Tom's Post-Election Reflections: 2008

Posted on: Fri, 11/07/2008 - 11:57 By: Tom Swiss

Tom's Post-Election Reflections: 2008

My friends,

Four years ago, I sent out a little screed about the disappointment of the 2004 elections ( It seems fitting, after recent events, to send out a follow-up.

So. Wow. This is a new experience. For the first time in my life - all the way back to that "Weekly Reader" mock election in 1976 - the Presidential candidate for whom I voted, has won. (Yes, I voted for Ford when I was six. Ah, the folly of youth.)

Last October, I wrote that Obama and Kucinich were my favorites among the major party candidates, and praised Obama's commonsense take on nuclear disarmament, diplomacy with rival nations, and the demonstration of patriotism by action rather than by jewelry.

Given my history with Presidential candidates, I figured that my positive reaction meant that his campaign was doomed.

As it turned out, somehow this time was different.

Yes, I was disappointed along the way: Obama's backpedaling on marijuana decriminalization, his reversal on FISA, his softening stance on getting us the hell out of Iraq, and his failure to stand up for full legal equality for gay and lesbian couples, saddened me.

I thought about giving my vote to Cynthia McKinney (the Green Party candidate) or Ralph Nader. But in the end, when I marked my ballot next to the name Barack Obama, I felt good. I felt proud.

And on Tuesday I left Maryland and joined thousands of other volunteers in Virginia. I got partnered up with a Navy veteran (a gay submarine veteran, no less!) and we walked around Reston, knocking on doors and reminding Obama supporters to vote. And we helped get the state that at one time held the capital of the Confederate States of America, to cast its electoral votes for the first black President.


Now what?

Four years ago, I compared the political outlook to a "healing crisis". Sometimes when a mild sickness attacks the body, rather than make the effort to shake it off the immune system compromises with it. For example, you get a mild cold that you can't seem to shake, but that doesn't stop you from going about your normal business. It's only when things start to really get bad that the body marshals its defenses in a healing crisis, and kicks the damn thing out once and for all. It's a case where things have to get worse before they can get better.

Well, in the past four years, boy, did things get worse!

But the "immune system" of American politics - the pissed off voters, the ordinary citizen activists - finally kicked in. And now, maybe, things can start to get better.

In keeping with that political healing metaphor, I'd like to share with you a thought that occurred to me a few weeks ago. If the current state of politics is a disease, is President-elect Obama the doctor who's going to cure us?

I don't think so. But I think he is, or can be, something much more interesting. Obama could be just the placebo that America needs.

The placebo effect is an amazing phenomenon. If you give someone fake medicine, very often they will get better. (In a few studies, they've even done fake surgery on patients and gotten results!) It's as if just receiving treatment give the patient some sort of "permission" to heal.

Placebos demonstrate an important truth: in any treatment, it's the patient who does the real work. The doctor or therapist just helps the process along. Even in major surgery, all the surgeon can do is put the flesh in the right position. It's the patent's body that heals the wound. The body's own natural healing powers are far more powerful than any treatment a healer can perform.

It is the same with the "body politic". Presidents and legislators play their role, they can get things started, can give us "permission" to make things happen. But in the end it's the people who make a nation succeed or fail.

The great ruler speaks little, acts more.
He accomplishes his task: he leaves no trace.
When the work is done people say, "We did it ourselves."
-- Tao Te Ching

I think - I hope - that Obama learned this lesson about success coming from the bottom up during his years as a community organizer.

And, above all, I will ask you to join in the work of remaking this nation, the only way it's been done in America for 221 years -- block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand...It can't happen without you...
-- Barack Obama

But here's the catch: the "you" in that speech means everybody. We're all in this thing together. If it's just 51% of us on board for progress, we won't get far.

"A house divided against itself cannot stand." -- Abraham Lincoln

And that means we need all the people. The racists who said they could never vote for a black man? Like it or not, we need them. The ignorant folks who think Obama is a secret Muslim who's in cahoots with Osama bin Laden? We need them too. Those wackjobs who were sending out e-mail comparing Obama to the "anti-Christ" from the "Book of Revelations"? We need them. The folks who voted for Obama, but also voted for measures to deny gay and lesbian couples equal protection under the law? We need them.

How do we get them on board? How do we fight this ignorance and prejudice and fear? Well, I don't have an easy answer. Figuring that out is a big part of the work ahead.

But I do know one piece of it is to hold respect for everyone's basic humanity, to not give in to the urge to demonize or reject others - even the racists, even the ignorant. A sort of "love the ignorant, hate the ignorance" policy.

"It is easy enough to be friendly to one's friends. But to befriend the one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion. The other is mere business." - Gandhi

"Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." - Jesus of Nazareth

This "love your enemies" stuff isn't some feel-good hippie-dippie sunshine and rainbows fantasy. It's hard work, part of the essential nitty-gritty of making lasting change in the world.

So I'd like to leave you with something I've found helpful toward that goal. This is Jack Kerouac's prayer from The Dharma Bums. It uses Buddhist terminology but I think you can easily adapt the idea to your own spiritual style.

"I sit down and say, and I run all my friends and relatives and enemies one by one in this, without entertaining any angers or gratitudes or anything, and I say, like 'Japhy Ryder, equally empty, equally to be loved, equally a coming Buddha,' then I run on, say to 'David O. Selznick, equally empty, equally to be loved, equally a coming Buddha' though I don't use names like David O. Selznick, just people I know because when I say the words 'equally a coming Buddha' I want to be thinking of their eyes, like you take Morley, his blue eyes behind those glasses, when you think 'equally a coming Buddha' you think of those eyes and you really do suddenly see the true secret serenity and the truth of his coming Buddhahood. Then you think of your enemy's eyes."
-- from The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac

Give it a try. Warm up with your loved ones, each one "equally empty, equally to be loved, equally a coming Buddha." (Or perhaps "equally blessed, equally to be loved, equally worthy of salvation", or "equally human, equally to be loved, equally worthy of compassion" if that works better for you.)

Then try something like "Sarah Palin, equally empty, equally to be loved, equally a coming Buddha."

Yow! Can you imagine it? Can we - dare we - see Sarah Palin's or George W. Bush's essential Buddhahood shining through?

If enough of us get good at that...then, my friends, my fellow coming Buddhas, then we'll have real change.

Right now, I dare to hope.

Tom Swiss /
November 7 2008

May be forwarded and reproduced provided that attribution is maintained.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and reflections.
I read the Dharma Bums ages ago, and had forgotten about the meditation you quoted. I'm going to hold that in my heart for awhile. Thank you.
Also, I don't know that Obama is so much the "doctor," but more of the needle injecting the antibiotic (or chi) - the point through which the shift begins. =)

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