Monday, October 27, 2008

Neighbor, Community, Politics

I've worked on campaigns going back to the 70s, so you'd figure that well before middle age I would have learned something about the value and meaning of retail politics. Well, duh, I learned it again yesterday as I did a bit of door-to-door work for my choice in this election.
The Obama campaign has canvass launch sites spread across Arlington County (which is among the smallest -- by land area -- counties in the United States). The ground game across Northern Virginia is simply huge with Obama canvassers heading out from at least eight sites across the county.
When I got to my launch site yesterday there were 15 people getting their clipboards and preparing to hit the sidewalks at 3:00 on a beautiful fall Sunday afternoon. You can do the math on the likely number of canvassers in Arlington yesterday for three shifts. We probably had personal contacts in more than 1,000 households.
I managed to find people at home in a dozen. Three, in particular, reminded me firsthand of both the importance of neighborhood politics and a deeper and broader sense of neighborhood that ought to prevail in our politics.
I can walk up the hill from my house to the launch site. I have done so each of the past four weekends and asked for a route that doesn't require me to get in my car. This gives me the opportunity to talk to people who really are my neighbors in a traditional sense of the word. When I find someone at home I always mention the street I live on, and that bit of personal information never fails to open up a channel of conversation.
I met a neighbor yesterday who is a Pakistani-American who told me, "I was enthusiastic for Obama until he started talking about invading my country." I admitted that I was not enthusiastic about that stance either, but that I believe Obama is committed strong diplomacy and multilateralism, and that his calm response to the financial crisis gives us a strong sense of the way he will respond to international crises as well.
My neighbor was not convinced, and he told me of his concern for friends and family in Pakistan. We talked for a while longer, and he said he was likely to vote for Obama but that he probably wouldn't really make up his mind until he was standing in the voting booth.
I'd like to be able to tell you that I swung this voter, but, instead, he reminded me that all politics -- even on international issues -- remains local, and his personal connections to friends and family in Pakistan shifted his sense of locality and of responsibility to neighbors. So, I just said to him, "I think the most important work of this campaign begins on Nov. 5, when we have to work hard to hold Sen. Obama accountable and push him to live up to his own highest ideals, especially on issues like this."
As I walked on to the next house I thought about the long hours of work I have done organizing with Christian Peace Witness for Iraq and about our internal conversations about the need for a strong peace witness around the broader war on terror and the ongoing violence in Afghanistan. My neighbor reminded me that the real work does begin on Nov. 5, because the wisdom of the ancient psalmist is right, "Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish."
It will be up to us to put the real breath and life into the Obama presidency, just as we have into the Obama candidacy. So, if you are committed to just and lasting peace, keep organizing, keep pressing, keep talking with neighbors.
I was still thinking about my Pakistani-American neighbor when I knocked on the door of an African-American neighbor. I was looking for an 18-year-old man, a potential first-time voter, and he was home.
In fact, his whole family was there and they gathered around the front porch with me to talk about the election. We talked about the fact that his grandparents' generation lived under Jim Crow laws and fought for the right to vote. I told him that I was born in Alabama and, as an Scots-Irish-American, had probably had my diapers changed in "whites only" public restrooms.
His younger sister, a charming six-year-old with beads in her braids and a gap where one of her front teeth used to be, told me that she had polled her entire family and got 13 votes for Obama. Then I remarked how she was about the same age as Sen. Obama's younger daughter, so maybe when the Obama family moves into the White House she could send the girls a "welcome to the neighborhood" card. I said that clearly she was the head of this household so I gave her the campaign literature and elicited a promise from her that she would make certain that her big brother made it to the polls on election day.
With a solemn look on her face, she promised that she would. Not only is politics local, sometimes it is all in the family.
Of course, the definition of family, kin and neighbor is what's at stake so often in our politics. This is nothing new under the sun. Jesus' parable of the good Samaritan was all about defining neighbor, about moving beyond tribal politics to a broader understanding of community.
The last door I knocked on was a Latino-American family just up the hill from my house. The mom and one daughter were home. Although both were enthusiastic Obama supporters, neither were voters -- the daughter being too young and the mother not yet a United States citizen.
The daughter chided her mom for "not taking the test yet." The mom chuckled and said, "I know, I know. I will soon." I said, "well, we're going to want to reelect Obama in four years, so maybe you can aim to be a citizen for that election."
I told them I lived just down the hill, and the daughter said she was in the same school as my younger son. It was abundantly clear that we share a common stake in the neighborhood, the community, the commonwealth.
I ended the afternoon thinking that maybe, if we all continue to work together for authentic change and if we all continue to talk with our neighbors as often as possible and not just once every four years, then someday we will share a deeper sense of that commonwealth no matter what hyphen happens to fall in our American identity.
The heart of the faith-based community organizing that gave Obama his start is personal relationships. While progressives certainly hold no monopoly on personal relationships, there is a reason why such organizing has a particular power for progressives.
Progressives place a high value on relationship while the corresponding value for many conservatives is purity. That's one of the reasons that same-sex issues, for example, are such a hot button: in the conservative evangelical worldview sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman is not pure, and the question of purity trumps the value of any relationship at question. You can detect the same logic -- absent lousy Biblical interpretation -- in the question of immigration which devolves too quickly to the question of who is a "real" American and who is not, who is in and who is out, who is pure and who is tainted.
But the deeper our relationships with neighbors who don't share the same background and experience and ties of kinship, the more we are forced to call into question our own understanding of what constitutes "purity."
My Pakistani-American neighbor pushes me to remain critical of my own candidate in productive ways. My African-American neighbor reminds me of my own roots and the privileges that come with them, and thus pushes me to remain critical of power structures that enshrine exclusions. My Latino-American neighbor reminds me of the promise of America that I often take for granted, and thus pushes me to remain committed to keeping doors -- and borders -- safely open.
All of these neighbors remind me of the urgency of continuing this work beyond next week. We must find more and creative way to use the remarkable network built by the Obama campaign as a movement that begins come November 5, rather than a project that ends on November 4. As Sen. Kennedy would say, "the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dreams shall never die."

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