A Ku Indeed!

Is Obama a Budding Junzi?

Posted in Analects, China, Chinese Philosophy, Politics by Chris on December 19, 2008

I must admit, Barack Obama has me intrigued. He’s making me pay attention to him. His selection of cabinet members – and now his selection of Rick Warren to serve on Inauguration Day – is very interesting. It makes me wonder: is Obama reflecting a bit of what might be required of the Confucian Junzi?

No, I haven’t succumbed to “Obama-mania”. I don’t think he’s the Messiah. But you must admit he is interesting. Unlike previous leaders, who typically pick advisers and spokespeople who closely reflect the leaders own views, Obama has departed from the conventional wisdom and seems intent on pulling together a very diverse – and contentious lot of people.

It reminds me of one of my favorite passages from the Analects (13.23) – “ the junzi seeks harmony, not sameness; the small person seeks the opposite.”

Understood in this context, the exemplary leader would not surround want to be surrounded by yes-men, or with a homogeneous set of people bent on saying what the leader wants to hear said. That is what the small (xiao ren) person would do, and for obvious reasons. When you surround yourself with people who agree with you, you are never challenged, and you can’t fail to feel good about yourself. Ask any celebrity – it’s nice to have an entourage!

This is why it takes a junzi (exemplary person) to seek harmony. To actually cultivate excellence is hard to do, and conformity (through sameness) is not the road that one takes if this is your goal. Excellence requires constant challenge. It means taking the hard road because it is the right road to take. It means recognizing difference, and finding out how to make difference work together in a way that is overall advantageous.

Some are suspicious, and suggest that this is not Obama’s goal. They suspect that he’s not necessarily committed to the ideology of harmony through negotiated difference — he’s just a skillful politician. Basically, he’s keeping his friends close, and his enemies closer.

I have no firm opinion on which of the two (or combination of the two) it is at this point, though as I have said, I am intrigued by what he is doing, and it makes me want to watch him closely because he could be different from the rest of the typical leaders of the past. I suppose only time will tell, of course. But it should be fun to watch.

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One Response

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  1. AJ Million said, on December 20, 2008 at 2:12 am

    I have mixed feelings. First, Obama’s cabinet selections have drawn hundreds of comparisons to Lincoln and Doris Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals.” While I’m glad to see people referring to the past I can’t help but feel like some make this comparison because they don’t know what else to compare the current situation to. Lincoln had no choice… if he couldn’t work with the cabinet he formed then it was unlikely he could work with the rest of the country. Obama, on the other hand, could probably get away with being a little divisive.

    No, my impression seems to be that it’s probably a little of both reasons that you gave. In the current climate the country needs to heal, and politically it makes sense to hear everyone out. The lack of any reasons to do the opposite seem to have made the decision for him. From a Confucian perspective, however the real question seems to be Mr. Obama’s actual motives.

    … I’ll let you know when I figure out what they are. The “Big C” may have thought that you can tell who people really are by looking at their behaviors but he never dealt with a modern political PR campaign. 🙂


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