01 April 2010

Omer 2: Mutuality

Omer Day Two

It can, however, also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree I become bound up in relation to it. --Martin Buber, I and Thou

The first time I heard this line aloud was a student in Madison, in an Ed Philosophy class that met in the summer, and I was sitting with a classmate on Bascom Hill, reading this section of Buber's classic Jewish existentialist work. Just as I started reading, I heard the voice of the course's professor, Daniel Pekarsky, reciting the line from memory. It was a moment of mutuality that rarely happens in most learning environments but seemed as undeniable then as it does now that if it happened more often, the world might be a better place.

So it was with an odd mixture of satisfaction and concern that I read a small blurb in New York magazine, quoting Dennis Kucinich's reflections on the last days of President Obama's health-care legislation negotiation.

On Obama's decidedly non-LBJish tactics, Kucinich is quoted as saying, “Obama had an approach unlike anything I’ve ever seen any other president use. Honestly, if I were to try to characterize it, I’d say it was a dialogue along the lines of Martin Buber’s I and Thou. He goes very deep into looking at an issue from the side of the person to whom he’s speaking.”

The satisfaction: The mutuality and shared destiny of an American democratic republic, comprised of its citizens, in true dialogue with one another about the moral obligation to care for the sick. This has all the elements of mitzvah in action.

The concern: At the end of the day, it's a negotiation tactic, using a method in order to change another person's opinion, a decidedly non-Buberian approach.

The question: Were those persuaded to vote 'yes' moved by the Buberian encounter? Or were they swayed by the charisma of their leader, who wisely knew that if only someone would hear them and their concerns, their opposition to a particular aspect of the legislation could be reduced?

And, hey, this is government after all! Of course it's not a pure garden of Jewish existentialist philosophical delight!

But with the opposition rallying and obstructing and threatening and spitting and insulting, it sure is the way to go.

It's 49 days to Sinai; it's 40 years to the Promised Land. In our American culture, ravenously hungry for the immediate solution, a President who sits and listens in Buberian repose should have a calming influence on those who truly want to embrace the mantle of enlightened leadership. With the mutuality of respect--whether one is in agreement or not--we seem to have one of the keys for unlocking one of the doors toward repairing our broken democracy.


Amanda said...

The I and Thou thought would be more impactful if Obama had been able to get Republicans to vote for the health care bill also. Perhaps I'm cynical, but ultimately, I think all those democrats who ended up being "convinced" to vote for it, did so bc of politics, not bc they had a I and Thou encounter that changed them.

Andy Bachman said...

Interesting thought, Amanda, though I would argue that the Republicans decided to present a unified "I-It" posture, thus objectifying the President, the Democrats, and the legislation for their own gain--Mid-term elections in '10 and the White House in '12. Obama, on the other hand, actually helped change certain Democrats minds through dialogue. And remember, many Dems voted "no."