participate the public school, work towards alternative energy possibilities, design and install bicycle lanes, argue at work for equal pay for women, assist local agriculture projects, develop complementary currencies and non-profit credit unions.

My faith in the change we need will be strengthened by my own and others initiative. Obama can inspire us, and even remove some of the obsolete regulations preventing progressive activities from taking hold. His ability to lead us out of this mire into a brighter future will be limited, however, by our own capacity to engage.

Obama’s going to be busy for while, anyway. Two wars, a dozen failed federal agencies, and a banking industry that needs to be dismantled are going to take up a lot of his time and energy. While he attends to mitigating the damage of past failures, it is we who need to build a new society based on the values we share but have closeted during these decades of institutionalized self interest.

How? Where? Just go out the door and look around. There’s opportunities literally everywhere. If we do get fooled again, it will only be because we have fooled ourselves.

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