Our Easy Instincts

What is required is a new declaration of independence, not just in our nation, but in our own lives – from ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry – an appeal not to our easy instincts but to our better angels.

—Barack Obama Philadelphia

I’ll admit that I thought Barack Obama’s “historic train ride” was kind of hokey, but given then I got all weepy and inspired when I stumbled upon CNN’s coverage of it, maybe hokey is the order of the day.

One of the many things to admire about Obama is his ability to offer so much in so few words, to pull language from the past and use it to pull us forward. He does that in this single sentence. He’s right. As a new administration attempts to pull a divided country together, it’s the easy instincts we all must resist. This does not mean disconnecting our critical faculties, and I hear it as a charge to the left as much as it is a charge to those on the right. In fact, I think this applies more to the left than to than it does to anyone else. Liberals, Democrats, Lefties, “Progressives”—whatever you choose to call them, me—have spent the past eight years seething at the inadequacies and atrocities of the Bush-Cheney years. We’ve been chomping at the bit to make the world right again, and we are just smug enough with our righteous notions of what it means to be right that our easy instincts could well be mistaken for our better angels.

The blessing and the curse of the left is its lack of uniformity; the power of the right has, until recently, been its discipline. In the crucial early days of the Obama administration, let’s try to take a second, even a third look at our easy instincts. He knows what we want:

  • Universal health care
  • Bush and Company held to account
  • Guantanamo closed
  • Reversal of Bush tax cuts
  • Our soldiers out of Iraq

The list goes on and on…and on. And apparently the majority of Americans polled understand that it will take a long time to move on some of these goals. I hope this patience lasts, and I hope the left can channel its critical faculties into multiple directions at once. Speak out when President Obama makes decisions that undermine our country’s principles (inviting Rick Warren to participate in anyway in the inauguration) at the same time that we continue to answer his call to service and learn to talk to moderate conservatives. We should choose our battles carefully and gird ourselves for the roller coaster rider ahead. Most importantly, it’s vital to remember why we voted for Barack Obama in the first place and do what we can to support him as he leads the country out of the morasses that entangle us.

This is truly a rare moment, an awakening for so many, but it will be easy to forget the feelings, the emotion, the goosebumps when the messy business of governance overtakes us all. It is then that we’ll need our better angels. We’ll have to find them; too much is at stake.

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