My good friend Vidula Bal (at least I hope I’m still on that list) had some useful advice in this space for President-elect Obama. She seems to be a fan of surrounding oneself with smart people and then exercising discernment about what they have to tell you. It would probably be easier to take Vidula along to ride shotgun, as my experience suggests her BS detector is a finely tuned instrument with no lack of calibration opportunities.

That being said, I was interested in what discernment might look like and have started reflecting on some pieces of that puzzle. The question I started with was “who would I call discerning and what do they do that merits that term?” Here are two elements that rose from the mist early on. As predicted by Vidula, they all involve the way one uses one’s social context.

One aspect of discernment is the capacity to forsee the implications or consequences of choices one makes for others. This requires a broad acquaintance with and concern for people who are different from you and each other and a determination to eschew imperial ambitions. I’m reminded of a negative example I saw earlier today when I walked back from the beach to the coffee shop where my writing takes place. I saw a man and woman with two small boys, each about 3 years old. The boys were the typical tow-headed beach tots, each with a boogie-board in tow. My attention was drawn because the woman was unhappy with one of them who ignored his companion’s plea to stop running into him and she was grabbing him away. As they walked by me, I saw that each of the boys had large tattoos on his back and around one arm. While cute in that “my child is really my pet” kind of way, I couldn’t help wondering how happy these boys will be in a dozen years when they are wanting to join their own adolescent culture but they wear the parental “brand.” Cultural imperialism is no less coercive just because it is “counter-cultural” in the local context.

For our President, discernment means that rich or poor, native, early immigrant, or just-immigrated, male, female or whatever new gender we invent this week, all will be affected by your choices and forethought given to the impact on the rich diversity of this land will pay off.

Another element of discernment relates to the obligation and opportunity the President has to make meaning for the collective of the Nation. The care and feeding of the American soul is in his hands and if one does not see that there is such a (metaphorical) thing, how will one preserve it? Now that everyone is re-reading Team of Rivals, we may have a resurgence of awareness that reputation really is something important. Lincoln wanted, above all things, to be esteemed by his fellows. To him that meant that he would do the right thing and thereby preserve his name and the name of the Union. The world has chosen to suspend its judgment about the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave in hopes that we will, once again, stand for more than personal aggrandizement and greed. Discernment in this case means that the President and those who surround him recognize that every choice, every conversation (whether in public or in private) define the identity of this country: its soul. Our kryptonite has always been the fear that separates us into categories of race, wealth, culture, gender, and every other possible division. Since we seem to have elected a president from across the great divide, wouldn’t it be nice to become a whole nation?

Just a thought or two, Mr. President-elect. You’d still be better off putting Vidula in the Cabinet. How about Secretary of State?

Your basic presidential non-advisor,

Doug

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