It happens to the best of us
by Jason Tsaldaris
In his end of the year message and with a new decade coming into view, Barack Obama opted to share a message of hope. The hope that he feels, he explained, does not amount to blind optimism, but is anchored into the stories of “a new generation of leader that is rising everywhere” and is striving to make this world a better place. Among those leaders, he gives the example of Nicholas Marchesi, a 25-years old in Brisbane, Australia, who pioneered the world’s “first free mobile laundry system for people experiencing homelessness”. Or Ana-Maria Gonzalez-Forero in Columbia, who engineered a system to reintegrate ex-combatants in the economy through tourism. Or, finally, Veronica Crespin-Palmer, from Aurora, Colorado, who created a way to include immigrants’, minorities’ and refugees’ families into policy making through inviting them into their children’s classrooms. An all in all very inspiring triad that is a pledge to the next generation’s change-making potential. And yet, despite the fact that the name of America’s first black president has been associated with progress, while many still look up to him for leadership and stability, his message falls short on fulfilling its aim, as it promotes a sterile and undaring vision of progress.
Hence, in the spirit of marking the end of a decade and greeting the upcoming one, Obama’s message aimed to retrieve federating and universal traits – or better, a certain notion of “common humanity” – in which each could find inspiration. The examples he used to shape that message, however, divulged a different kind of philosophy: making sure that those standing higher do not neglect those standing lower. Even more, that they invest their advantage in erasing the disadvantage of others. Naturally, the intention is benevolent, and the examples shared sensible: the ideas of solidarity, mutual acceptance and cohesion are commendable, and ought to have a place in society. On the other hand, promoting this dynamic as the defining creed of a society lacks the universal element that creates unity from disparity. It insists on seeing problems as the primary determining factor of one’s position in society as it separates individuals on the basis of whether they are on the dispensive or receiving end of matters such as immigration or poverty which, en passant, concern us all. Inevitably, this leads to the ignorance of a large portion of society’s potential, as it creates a situation where the one that has less is seen to inevitably depend on the one that has more, not taking into account the countless situations where the former ultimately has more to offer than the latter. In doing so, it neglects the fact that in a society, added value is not the monopole of the rich, but can be found in – and is needed from – all actors of that society. At the end of the day, giving a specific direction to a value devoids it of its exalting faculty, and, by like manner, nakes it of its potential to elevate people above their differences. Quite a poor performance of displaying “a certain notion of common humanity”.
On the other hand, promoting this dynamic as the defining creed of a society lacks the universal element that creates unity from disparity.
Peace, but at what cost?
As it is perhaps always the case, this seemingly anodyne respect tells the tale of the epoch to which it belongs. Breaking away from the 20th century’s bloody wars and territorial claims, the 21st century meant for Europe and the Western world a calmer time where centuries-old rivalries could give way to unprecedented levels of cooperation. That change of paradigm, however, also meant that other centuries-old ideas around which our society is organised, such as the state or a specific view of family, would become somewhat obsolete. This feature of our modern times can be seen in a plethora of different cases. The erstwhile given importance of state, implicitly worth as much as to die for, got called into question in European politics in such way that the “left-right” pattern transformed into a “national-global” one, tacitly stating the questioning of the state’s necessity. In parallel, the massive immigration waves heading towards Europe called forth two answers. The first, adamantly faithful to the idea of state, has given priority to countries’ rights to absolute territorial control, reserving them the liberty to refuse migrants. The second, endorsed by the globalist mindset, has given more weight to the “migrants’ rights” to reach a safe place, at the expense, if need be, of a country’s right to refuse them.
Another example of this trend is the calling into question of the West’s specific view of family, as different governments have promoted policies that reimagine it, rendering the presence of a father and a mother no longer central, or even necessary. Last year, the French parliament voted to erase the titles of “mother” and “father” in school forms, in favour of “parent 1” and “parent 2”, reserving to each family the freedom to decide what and who those parents are. Opposed to this development, others have risen to preserve Europe’s traditional view of family, to which the presence of a child’s father and a mother is its definition. The fact remains, the West is growing increasingly uncertain of what the base of its society is, and what it organises its life around.
70 years after having left behind a tale of conquest and vengeance, with blood and destruction as its inevitable lead character, Europe managed to rise from its ashes to become a land of peace and stability. At the same time, however, it seems to have lost sight of its sense of self. Of what it is, of what it does, of what it wants. As subtly captured by Albert Camus in 1957, “Each generation doubtless feels called upon to reform the world. Mine knows that it will not reform it, but its task is perhaps even greater. It consists in preventing the world from destroying itself” (Nobel Price of Literature reception speech, 1957).
A Friend of Wisdom
Camus’ generation failed at its task. Because what it takes to keep a world together is not peace, stability, an increasing GDP or international political agreements. Rather, what it takes is to have agreed on the basics. To have reached a common vision of life, of its purpose, of its meaning, and of one’s role in that process. In other words, a philosophy. Conversely, losing sight of these elements creates a vacancy in a whole’s intellectual and political life, which, ineluctably, will yield an empty and sterile vision of progress. Because when one does not know the destination, it knows the way to it even less. What might today seem unobvious, is that the state emerged from religion, and not the opposite. Rather than a rule-maker, it was in fact the expression of a commonly agreed view of life’s purpose. From that view of purpose would unfold the conditioning of society’s in order to reach it, namely the rules. Take away that philosophy, you take away the state.
I believe Obama truly does want the world to move forward. Obama had the luck to evolve in an environment of peace and stability, which he reproduced in his terms, and life gave him the opportunity to make history in a major way for his country and for the West. But our society’s feud with wisdom did not spare his own mind. And despite his best intentions, what he promotes remains a sterile and undaring vision of progress, precisely because it fails to face the most critical question of all. What is our philosophy? Naturally, it does not befall on one man to answer that question. After all, such effort would truly require everyone’s added value (not the rich, not the privileged, everyone). But at a time where everyone sees a leader when looking at the mirror, and where the criteria to choose one seem more blurred than ever, perhaps it is time to remember: being elected entails the responsibility not only to govern, but to lead.
And in that subtle distinction lies the reason why rather than a job, performing politics is a function. The function of addressing life. As Italian conductor Riccardo Muti put it when speaking about the difficulty of conducting: “To beat time is very easy, anybody can do it […] but the role of the conductor is to get from the musicians the soul, the music, the feelings. And that is what makes conducting the most difficult profession in the wold, because behind the notes lies the infinite”. Keeping in mind his words, it is primordial to remember that what we are looking for in a leading figure is not someone that can beat time, but someone that can conduct music. Because behind the notes and behind the policies, rests the same infinitude of human condition.