It’s almost too perfect.
On the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the U.S., Barack Obama takes the oath of office as America’s first black President.
The temptation to declare victory in the ages-old struggle against prejudice is strong. Inauguration Day 2009 is indeed a milestone, an event that few of us who are old enough to remember the civil rights struggles of the sixties and seventies ever expected to witness. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to think that the Obama presidency ushers in a new era of unprecedented equality?
Obama’s own mixed-race heritage is symbolic, and we should never underestimate the power of symbols. His faith heritage from the United Church of Christ, a denomination noted for its strong commitment to equality and tolerance, gives Obama the theological, philosophical, and ideological tools to articulate an ethic of understanding.
So, we have reason to be optimistic, very optimistic.
On the other hand, we also need to recognize that Barack Obama is not a human magic wand whose elevation to the office of President of the United States will automatically fix centuries worth of prejudice. President Obama will be leading this nation through a very dangerous time in history. Rather than playing the role of healer, he may well find himself a lightning rod for the swirling cross-currents of a culture in flux.
Helped in no small part by the national economic collapse, Barack Obama managed to neutralize several potentially divisive issues during the campaign. He successfully weathered the storm created by Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s tirades. His campaign defused the Bill Ayres red herring, and saner heads in the media prevailed when the “stealth Muslim” rumors circulated.
At the moment, most of America is willing to embrace Barack Obama as its leader. But, as we saw after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, we live in a culture that can turn on a dime. President Obama will undoubtedly be very conscious of avoiding the “soft on terror” label, as President Kennedy found himself bending over backwards (and making some questionable policy decisions) so as to negate the “soft on Communism” talk that had dogged his campaign.
Should, God forbid, another terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 take place during the Obama presidency, Obama could well find himself the target of some very vicious scapegoating.
Hope and optimism prevail right now, for the first time in a long time. In spite of a disintegrating economy and a persistent threat of terrorism, Americans are willing to believe they have a future worth living for. I pray that that attitude will prove to be more than a passing fad, and that President Obama will demonstrate the same unifying mass appeal that candidate Obama exemplified.
Your observations about the pressures of opinion in a culture that "can turn on a dime" are good illustrations of the Lucifer Effect at work on a national scale. Immediately after 9/11, anyone who questioned the morality of the Iraq war was condemned and vilified. This tremendous situational pressure to accept the administration's picture caused many good people to leap onto a bandwagon they later came to regard as deeply wrong.
Phil Zimbardo's research warns us that our capacity to make sound moral judgments is severely challenged when a particular moral view is widespread in our culture. One of the things that gives me hope at this time in our history is that Barack Obama seems to have cultivated all the qualities we are beginning to identify as necessary to maintain moral independence in a bad situation. Perhaps through his insight and eloquence, he will also be able to help our culture maintain its moral balance. It's a lot to ask of any one person, even the President of the United States; therefore it's up to each of us, as part of "We the People," to work on our own skills of moral independence.
i'm worried about this country. We're doing pretty good right now, but that whole turn on a dime thing - if there was another spectacular terrorist attack, are the worst parts of humanity going to come out again? I'm worried, but Obama gives me hope.
By rdalin | Posted on January 22, 2009, 11:23 pm
Right you are, Reverends Webster and Brooks. Thanks for your encouragements. For me, working on skills of moral independence includes further study of the experiments cited by Professor Zimbardo in The Lucifer Effect. Did you know...? Some follow up studies to Solomon Asch's autokinetic effect/ambiguous reality experiments pointed out the lasting effects of extreme social norms after those modeling the behaviors were out of the group (Jacobs and Campbell, 1961). We still have a lot of work to do to clean up the damage of the previous administration. How many people do you know who have opted toward atheism because Dispensationalist Christianity is so far from the "love God and love your neighbor as yourself" fundamentals we believe in?! George Lakoff says that arguing against the frame with people who are in the frame only reinforces the frame. The way to help the bewildered and bamboozled is to get back out there and promote our beliefs, whatever the cost. I'm using the hope I have in President Obama to prime the pump of good will, and, as Mohandis Gandhi said, to be the change I wish to see in the world. Thanks to you both and to Professor Zimbardo for good instruction and admirable role modeling!
By NaiveScientist | Posted on January 23, 2009, 2:14 pm
I think there so much of a difference in what went before as what is today that there can be no other result but change, and dramatic change, at that. Obama brings back the old slogan Truth, Justice and The American Way and it is for real, this time.
By The real thing | Posted on January 29, 2009, 5:53 pm
These are fascinating followups to Rev.Webster's prayer for Obama to be able to sustain his vision and the promise he holds out for America's return to a greater sense of Moral Clarity (term used by Susan Neiman, the title of her fine recent book).
Inhale is to the Bush Administration as
Exhale is to the new Obama Administration
We were all holding our breaths for 8 years, as our nation sank to new lows in domain after domain, as our leaders pointed to Evil dictators and Evil Nations, but the finger twisted and pointed back at them.
Now as we Exhale,we open our minds and bodies to a new day, to new possibilities, to taking on the enormous challenges facing our nation and the world.
I think of Obama as an "intuitive psychologist" with learned skills for figuring out the right moves in different situations, to be savvy about how to deal with different people, he has street smarts and the game and on the side happens to have wisdom beyond his years.
I also hope he will be a role model for youngsters everywhere of the ultimate consequences of education and hard work-- you can become president of the United States regardless or race, religion or wealth. You earn status not from entitlements from your family but from what you have earned and learned.
As we face a drop out epidemic in all our schools:
7,000 kids dropping out every week!
one drop out every 9 seconds!
This is a crises that must be stemmed and reversed immediately or else the dreams of Martin Luther King Jr. will not be realized for millions of young people who will fall by the wayside without the essential supports that education provides.
Where is the No Child Left Behind program's effectiveness in the face of these new drop out statistics?
a lot to reflect upon
By Phil Zimbardo | Posted on February 1, 2009, 5:59 pm
I really hate to say this, I really do. I love the fact that we have elected a non-caucasian to our most powerful office. President Obama is an outstanding inspiring historic figure.
But the system that he has inherited is so removed from the ideals we all believe him that I despair that he or anyone else, alone or collectively, can effectively confront the morass of poor values that this system has come to represent. What we hear is very good, inspiring and hopeful. It is what we do not hear that concerns me more.
There is and has been no consequences of note for the perpetrators of one of the most malignant sagas of our recent history. Even McCarthyism did not include the systemic torture and murder of our fellow humans. How we claim to be a just nation when we answer these atrocities with silence?
When I see the hemorrhage of our childrens financial future so that the very banks who failed us can provide multi-million dollar bonuses to their executives, I wonder if anything at all has truly changed. I know that is a simplistic response to the current crisis we face, but the point remains. "Justice" does not depend on what you have done, but who you are and this must be confronted before we can effectively step back from the brink of our own ethical abyss.
By chandalar | Posted on February 14, 2009, 2:23 pm