Monday, June 30, 2008

McCain vs. Obama: Who is the best essayist?

Both Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain are very accomplished authors. Obama has written two best-selling books, Dreams from my Father and the Jeremiah Wright inspired campaign book Audacity of Hope. McCain has written a plethora of books over his career, the most prominent one being Faith of my Fathers (which is eerily similar in its title to Obama's memoir) and the most recent being Hard Call: The Art of Great Decisions. McCain has had assistance when writing most of his books, which may mean that he has more stories than skills as a storyteller. Obama, on the other hand, is listed as the sole author of his books.

So who is the better essayist? Both candidates wrote essays on patriotism for this week's Time magazine's cover story, which is, you guessed it, on patriotism.

Let's start off with McCain's piece, "A Cause Greater Than Self," which seemed like a subtle reiteration of his national service agenda:

Patriotism means more than holding your hand over your heart during the national anthem. It means more than walking into a voting booth every two or four years and pulling a lever. Patriotism is a love and a duty, a love of country expressed in good citizenship.

Patriotism and the citizenship it requires should motivate the conduct of public officials, but it also thrives in the communal spaces where government is absent, anywhere Americans come together to govern their lives and their communities — in families, churches, synagogues, museums, symphonies, the Little League, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, the Salvation Army or the VFW. They are the habits and institutions that preserve democracy. They are the ways, small and large, we come together as one country, indivisible, with freedom and justice for all. They are the responsible exercise of freedom and are indispensable to the proper functioning of a democracy. Patriotism is countless acts of love, kindness and courage that have no witness or heraldry and are especially commendable because they are unrecorded.

The patriot must not just accept, but in his or her own way protect the ideals that gave birth to our country: to stand against injustice and for the rights of all and not just one's own interests. The patriot honors the duties, the loyalties, the inspirations and the habits of mind that bind us together as Americans.

We are the heirs and caretakers of freedom — a blessing preserved with the blood of heroes down through the ages. One cannot go to Arlington Cemetery and see name upon name, grave upon grave, row upon row, without being deeply moved by the sacrifice made by those young men and women.

And those of us who live in this time, who are the beneficiaries of their sacrifice, must do our smaller and less dangerous part to protect what they gave everything to defend, lest we lose our own love of liberty.

Love of country is another way of saying love of your fellow countrymen — a truth I learned a long time ago in a country very different from ours. Patriotism is another way of saying service to a cause greater than self-interest.

If you find faults with our country, make it a better one. If you are disappointed with the mistakes of government, join its ranks and work to correct them. I hope more Americans would consider enlisting in our armed forces. I hope more would consider running for public office or working in federal, state and local governments. But there are many public causes where your service can make our country a stronger, better one than we inherited.

The good citizen and patriot knows happiness is greater than comfort, more sublime than pleasure. The cynical and indifferent know not what they miss. For their mistake is an impediment not only to our progress as a civilization but to their happiness as individuals.

Wow, can you say "yawn?" Other than the creepy insinuation that "love of your fellow countrymen" is the highest echelon of patriotism without mentioning pulling yourself up from your bootstraps, the essay sounds a bit too much like it came from a 71-year-old. There's not a whole lot of substance, which contrasts with Barack Obama, who takes on the very timely issue of Zimbabwe's horror movie state in "A Faith in Simple Dreams:"

When I was a child, I lived overseas for a time with my mother. And one of my earliest memories is of her reading to me the first lines of the Declaration of Independence, explaining how its ideas applied to every American, black and white and brown alike. She taught me that those words, and the words of the United States Constitution, protected us from the brutal injustices we witnessed other people suffer during those years abroad.

I've been reminded of this recently as I've followed the brutal injustice surrounding Zimbabwe's so-called elections. For weeks, the opposition party and its supporters have been silently hunted, tortured and killed. They have been dragged from their homes in the middle of the night and strangled while their children watched. The wife of a newly elected mayor was so badly beaten that her own brother only recognized her by the skirt she wore on the day she was killed. Even voters suspected of disloyalty to the President have been herded together and thrashed for hours, all for the simple crime of casting their ballot.

We are a nation of strong and varied convictions and beliefs. We argue and debate our differences vigorously and often. But when all is said and done, we still come together as one people and pledge our allegiance not just to a place on a map or a certain leader but to the words my mother read to me years ago: "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

That is the true genius of America — a faith in simple dreams, an insistence on small miracles. It's the idea that we can tuck in our children at night and know that they are fed and clothed and safe from harm; that we can say what we think, write what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door; that we can have an idea and start our own business without paying a bribe; that we can participate in the political process without fear of retribution; and that our votes will be counted.

For me, it is the love and defense of these ideals that constitutes the true meaning of patriotism. They are ideals that do not belong to any particular party or group of people but call each of us to service and sacrifice for the sake of our common good.

I write this knowing that if previous generations had not taken up this call, I would not be where I am today. As a young man of mixed race, without a firm anchor in any community, without even a father's steadying hand, this essential American ideal — that our destinies are not written before we are born — has defined my life. And it is the source of my profound love for this country: because with a mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya, I know that stories like mine could only happen in America.

This is a fantastic essay coming from a presidential candidate. Obama clearly illustrates the contrast between the freedoms and liberties of America and the terrorism of Zimbabwe. His use of the term "so-called elections" is something I really liked, as it is forthright and critical. Under the criticism of Zimbabwe does leave a lingering question about an Obama presidency: Would he do something about the tyranny of Zimbabwe? The last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, didn't shy away from military interventions. If he did, how would that be consistent with his constant opposition to the intervention in Iraq, a state that didn't relish in democracy under Saddam Hussein?
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1 comment:

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