May 12, 2008

Yes, I can

[img id="80602" align="alignleft"] My wallet used to hold, along with my “organ donor” driver’s license, my credit card–sized Democratic voter registration card from the state of Pennsylvania. That way, if I died suddenly in some horrific car crash, at least everyone would know that I cared about the poor.

Preposterous? Of course. Rooting for the right team in politics is obviously no substitute for moral action. Only I am not alone in my fallacy. As Syracuse professor Arthur C. Brooks has discovered, conservatives give 30 percent more to charity than liberals do, even though liberal families take in 6 percent more income. Similarly, those who reject the idea that “government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality” give an average of four times more than people who accept it. Between 2000 and 2004, Barack and Michelle Obama gave less than 1 percent of their income to charity, substantially less than the national average.

Senator Obama has a wonderful message that he conveys from time to time to temper the feverishness of the personality cult surrounding his campaign: The fate of the nation depends far more on the 300 million people who constitute it than on the one president who leads it. He deserves credit for confounding those who, out of despair or laziness, would place the sum of their hopes for progress on the shoulders of an external redeemer. But what he gives with one hand, he takes away with the other. His “Yes, we can!” message of collective empowerment is far more likely to enervate than to empower.

Look no further than Obama himself. How could a self-described champion of the less fortunate—who along with his wife brings in more than four times the national median income—sacrifice so little of his own wealth to provide tangible assistance to those he professes to care about? There is little reason to doubt the man’s sincerity or compassion, only the wisdom of his choice to confuse advocacy with action. It is incredibly easy to convince oneself that the high road to virtue is paved not with moral action but with uplifting symbols. Yes, we can—just not me, the other guy. Yes, we can—just not now, but when I get elected. That’s the problem with community, with being united: What harm is there in taking a tiny shortcut myself when the guy shouting next to me at the 30,000-strong rally is surely just as committed as I am to positive change? A few rationalizations later, and one hard-hitting crowd is nothing but 30,000 people taking refuge in 30,000 other people.

Obama views the tremendous outpouring of enthusiasm for his campaign as an encouraging sign of vigor in a depressed nation. More likely it is a sign of laziness, a cheap substitute for everyday goods like giving to charity and respecting one’s parents that, while often painful, are undeniably right and undeniably effective in improving life on this earth. For most, myself included, politics is merely a higher form of escapism. How much more pleasant it is to think that, just like in Baghdad, the Abode of Peace, a change in government will work wonders for society.

New York Times columnist David Brooks and many others have pointed to the enormous “happiness gap” in the U.S. today, namely that while 65 percent of Americans are satisfied with the quality of their own lives, only 25 percent are satisfied with the state of the nation as a whole. And how very convenient this gap is. How much better to think that the “system” is at fault—the lobbyists, the “special interests,” the politicians—for what is wrong in this country. And yet, as Hillary Clinton actually once felt compelled to point out, lobbyists are people, too. The “special interests” are people also; even the accursed members of the Bush administration and the pitiable Congress are nothing but people. What gives us the right to be so happy with ourselves and yet so indignant toward our elected leaders and our institutions?

No sane politician will ever say this, but it really is about us. We are what’s wrong with our country. And unless we university students exert ourselves to be ethical, to overcome our individual as well as our collective weaknesses, we will give rise to the next generation of Dick Cheneys, Eliot Spitzers, and Kenneth Lays.

The last thing this country needs is for more public figures to win our hearts with vicarious virtue—more moral crutches to cling to that distract us from what each of us can do, this instant, in accordance with the highest ideals we set for ourselves. When will “Yes, we can” become “Yes, I can”?

Nathan Bloom is a third-year in the College majoring in NELC.