Friday, September 5, 2008

Talk and Action

I may be sounding like a broken record (a now-anachronistic turn of phrase) when I keep coming back to Barack Obama's conviction that our country will only get out of the mess it is now in by all of us working together to extricate ourselves. The obvious retaliation to this position is to ask whether, based on experience (to invoke that word that has been over-used to death this week), Obama knows what he is talking about or whether he is exercising nothing more than a rhetorical strategy. Peter Dreier and John Atlas now have an extended analysis piece on the Web site for The Nation, whose thesis is that Obama's argument is, indeed, grounded in experience and that his experience was turned into a target of extended mockery during the Republican National Convention. That experience, of course, was Obama's first introduction to politics through grassroots organizing:

… in 1985, 23-year old Barack Obama moved to Chicago to work for the Developing Communities Project, a coalition of churches on the city's South Side. His job was to help empower residents to win improved playgrounds, after-school programs, job training, housing, and other concerns affecting a neighborhood hurt by large-scale layoffs from the nearby steel mills and neglect by banks, retail stores, and the local government. He knocked on doors and talked to people in their kitchens, living rooms, and churches about the problems they faced and why they needed to get involved to improve their communities.

Obama often refers to the valuable lessons he learned working "in the streets" of Chicago. "I've won some good fights and I've also lost some fights," he said in a speech during the primary season, "because good intentions are not enough, when not fortified with political will and political power."

This is what the word "experience" means to Barack Obama; and it is why experience has taught him that people can, indeed, work together to improve their lot. Indeed, his experience has much to do with turning the "theory" of working together into practice that yields significant and beneficial results.

Meanwhile, the Republicans want us to believe that Sara Palin's lack of experience is nothing compared to Obama's. To get across that message they have summoned some pretty big guns:

Speaking Wednesday at the Republican National Convention, former New York Governor George Pataki sneered, "[Barack Obama] was a community organizer. What in God's name is a community organizer? I don't even know if that's a job."

Then former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani delivered his own snickering hit job. "He worked as a community organizer. What? Maybe this is the first problem on the resumé," mocked Giuliani." Then he said, "This is not a personal attack. It's a statement of fact. Barack Obama has never led anything. Nothing. Nada."

A few minutes later, in her acceptance speech for the GOP vice presidential nomination, Sarah Palin declared, "I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities."

The party of Ronald Reagan was touting government experience over civic engagement.

At a convention whose theme was "service," GOP leaders ridiculed organizing, a vital kind of public service that involves leadership, tough decisions, and taking responsibility for the well-being of people often ignored by government.

I might consider reassigning this week's Chutzpah of the Week award. However, this is not chutzpah: It is flat-out insult. Furthermore, it insults not only Obama but also those with whom he worked back in the Chicago of the late Eighties, not to mention anyone who has ever worked at the grassroots level, whether in the nineteenth-century America that so fascinated Alexis de Tocqueville or in the "connected grassroots" world of Web 2.0. If the Republicans wanted to advertise, as aggressively as possible, how out of touch they are with the people whose votes they will need, they could not have picked a better way to do so!

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