Obama does endure repeated disillusionment, but then recovers and rises above it. He may vent that the American people don’t really care about the environment enough to seriously inconvenience themselves, but when he’s done venting, he refuses to behave as if he thought people were all bad. “Part of what you’re sensing here are times when I make decisions to be gracious, when I assume the best in people, not because I’m naive but because this is how I choose to operate in the world,” Obama recently told Jeffrey Goldberg. Sometimes your way of being is more important than your way of thinking. It’s possible to observe selfishness in others yet refuse to play by their rules. It’s possible to say to yourself, This is a potentially corrupting situation, but I choose to resist that corruption.
We all have to decide where to situate ourselves in the world, and again and again Obama situates himself with the idealists. On foreign trips, he makes it a point to have meetings with college students. He doesn’t really think Russian human-rights activists have many prospects in the Putin era, yet he still holds a big public meeting with them. Throughout his presidency he was slow to intervene abroad, even when innocent lives were at stake, but he still stood with his foreign-policy adviser, Samantha Power. “She evoked my own youthful idealism, the part of me still untouched by cynicism, cold calculation, or caution dressed up as wisdom.”
Perhaps there is something distinctly African American about this posture. African Americans are among the most mistreated people in America, but they are also, as survey after survey shows, the most optimistic people in America. Poor Black people are even more optimistic than wealthy Black people. One sees an almost willful decision to simply refuse to be ground down by circumstances, an insistence on seeing a brighter day ahead and observing the present from the vantage point of a better future.
“The spirit of the blues,” the great writer Albert Murray once observed, “moves in the opposite direction from ashes and sackcloth, self-pity, self-hatred, and suicide. As a matter of fact the dirtiest, meanest, and most low-down blues are not only not depressing, they function like an instantaneous aphrodisiac!” You can’t always choose your life, Murray argued, but you can choose your style. The blues idiom starts not by “obscuring or denying the existence of the ugly dimensions of human nature,” but by making “an affirmative and hence exemplary and heroic response.” When you sing the blues you become the “humanizer of the chaos.”
Once upon a time, scientists emphasized our “selfish genes,” arguing that life was a bloody battle for survival, red in tooth and claw. But recently the evidence has swung wildly the other way. The neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman wrote a book, Social, that describes how human beings are wired to connect and cooperate. The Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard wrote a book, Altruism, showing that when hard times come, sharing is more common than pillaging, and cooperation is more common than indifference. And The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs Over Self-Interest, by the Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler, is a summary of the many research studies that show that most people are basically good, not bad. In any given experiment, Benkler observes, 30 percent of the participants behave selfishly, but roughly half of the participants behave cooperatively, in predictable and systematic ways. Many people behave altruistically even when others are mean, and even when it comes at personal cost. “In practically no human society examined under controlled conditions,” Benkler concludes, “have the majority of people consistently behaved selfishly.”
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