Sunday, November 2, 2008

Cross Cultural Understanding - Obama's Unique Gift

Barack Obama and his Grandparents

(See update at the bottom)

One day away from the election that will mightily impact our nation and the world, I am emotionally on pins and needles. I don’t apologize for it because I believe that if you are the least bit casual about the decisions (especially, but not only, about the next president and vice-president) to be finalized tomorrow, then you are either high on tranquilizers or something else; or you simply do not understand the stakes.

I have heard of a few who say that who wins the presidency matters little. There were doubtless also those who said that prior to the Herbert Hoover vs. Franklin Roosevelt campaign in 1932. I can appreciate the sentiment expressed by others that our nation is mired so deeply in the muck of war, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, and the shambles our national institutions after the greatest attack on the rule by law ever that the presidency may not be a prize worth winning. I can understand that sentiment but for me it simply underscores how critical the decision is about who we elect as president.

The two candidates have made their cases for why they should be elected. I do not need or want to repeat the case I’ve been attempting to make since I started this blog last January. But as we come down to this last day I’ve been thinking of the unique gift that Barack Obama offers this nation. I know that we could have a long conversation about his genius at organizing, his grasp of highly complex and interwoven issues, his temperament, his conscience, and other qualities. But standing on the precipice of this election, I think Obama’s unique gift that has enhanced his other gifts is his cross cultural understanding.

Ironically, that understanding frightens many Americans. From every angle, he has been attacked for being “different.” Although we say we are “a melting pot,” what that has been popularly meant is that diverse ethnic groups should become one English speaking culture. Diversity in the “melting pot” has been little prized and appreciated. It is not by accident that native-born United States citizens speak fewer languages than most any other nation in the world. “Ethnocentrism,” using one’s own culture as the measuring rod for other cultures without being consciously aware of it, and “naïve realism,” the belief that our perceptions of reality are not colored or mediated by anything else, continue to thrive in the ideological soil of this country. In this cultural climate Obama’s gift has not been celebrated as it might have been or held up as a gift that offers promise to the American people and the rest of the world.

Cross cultural understanding” refers to the ability of people to recognize, interpret and correctly react to people, incidences or situations that are open to misunderstanding due to cultural differences. When the Peace Corps was established in 1961 it pioneered in an effort to equip Volunteers with the appropriate skills to understand cultural differences and enhance respect and tolerance of those differences. (Click here to see current training materials.)

As far as I know, Barack Obama never had any formal cross cultural training. He had the most important kind: he grew up in multiple cross cultural contexts. And he learned from them. In his
Dreams from My Father (1995) Obama chronicles those contexts. He was born in 1961 to a white American woman and a black Kenyan student. In 1967 his mother took Barack to Indonesia as she followed a new husband back to his homeland, only to return to Hawaii five years later in 1971 where Barack was reared by his mother and her parents. His are also the stories of a lonely voyage to racial identity, tensions in school, struggling with black literature, and a month-long visit from his father when he was ten. After college, Obama became a community organizer in Chicago, where he learned enough about himself and the people he worked with to commit himself to being a civil rights lawyer there. He tells about how after his father’s death he visited Kenya, discovering and embracing more of his family roots.

Obama’s is the story of a bi-racial man growing up in both white and black America; his viewpoint is unique. His cross-cultural experience includes not only race, but also economic class. Should he be elected tomorrow, what he has experienced, how he learned from it, and, as an excellent writer and speaker, his ability to communicate it, will make him unique in the long line of American presidents.

A president with this gift could not come at a more critical time in our history. The United States needs a new image in the world. In his recent article, “
Rebranding the U.S. with Obama,” Nicholas Kristof suggests that Obama’s success could change global perceptions of the United States,

redefining the American “brand” to be less about Guantánamo and more about equality. This change in perceptions would help rebuild American political capital in the way that the Marshall Plan did in the 1950s or that John Kennedy’s presidency did in the early 1960s.

In his endorsement of Mr. Obama, Colin Powell noted that “the new president is going to have to fix the reputation that we’ve left with the rest of the world.” That’s not because we crave admiration, but because cooperation is essential to address 21st-century challenges; you can’t fire cruise missiles at the global financial crisis. In his endorsement, Mr. Powell added that an Obama election “will also not only electrify our country, I think it’ll electrify the world.” You can already see that. A 22-nation survey by the BBC found that voters abroad preferred Mr. Obama to Mr. McCain in every single country — by four to one over all. Nearly half of those in the BBC poll said that the election of Mr. Obama, an African-American, would “fundamentally change” their perceptions of the United States.
I am not interested in a change of image that does not reflect actual changes in the values and policies of the United States government. Neither, I suspect, is the rest of the world. However important who Obama is for changing our image in the rest of the world, the full breadth and depth of his cross cultural understanding will be required to implement policies here at home—the ones that he has campaigned for—that express this nation’s ideals.

A “President Obama” will be responsible for giving the American people a broader, more realistic, and more respectful view of the world and how we find our way in its complexities and ambiguities. In my view, it is a task for which he is uniquely qualified. His gift might be the most important that a president elected in 2008 could give to the nation and world.

If you haven’t already voted, don’t miss this chance to exercise your duty as a citizen and cast what may well be the most important vote of your lifetime.

UPDATE: Obama's Grandmother died this morning, one day from the election. Madelyn Payne Dunham was 86. Obama and his sister Maya Soetoro-Ng issued a joint statement sayhing that Dunham died peacefully late Suday night after a battle with cancer. They said, "She was the cornerstone of our family, and a woman of extraordinary accomplishment, strength, and humility. She was the person who encouraged and allowed us to take chances." She was a unique gift to Barack and through him to the rest of us!

- Milo

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