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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Two Books and A Vote Cast

My book club meets on Thursday, 23 October. The host is the wife of the ambassador from the United States. I have greatly enjoyed getting to know Judy through our book club and she has been a great addition to our crazy group. We will miss her as she and her husband leave their post when President Bush leaves his. I will be sorry to see Judy go. I won’t be sorry to see Bush go.

Judy had the great idea last spring that for our October book club we should read Obama’s Dreams From My Father and McCain’s Faith of My Fathers and then discuss them on the eve of the election. It was and is a great idea and I am anxiously awaiting Thursday night when we all get to have our say. Admittedly, I would never have read McCain’s book if I hadn’t been prompted to and I can honestly say that I am glad that I did. Here are my reflections of both books, reflections that I shall share on Thursday night when gathered in the home of our ambassador.

I read Dreams From My Father first and it needs to be said that I was a fan of Barack Obama’s before commencing my read. It was not an easy read and it took some measure of discipline to get through it, but I liked the book on a number of levels. I liked that it didn’t have anything to do with his current political rise. It barely discussed his entry into politics, instead focused on his childhood, his relationship to his family, and events that have shaped him to be the man that he is today. I loved the Chicago narrative and I was fascinated to come to a greater understanding of how his faith in Christianity developed and matured through the presence of his church. I know that Jeremiah Wright has gotten a lot of bad press and I do believe he made some mistakes in the public role he took in the midst of Obama’s campaign, but I have had the privilege of meeting Rev. Wright and hearing him preach on numerous occasions and I appreciate much of what his ministry on the south side of Chicago has been about. That Obama came to faith under his leadership and nurtured his Christian commitment through that community does not cause me angst. To the contrary, I think the church at its core was seeking to live out a vision of righteousness and justice that Jesus taught in the Bible.

Obama’s role as a community organizer, while derided by the Republicans, is in part, what draws me to him for the simple reason that I believe it contributes to his sense of what it means to be systemically poor. Obama understands that it takes more than hard work or a simple will to overcome systems in society that work against people, especially people of color. Through his own life experience as a child of a broken and at times unstable home along with his choice to work close to the ground in Chicago as a community organizer, he came to understand how tough it is to carve out a meaningful and safe life when society isn’t pulling for you. As a man of mixed racial heritage, he has experienced racism first hand and understands more clearly than any other presidential candidate in history how deep the race divide is in America. I don’t know what he can do to make progress on systemic injustice, but I love that he at least has a handle on what it’s all about. One particularly moving line for me as he discussed what was going on in Chicago was how guns changed the way in which people related to one another, especially kids. With the rise of gun violence and gun access, people just stopped talking to kids because they were afraid of their safety. When adults cease talking to kids and having influence over their choices and pathways, the downward spiral speeds up.

Obama’s journey to Kenya was so poignant, I found myself moved in many parts. I felt connected to his Kenyan heritage through the Africans who bless our church. Much of what he experienced resonates with stories I’ve heard from our members. He spoke of feeling like he was “home” for the first time in his life, surrounded by people who looked like him and had a name like his. And I remember when I was in Uganda for the first time how for me, it was the first experience I had known to truly feel like a minority, my whiteness setting me apart in such obvious and separated ways. He spoke of how much pressure he felt to financially provide for his family in Kenya because in their minds he was well-off. People from our church feel the same. They say that one of the reasons that makes it hard for them to return to their homeland is that their relatives think they are now the bank. Truth be told, most African immigrants here in Sweden struggle to make ends meet. Just garnering enough cash to buy an airplane ticket to their homeland requires much planning and sacrifice. But because they are now living in a wealthy western nation, those who have remained in the homeland somehow expect that family who live abroad should come back to them and shower them with the riches they now enjoy elsewhere.

I was very moved by his reflection on family. What does family mean? I mean, he goes to Kenya and discovers that his father has created children in many corners of the world. All of the sudden he’s related to these strangers and wonders what his sense of family means after all. I think we all have to ask the question, what is family? How do we define our family and when does blood become a less significant factor than relationship?

Finally, I was challenged by own view of Africa…that as privileged tourists, we go to Kenya and South Africa to enjoy the beauty of the country and the wonder of the landscape. This isn’t the whole truth about these African nations, troubled as they are by corruption, economic circumstances, disease, and poverty. One quote really stuck with me: “The British have so much more but they seem to enjoy things less.” I’m quite sure the same could said for Americans.

All in all, I liked that this book gave me insight into the person of Barack Obama and for me, it made him an even more appealing person. I think the insight that his life’s journey has provided him will make him a great leader. I see him as a person of empathy and that would be a refreshing quality in our President.

To be perfectly honest, I picked up McCain’s book with dread. I had just watched the Republican National Convention and was angry about the mean-spirited rhetoric that was spewing forth from their campaign. Their belittlement of Obama’s work as a community organizer really bothered me so my bias was definitely strong. Additionally, I am not a military person. I am not anti-military and I certainly feel for the men and women who serve our country under difficult circumstances, but I vigorously disagree with the budget we afford to military concerns and have opposed the war in Iraq from the start. I give you this backdrop because I am trying to be honest with myself as to what I bring to a book prior to opening it. But I was committed to reading McCain’s book because I also felt that it would give me insight into the person of John McCain as his book was also not related to his rise as a presidential candidate.

The first 150 pages or so were pure agony for me. I found the recounting of his grandfather’s and father’s military accomplishments boring and abhorrent to my world view. I liked the opening quote by Viktor Frankl “You can always choose your attitude.” That bodes well for all of us. But upon learning that the grandfather had died, I could never understand why the Navy couldn’t have waited until his father arrived to have the funeral? I disliked how McCain at times referred to his grandfather as The Admiral. Do all the family ties just disappear under the rules of the military? For me this begs the question of how closely a father and son should serve together. Is it wise, or perhaps even possible, to think of your father as a military officer first and a father second?

I was put off by McCain’s seeming bragging about how rebellious both he and his father were while at the Naval Academy. Is he wearing his lack of respect for authority as a badge of honor? Is he proud that he finished near the bottom of his class? I could never quite figure out how this gelled with his commitment to the honor code. The most troubling account of how mixed the honor code is was early in the book when he recounted how a fellow sailor sought revenge on his wife’s rapist through the help of other enlisted men. It wasn’t the revenge the man enacted upon the rapist that was against the honor code, it was the fact that he had asked other enlisted men to help him. This just revealed a very strange moral code that doesn’t fit with my own way of thinking. I hated the hazing at Annapolis and just wonder what this type of activity cultivates in a young man’s mind about the inherent value of human life. I struggled with McCain’s reference to being eager for combat. Why anyone would actually look forward to a war and perhaps even feel eager to attack another human being is puzzling to me.

The story took a turn for me after McCain was captured in Viet Nam. I was genuinely moved by the prisoners’ need for human connection, especially while in solitary. The ingenious manner in which the prisoners created methods of communication, contact and encouragement were indeed powerful. I was struck by how damaging it is to hear only propaganda and wonder where the truth is in the midst of all of the noise.

The torture that McCain and others endured is unthinkable. As difficult as it was to read about, I couldn’t help but wonder why the United States would ever torture another human being. So much of McCain’s account was relaying how his sense of honor kept him from breaking. He did break down at one point under the most adverse physical pain, and then was wracked with guilt because of it. But can we really fault him? Is that really what honor is about? And why as a nation would we ever want to employ torture as a method of getting information? It is indecent and inhumane and we should absolutely never, ever use it. McCain’s account proved time and again that if a soldier is properly trained to endure this harsh and inhumane treatment they won’t break any way. The honor code is so strong that death is a more attractive option. Don’t we think other countries train their folks in the same manner? McCain's recounting of his torture confirmed in my mind that under no circumstance should the US ever succumb to torture as a method of extracting information or punishing prisoners.

Two accounts actually moved me to tears. McCain recounted a Christmas celebration that they shared in the prison. To me, this was an amazing picture of the hope that Christ brings in the midst of unthinkable despair. Secondly, when they were released, many of the prisoners experienced an unexpected form of loss. Of course, they were happy for their freedom, but these men had built a community of care and hope together. To have that removed from their lives, even for a good reason, was so deeply painful that I’m sure many never fully recovered from the grief they felt in moving away from these men with whom they had shared such an intimate journey.

McCain did speak of adopting an attitude that would reflect a life that is lived for something greater than one’s self. I think he did change from a selfish young man to a thoughtful adult who, in his own way, wanted to make the world a better place. His route to doing so differs from my own, but I can acknowledge his desire to contribute.

His book actually made me realize that I don’t really want a President who is eager for combat, one who views the military approach as a good option for accomplishing our goals. And I suppose in the end, that is in part why McCain will be someone whose story I respect but who would not be someone that I would relish as our commander in chief.

And so on October 22, 2008, I sat down at my kitchen table in Stockholm, Sweden with my husband. We took our absentee ballots and with joy, voted for an African American to be our next President. I am thrilled to be part of this historic choice and I hope that soon after November 4, 2008 you’ll see a blog that celebrates a new chapter in American life.

Check back after Thursday for a full account of the book club. It promises to be our most lively yet.