What America lost in President Obama's victory on the recent election goes deeper than politics and party. What was lost is something transcendent and vital to a healthy concept of the human person. I fully realized this when I came across a grand passage from the new book Wounds That Will Never Heal: Affirmative Action and Our Continuing Racial Divide by Russell Nieli. Nieli specifically explores personalism, which has been an important component of philosophy since Socrates and was a central part of the work of Pope John Paul II.
Nieli explains it well: "According to the personalistic philosophy human beings are each individually centers of Meaning and Mystery. They are not Hegelian moments in a collective group history, nor are they faceless, depersonalized abstractions upon which to project one's stereotyped image of a group."
He notes this does not mean that human beings to not organize themselves in groups and societies and governments -- he calls them "collective and communal activities" -- just that there is a deeply spiritual uniqueness, mystery and metaphysical meaning to each human person: "Human persons according to the personalistic philosophy have an indissolvable unity to their being, to their life and thoughts, their actions and feelings, which groups of human beings simply do not have, even the most intimate group of the family."
When I read this, I could easily bring it down to my own experience. I run a summer journalism program for high school students at Georgetown University and substitute teach during the year, and my work as a photographer and journalist constantly brings me into contact with different people. And at the risk of sounding corny I can say with absolute certainty that no two are alike.
That sounds like Hallmark sentiment, but when you experience it everyday, it takes on profound mystical meaning. Here's an Asian kid who loves football and won't wear sneakers and has a scar on his shoulder where he fell off his bike. Or one of my Irish Catholic buddies from high school who was a football star but cries at movies and once passed out from laughing too hard. Or a model I just photographed who loves John Cheever's stories. Or the left-wing Occupy member who has beautiful eyes and is too gentle to hurt anything. The Republican with allergies and who moves punk.
They all have different stories, they all come from unique strange and wonderful families, they all have unexpected quirks. They are all individuals. No two alike.
It's not possible to overestimate what will be lost if America loses this concept -- that is, not just the concept that we are all individuals, but that there is a religious mystery at the heart of our individual uniqueness, and that if the state begins to obliterate that we are in dire trouble. The white postwar American conformity of the mid 20th century is being replaced by a multicultural conformity that is possibly more oppressive. Liberals have effectively turned their own acolytes into single-thinking, Borg-like groups.
Obama's campaign played on this, appealing to women, who they believed only think about birth control; and Latinos, who they thought only think about immigration, and blacks; who they thought only think about race. Sadly, many members of these groups have indeed fallen into the trap of groupthink. Equally disturbing is how dismissive the new Obama majority and the media have been in trashing "old white men."
Which brings us to Soledad O'Brien. I now know what makes me so sad about the CNN anchor. I have followed O'Brien since her start on the "Today" show in the early 1990s. O'Brien is the daughter of an Australian father and an Afro-Cuban mother. At first she seemed like a extremely bright young reporter and producer who had savvy and enough intellect to follow some important and interesting projects. Like everyone else in America, she had the possibility of being an individual.
Yet I have watched how O'Brien, a Harvard graduate, has repressed any hint of mystery or surprise in favor of the cold, obsequious pandering of the politically correct cog. Her endless Black/Asian/Latina/Left-Handed/Pink-Eyed in America series is a walled-off cul-de-sac. Her new, more shrill interview tactics against conservatives who appear on her show is phony and laughable.
In essence, whatever odd and wonderful path O'Brien's life and mind were going to take her on was plowed over by the dictatorship of Race Awareness that overwhelmed her at Harvard (she had planned on being a doctor). O'Brien has claimed that her job is "to give voice to the voiceless." What a narrow and clenched way to live. O'Brien has walled herself off from reporting on so many things: a bizarre cult movie she may love; the state of modern Irish poetry; the exact day in the 1990s when David Letterman stopped being funny.
What is ultimately so tragic about the loss of personalism is that when the state declares that each person is not a unique and special creation by God it can start separating people unto groups. Those groups usually get labeled those worthy of respect, and even of life itself, and those not worthy. The torrent of tweeted death threats against Mitt Romney before the election do not augur well for the future.