At this point, 24 years into my life, I’ve made a lot of decisions. And I’m talking about the big ones here, folks. The ones that people in my life could use to describe me to strangers: ‘Keith is a New Yorker, ‘My friend Keith works for a TV show,’ or ‘If you wanna talk about a guy who compulsively buys CDs, you should meet my friend Keith.’ And that’s all true. I live in New York, work in television, and have spent a significant portion of my life waiting to check out at Tower Records. But these are all things I’ve deliberately chosen. This is who I want to be and how I want to live. And if I want to, I can change all of this by making new decisions.
But there are so many other things about me that, well, I never exactly sought out. I never put any effort into being a male, for example. Nor did I choose to be short or speak English. And yet, those happen to be pretty impactful aspects of who I am. Without putting forth any real effort or any intention on my part, I am indeed a short, English-speaking man.
Another of these is the fact that I am American. I have not taken a single step to become an American. I have paid no price. I have risked nothing. I never took a test, and I never paid a nationalization fee. I am an American by birth, and my identity as such is a lifelong guarantee. At its most basic level, it is simply a state of being.
The bold idea at the heart of our nation, however, is that our citizenship is not merely a state of being; our citizenship is a matter of action. It is in the actions we choose individually where our true lives as Americans actually exist, and it is the ultimate combination of our entire actions taken together that defines our national character. The life of an American is to be conducted deliberately and purposefully.
For those of us who have decided at this very early point in the 2008 presidential election to support Barack Obama, I think it is fundamental that we understand our own citizenship as a matter of purposefulness. The decision to support Obama is not simply a single act, taken once. The election of Obama will require many decisions, made again and again: to inform ourselves, to evaluate ourselves, to challenge our own thinking. It also will require multiple decisions about how we engage and mobilize others behind our candidate.
But perhaps most importantly, this election will depend on how we as citizens for Obama decide to treat others, namely those with whom we disagree. Obama himself has said, ‘What’s needed is a broad majority of Americans – Democrats, Republicans, and independents of goodwill – who are reengaged in the project of national renewal, and who see their own self-interest as inextricably linked to the interests of others.’
The candidacy of Barack Obama is a precious opportunity for Americans – all Americans – to demonstrate the integrity of our national character. As supporters of Obama, we are called to build that broad majority he describes. To do so, we must lead the political discourse – to quite literally establish the tone by which we engage this election – with responsibility and understanding of our fellow Americans. We must decide to never treat the election as a cause to dehumanize those who disagree with us. We must seek out our commonalities. We must reject the dichotomous theater of our current politics and never reduce ourselves or others to stereotype.
We must commit to understanding each other. We must choose to invest in one another.
I never had the opportunity to choose being an American. But now, in answering this call to engage in the project of national renewal, and doing so with a commitment to my fellow citizen, I have the chance to participate in the definition of our national character. This is something I choose. This is who I want to be and how I want to live. And I look forward to joining with others in this spirit of goodwill along the way.