Mature Leadership: On Bending the Arc

By | LwCH, Politics, The Long Road | No Comments

Shortly after Barack Obama won the 2008 Iowa caucuses, I wrote a blog post entitled Toward a Mature Politics that began with the Kantian idea that enlightenment requires us to relinquish our self-incurred immaturity. Then, as now, I associated petty hyper-partisan politics with adolescence; and I saw in Obama’s candidacy the possibility of a more mature politics.

As President Obama returns again to his role as citizen, I want to pause a moment here to reflect on an aspect of his legacy that has meant a lot to me as someone who has sought over the last eight years to chart path to leadership: his maturity.

Although Kant connects the maturity of enlightenment with the capacity to think for oneself, maturity of leadership involves much more than independent thinking.

Mature leaders are able to listen attentively through the noise of the moment so as to discern how best to put values into practice; they are able to distance themselves from their own cathartic reactions in order to consider what the situation requires. There is a stillness in maturity, a groundedness that anchors the courage to enact a more just and beautiful world.

A model of mature leadership is what I yearned for in Obama then, and what I am grateful for now.

The change we believed in at the time remains most palpable to me today when I look back to see how much our kids have grown.

Less obvious, however, is the distance each of us have travelled over the past eight years. For me, it has involved the decision to put my educational commitments to the liberal arts endeavor into practice through administrative work first at Penn State, and now as Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Michigan State, our first two land-grant universities.

This decision was informed in no small part by the hope of which Theodore Parker first spoke before Martin Luther King, Jr. refined it and Barack Obama wove it into Presidential politics. Parker, a 19th century Unitarian minister and abolitionist, put it this way:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but a little ways; I cannot calculate and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice. Things refuse to be mis-managed long.1

Taking up this idea, King distilled it to its essence when, in his 1956 Statement on Ending the Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, he said:

The arc of the moral universe, although long, is bending toward justice.2

Expanding the idea yet further in an April of 2008 speech entitled “Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Obama emphasized that the arc of the moral universe does not bend on its own:

You know, Dr. King once said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but that it bends toward justice. But what he also knew was that it doesn’t bend on its own. It bends because each of us puts our hands on that arc and bends it in the direction of justice.

These three articulations themselves arc over a 150-year history that ties the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement to the election of the first African-American President of the United States.

But even as we celebrate the justice toward which this arc undeniably tends, maturity requires us to remain vigilant, for the facts of the world teach us that the bending is not as smooth as the eloquence of the formulation leads us to believe. And yet, without the eloquence and the hope that a more just world is possible, maturity, for all its sobriety, will remain unable to chart a course toward a more perfect union.

So, if “things refuse to be mis-managed long,” mature leadership will be needed to bend the arc yet further. A commitment to that endeavor is the most enduring of Obama’s legacies, and the most urgent of our responsibilities.

On Canvassing, Four Years Later

By | Politics, The Long Road | 5 Comments

Today, the girls and I, along with my colleague, Dan Letwin, and his son, Nick, took to the local streets to canvass for Barack Obama as we did four years ago.

A lot has changed in four years, particularly with the kids, as the pictures posted here attest.

Changed too is the sense of possibility we had four years ago when we really didn’t know if it was even reasonable to think that America might elect an African American President.

Even then, however, I was trying to live a kind of critical optimism that would enable us, in what still remains “a dangerously adolescent country (Baldwin),” to cultivate a sense of our own limits and to nurture more just relationships with one another.

Today, I took to the Pennsylvania streets for Barack Obama despite what I believe to be his very significant failures to move our understanding of justice from one based on retribution and violence to one oriented by a deep sense of how our lives are woven intimately into the lives of others and the well-being of the world in which we together live. Retributive justice is, of course, no justice at all; rather, justice is rooted in our abilities to respond to others, however different they may be, in ways that move us toward a mutually more fulfilling life.

The rhetoric of retribution in the assassination of Osama bin Laden and the unrepentant use of drone strikes are two of the ways this administration, like the last, perpetuates a cycle of violence that is destructive of any possibility of peace. Even at this late date in human history, when retribution has proven itself unable to perpetuate anything other than perpetual violence, we humans remain addicted to the short lived satisfaction it offers, no matter how many times we experience the pain it will inevitably return to us.

And yet, despite all of that, I nevertheless took to the streets to canvas for Obama with my kids and my colleague because Barack Obama still articulates a compelling vision of what is possible for America, even if America – and perhaps Obama himself – is not fully prepared to live up to the ideals set forth.

I will settle, for now, for a President who recognizes the need for us to take care of one another, who understands the destructive impact our human economy is having on the earth’s ecology, and who has shown himself capable of moving difficult legislation through a recalcitrant and dysfunctional political system.

So today, just like four years ago, we set out to knock on doors for Obama; and today, as then, I found myself at once saddened and heartened. I was saddened by the man who, learning that we were there for Obama, shut his door in the face of three little kids and their somewhat taken aback fathers. That act of rudeness did not rise to the comic level that my argument with the libertarians did four years ago, but still, it demonstrated a lack of civility that has become all too common a part of our civic culture.

I was heartened, however, as I was four years ago, by the few we seemed to convince, and by the woman who was herself so pleased to welcome the six of us onto her front porch, where she listened to these two middle aged fathers still idealistic enough to believe knocking on a few doors could make a difference, and to their three excited kids willing to believe it would too.

Digital Dialogue 37: Le Jazz and Social Media

By | Digital Dialogue Podcast | No Comments
In episode 37 of the Digital Dialogue, I am joined by Matt Jordan, Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies in the College of Communications here at Penn State.
His work focuses on jazz, pop culture, and French culture. His book entitled, Le Jazz: Jazz and French Cultural Identity, was published by the University of Illinois in 2010.
He joins me on the Digital Dialogue today to talk about his recent article in the Journal of Music entitled Don’t Upset the “Rhythm: Innovative Music is seen as a Moral Threat”.
This frames a larger discussion of the impact of media and specifically social media on human habits.  The impetus that led me to invite Matt to the Digital Dialogue was our ongoing conversation in various contexts about the impact of social media technology on our students and ourselves.

Digital Dialogue 37: Matt Jordan on Le Jazz and Social Media

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