Sunday, October 31, 2010

Power of the Powerless I: Theodore C. Sorensen and Individual Agency

I'm deeply saddened to read that Theodore Sorensen has passed away. I did not know the man's name until I read the eulogy, but -- without even knowing who he is -- he was the man who turned me on to the politics of hope. I've just come back from the Rally to Restore Sanity (thoughts to follow), but throughout my life as a politically engaged person, many of the ideas and principles have come from the speeches he wrote, and the Administration he was a core component of.

I came of political age after 9/11, which happened when I was in eighth grade. Before that, I was interested in history -- mostly Civil War era history, and mostly battlefield history, as you'd expect from a young adolescent.

When 9/11 happened, most of the world suddenly found themselves discovering a small band of terrorists they had never heard of, catching up on a whole aspect of Middle East history that was a pretty distant consequence of the Cold War before then. I, however, had by a curious coincidence just completed a research assignment on Osama Bin Laden for a summer class on Forensics. But at that point, Bin Laden was just a name, a curious historical set of incidents. He was not a visceral part of American life, the way he became after 9/11.

What I realized from that was that history is a curious confluence of decisionless masses who are propelled forward by the weight of previous history, and the momentary influence of an individual in the right place, at the right time. Bin Laden was a single individual who, with the help of a small group of individuals, managed to suddenly change the course of American history -- and not in the positive way of other individuals.

The next few days, I sat in bed watching the 24 hour news cycle voraciously. I tried to imagine myself in the shoes of so many different people -- the heroic passengers, the terrorists, the reporters, the people trying desperately to get out of the towers, the firefighters. I realized that it just wasn't an option to ignore politics or governance anymore -- those things are facts which affect us all.

But there's two ways to come out of trauma. One is the bitter, angry, closed in response of someone who is afraid that openness will open them to trauma. The other is the attempt to reach out to others, to hold on to the things that are good in the world and focus on them.

Which brings me back to Sorensen, and Kennedy. Kennedy took power after a decade of fear in American society. The scars HUAC and McCarthy inflicted run incredibly deep; I remember discovering those scars vividly when Elia Kazan was given the life-time achievement Oscar, and was booed by those who still remembered his response to that era.

McCarthy's imagined "Socialist Threat," with eyes and arms everywhere, was a clear message to the individuals in America: you are helpless. There is nothing you can do in the face of such a powerful and insidious foe. Communism is everywhere you look, it can corrupt anyone -- only the full force of American might -- the entire nation, in lock-step -- can counter it.

Kennedy's inauguration spoke of a new posture between America and the world:
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
The emphasis there was not to fight Communism (although clearly that was implied), it was to assure the survival and success of liberty. Liberty for the individual.

And yet he reached out to his opponents:
Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.
And he reminded us that it is us, not governments or God himself, that held our future:
All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.

In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course.


Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.
The individual as the designer of its own destiny, restored to the American sphere. Never able to completely influence its own destiny, always at the mercy of our communities and of the elements, but always struggling to assert its own fate.

Obama began his campaign by awaking that, and he sustained that through the course of the campaign. But as Republican obstructionism choked a lot of that vigor, I think this election is casting a shadow of doubt. Did we really have that power, summed up in the slogan, "Yes We Can?" Or was it just a brief illusion.

I think we still can.

But, paradoxically, we only can if we understand how often we'll run into failure. We can always try, and we must always keep trying, and we must be prepared to fail, and to learn from our mistakes.

I've been on hiatus lately, and I'm glad that the Rally to Restore Sanity is the last thing that happened before I came back. It's funny, because the two things I've been following most closely -- governance and theater -- are both plagued by their own kind of insanity. And it's time to rededicate myself to the individual's ability to change these things.

Thank you, Theodore C. Sorensen, and thank you to everyone who have spread the message that individuals can matter.

I leave you with Sorensen's masterpiece. I suggest you listen to it. I'll be continuing along with this theme from now until the 2012 election: