Agents of Change: Watching President Obama From Afar

Buenos Aires, ArgentinaObama Brownie

Domestic politics bore me.  The characters are always the same, the issues unchanging, and the scandals not particularly scandalous (or maybe I’m just desensitized to old white men doing salacious things in public spaces).  Above all, the United States is a functioning democracy that respects human rights and protects and serves its citizens, at least for the most part.  And there just isn’t much room for outrage or outcry.

International politics are where the real action is.  There are megalomaniacal leaders, coup d’états (both failed and successful), weapons of mass destruction (both real and imagined), balances of power, unions and break-ups, protocols and conventions, embargos and treaties, violations and trials.  Foreign affairs are the Mexican telenovela of political science.  Even the name evokes drama.

In college, I loved discussing theory, history, actors, issues, and most importantly, solutions in my Economics and International Studies classes.  Naturally, I imagined that living in South America would only heighten my passion for and awareness of these subjects.  However, since moving abroad, I’ve felt more cut off from the world than ever.

When I was still in school, people helped me to navigate through current events.  Teachers assigned readings, friends and family recited and debated headlines over dinner, and The New York Times and The Economist dictated what was worth knowing and had a monopoly on the facts.  On my own, I found myself drowning in the sea of information.

Suddenly, there were stories about conflicts in countries that I had never heard of between cultures and nations that I didn’t know existed, in languages I was just learning to speak.  I didn’t know which region of the world was worthy of attention, which crisis deserved the most time and energy, and which point of view to trust and respect.  Everything moved so quickly, it was hard to keep up.  Yet at the same time, nothing ever seemed to change or improve.  Frustrated and overwhelmed, I turned inwards, escaping from the ugliness and brutality in the world, and focusing on resolving my own issues and finding inner peace.

Before moving abroad, I at least absorbed important news through osmosis.  But in Argentina, if I don’t actively seek information about current events, I am totally out of the loop. It was during my headline news boycott that Barack Obama entered the scene.  Of course, I heard people about the Obama mania that was sweeping the nation, but I had no notion of the depth or importance of what was happening.  But then my parents started to fight, my mother almost reduced to tears when my father expressed doubts over Obama’s chances of winning.  “Your father is so cynical,” she would sigh when we spoke on the phone.
“I’m not cynical.  I’m realistic,” he would yell in the background.

When my friends began taking time off work to volunteer for the Obama campaign, I decided that this election was worthy of attention.  To get to know The Candidate better, I went online and read a transcript of Barack Obama’s nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention.   I was moved by the power of his words, and saddened that I was missing out on an opportunity to be inspired.  I began to question my own political inaction, and to feel  guilty and selfish for having abandoned the fight, and for not contributing to the cause.  Until a friend helped me understand that disengaging is a strategy for change.

I read that when confronted with an unsatisfactory situation, you have three options: accept it, change it, or remove yourself from it.  More and more of my peers, it seems, are choosing option C: walk away.  We are not apathetic or disinterested.  We are just tired of waiting for the world to change.  Personally, I was bored of hearing the same rhetoric recycled and regurgitated.  I was tired of watching us turn in circles, applying the same ineffective strategies to persistent problems.  And I was disheartened by the fact that people are still killing and dying to protect or get things that aren’t theirs or aren’t necessary.  At some point I said, I don’t want to live under these conditions, not when I have a choice.  So I left home, hoping to create a microcosm that reflects my values, interests, and priorities.

Most of us are no longer looking for a temporary solution.  We demand fundamental changes, but we are bluffing.  There is no “or else.”  There are no ultimatums.  Paradigm shifts cannot be imposed from the top down.  Communities, local and international, are comprised of individuals.  And social values, norms, and institutions reflect, or should reflect, the beliefs, behaviors, and needs of the people. The world will change when a critical mass of individuals change the way they think, act, and live.

If enough people concerned about the environment move to big cities with public transportation or small towns where they can walk or ride a bike, maybe other cities will change in order to retain their residents.  If enough people worried about human rights and social justice refuse to buy products made in sweatshops or under inhumane conditions, maybe other manufacturers will change to appease their customers.  If enough socially conscious CEOs take pay cuts and invest profits in human resources, maybe other companies will change in order to compete for employees.  If enough of the best and brightest concerned with social welfare move to countries that offer universal healthcare, social security, and work-life balance, maybe their own countries will change in order to prevent brain drain.  And if enough politically active youths dedicate their vacation days to presidential campaigns, Barack Obama becomes President of the United States.

President Obama promises change, but he doesn’t necessarily promise to be the one to make those changes.  Let’s be honest, the new President has inherited a mess, and will likely spend the next four years trying to relieve the disaster left by his predecessors. One of the sentiments from Obama’s nomination acceptance speech that most inspired me was reiterated in his inauguration address:

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon  which this nation relies. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly….  This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

When Barack Obama accepted the presidency, he didn’t just give people hope. He gave them a mandate.  One man cannot manufacture a miracle, but we’ve seen what can happen when the interests of a nation of disaffected individuals align. Perhaps President Obama’s greatest legacy will not be the policies he implements, but the responsibility and authority he delegates to his people.


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