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The Mirror or The Mountaintop?

(a keynote speech from 2008)

Hi, my name is Tony - and I am an Obamaholic.

In fact, I have long been addicted to hope.

Remember Christmas Eve 1968, when we first saw, courtesy of Apollo 8, that awe-inspiring photograph of Earth rising above the horizon of the moon? There it was, our home planet, breathtakingly alone in space, beautifully blue and white against the blackness of eternity.

I was 21, already a confirmed idealist, already fascinated by the big picture, but that image was the clincher. I began to think more about positive change. I had studied the Greeks in school and chose to be a Homeric, to believe that the gods did not in fact exercise absolute control over our destinies, that we mere humans could influence our own future.

It was leadership that fascinated me most, men like Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela. I became intrigued with the difference between transactional and transformational leadership.

In graduate school, I was always a distracted student; so I’d pay serious attention to those tiny bits of positive feedback I so rarely received from teachers. On one paper for the dean of the faculty, I referred to Woodrow Wilson as a “terminal idealist”. The dean circled the phrase and wrote “terrific” next to it.

So of course I’ve remembered that. Wilson had all the right words and instincts, but he could not deliver on his promises because he did not have the right judgment about process, about how to actually get things done in the real world.

My addiction has only gotten worse with time. It reached a peak on March 21, 2000, the first day of spring in the first year of the new millennium, when two friends, professors at the Rhode Island School of Design, and I hosted a festival of hope – from a prayer breakfast at dawn to a candlelight vigil at dusk, with dance, music, seminars and celebration in between.

Now suddenly it is 2008, and there is no end to the magnificence and horror in the human drama. Across the continents, humanity rises to every challenge, sinks to any depth. We cherish each heartbeat and murder at will. We bless nature’s miracles, yet trash the hood.

We accept this polarity as human nature and we move on in what Shakespeare called our ‘glassy essence’. All the while our righteousness lords over other life; yet we beseech gods for mercy. Our angers flare to violence and we demand justice. We covet ceaselessly, give generously. Our wallowing is legion, yet we take art and science to Olympian heights.

One reason we remain in such environmental, social, financial and political crisis is of course that too many of our leaders over the last fifty years have failed us, looking more at the mirror than the mountaintop.

Perhaps we have failed ourselves too, because we have not cared enough - or truly noticed - that we are letting our lowest instincts succeed while our highest ones dangerously idle and slide, diminished so often by mere contentment and myopia. All the while the finer sides of our humanity insistently remind us that we ride this Earthome together and that we must take care of each other, no matter who, no matter where, no matter how.

So how do we best come to terms with what Hawthorne called the ‘marble and mud’ of our existence and with this severe compound fracturing of our future? One crucial way, of course, is to find and embrace truly visionary leaders.

Then along comes this skinny, half-Kenyan, half-Kansan, with the confidence of a lion, a man as inspiring as the northern lights on a clear Arctic midnight.

But not only does he have the right words and the right instincts, he also has the right judgment. He knows how to listen, how to get things done, how to build consensus, how to close the deal. This may be, in fact, his finest skill, to bring opposing sides together and make positive change happen.

During this week, we’re going to hear hours of passion and dramatic rhetoric from Denver - particularly as the world discovers that Joe Biden is indeed the perfect hot to Obama’s cool.

The convention should make us feel great about possibilities. But being happy about possibilities is, of course, not enough. It’s never enough.

We have to campaign as well. If we do not go out of our way to find uncommitted, undecided voters, we are being complacent, not just about our political future but about the future of people everywhere - who will be watching this election like no election ever held on this planet, hoping that we elect Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

Particularly because this campaign often will get bitter (not least because much of the media is basically paid to fan the flames of divisiveness), we need to keep focused on what’s important: on convincing undecided folks to vote Democratic and on enlisting as many people across the country, not just in Vermont, in working for this campaign.

So write an op-ed. Have a tea. Write a poem. Send a thousand emails across the continents. Post a sign. Share your favorite Youtube videos. Give, talk, engage, listen, encourage, persuade, then take a long walk in your favorite woods and come back, hug a Republican, and work some more.

We have only until November 4, ten weeks and two days from tonight.

In case you need any additional incentives to work hard during this time, here’s a small suggestion: Think of those men and women, known and unknown who have sacrificed for you. Think of those who inspire you to make things better. One of mine is the tuxedoed cellist, Vedran Smailovic, who, in Sarajevo in 1992, braved sniper fire in the marketplace each day for 22 days to play Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor to honor the 22 men, women and children who were killed there by mortar fire while they were queuing for bread.

Only ten quick weeks left. Yes, we can win this election. Yes, we can find our common sense about energy. Yes, we can maximize compassion and minimize violence. Yes, we can secure lives of safety and dignity for all of humanity, most urgently refugees and the disenfranchised. Yes, we can seize this chance to change the world!

Yes, we can!

 –    Tony Balis   (delivered as keynote speech at an Obama fundraiser in Charlotte, Vermont, 8/24/08)

 
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