Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Tribes of Man

It is historic. No one like him has ever been president. So they gathered. In hordes that couldn’t be counted standing on frozen ground able to see the event only on jumbo flat screen monitors along the mall they watched.

We have our first black president. For many, the media most of all, these last couple years have been largely about race. It is the narrative with the easiest grasp while equally capable of being divisive – conflict being the key to good storytelling.

Of course, it couldn’t simply have been the history. Celebrity is far more fun. Celebrity makes people gather in frozen bunches to watch television half a mile from the thing they are watching. That and sports. While the race of our new president is both historic and groundbreaking I doubt that it is all that is involved. I think it is tribalism.

Mankind and tribalism – the two cannot be separated. In modern society we’ve gotten creative with our tribes. Mostly we have sports teams – the tribes of the Steelers and Cardinals, the tribes of the Lakers and the Dodgers and the Red Wings, Gators, Cornhuskers and on and on. Our sports teams allow us to suffer and triumph in controlled physical clashes replacing war and possibly the need for a caged death match with the neighbor from time to time. Of course, we have constructed other tribes, for good and for ill: birth state, hometown, religion, college, career, hobby, gender, ethnicity, race and sometimes the noxious little gang of hoodlums that decide a part of the neighborhood should be run by them and them alone.

The tribes of man are many, but the presidency has been held by so few over the years. We’ve had young and old, Southern and Northern, poor and wealthy, rural and urban, but always male and always white. While Barack Obama has some of the “elite” and requisite traits that mark the presidents of old, Harvard Law for one, he also has those that are less common. As we all know by now he has a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya. He was raised by a single mother. He moved around the country and the world throughout his youth. He wasn’t rich, but he was gifted and took every advantage offered him.

Some of the joy and hope and anticipation is for the history. Some of the crowds and craziness are for the celebrity. Yet I remain convinced that most of it has more to do with the tribes of man looking upon a new face and seeing more of themselves than they have ever seen. Barack Obama is accessible. He looks like what America has become. He’s from some many places that almost anyone can claim him as their own. While he is a black man, he has a white mother. While he is a product of the south side of Chicago he is also a product of the plains of Kansas. Since his election he also proven himself to be far more moderate and mainstream than I had expected him to be. He is easy to like, easy to listen to and he isn’t more of the same old thing…not yet.

The expectations are beyond the capability of just one man and especially from within the office now held by this one man. The tribes are restless and fickle and when this moment passes and the real work begins, I hope we continue to see in President Obama the best of what we see in ourselves.

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