Thursday, November 06, 2008

Trusting Ourselves as Americans

Every broadsheet in the UK has a special section on Barak Obama and his family this morning. There is joy here too, restrained in the British fashion, but joy nonetheless. From the white and black checkout clerks I encountered at Tesco and Sainsbury's yesterday, to Oxford Dons and media personalities such as Stephen Fry, joy it infects the entire human spectrum.

Few people I have spoken to, however, are under any illusion about the task ahead but that is not their focus: their focus is rather on the huge shift that has taken place with the election of Barak Obama, the intangible ramifications that have already begun to leaven and change lives and our perceptions of our selves as human beings.

Although verbiage is pouring out of the press, I find it difficult to write about how I felt during the campaign, in particular about how moved I was watching on television the huge lines of patient people waiting hours and hours to vote in the weeks before the election, and then on the day itself.

If I am tongue-tied about my joy (though intermittent tears may give it away) I want to risk trying to write briefly about my fears before the election, because I know from talking with them that there were other white people who voted for Obama who felt the same way. It is also, for me, a bit of a confession.

When Obama declared his candidacy, I was filled with hope and despair: hope inspired by someone who seemed to have a clearly formed character, who sought integrity, who had a sense of a appropriateness, who was the first candidate since Eisenhower to communicate gravitas, who was a scholar, a thinker, an orator but not a demagogue; who was, to put it crudely, a class act. I also noticed that almost from the beginning of his campaign, some of the subliminal caution that far too often characterizes black-white interchange was vanishing. Perhaps it was in part that Obama was, as one UK commentator put it, "post-race". This singularly important way of being in the world was and is contagious, and has already gone a long way to set us free from the chains of the past. At least for now.

My despair centered around my fellow white Americans. Had we been so intimidated by the Bush administration's assault on our civil liberties that we were beaten into submission? Had the conservative process of dumbing down gone so far as to blind people to the daily diet of lies and slander issuing from both the administration and the Republican candidate and his irresponsible conservative media hounds? Were we too functionally illiterate, too sunk in apathy, too cynical to reognize the opportunity to save ourselves when it stared us in the face?

Most of all, as someone who was a university student when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, and a minor participant in the movement that followed; the daughter of parents who hardly concealed the bigotry of their class and upbringing and who could not be persuaded otherwise; the observer of media concentration on Americans who glorified ignorance, violence, the subjugation of women and destructive behavior in general—I wondered how many of us not only subscribed to this caricature but sought to live it? I wondered how many of us might say they supported Obama but would ultimately be seized by fear of black people in the voting booth?

And then there were the young, seeming entirely self-absorbed, sure of their entitlements, swallowed by their techno-toys, poorly educated, appearing to have no greater ideal than "having fun", which often involved the abandonment of basic human decency (hidden under the euphemism "edgy"), frequently fueled by binge drinking, drugs and promiscuity. They seemed to want nothing more than to immerse themselves in chaos, crowds and excessive noise. Even if they could be persuaded that this election was pivotal for their future, would they be able to set these all-consuming pursuits aside long enough to go out and vote?

Bush & Co. deliberately fueled these anxieties and so, frankly, did the media across the board. But it was Bush & Co. who sought to make us afraid of one another in order to be able to distract us from his undermining of our civil liberties. He and his henchmen not only "failed to protect the people" but waged active war on them, as so many pundits have pointed out.

But in the end the neo-con policy of divide and conquer backfired. Along with many of my friends who were not actively involved in the campaign, Bush's policy left me feeing isolated in my fear and loathing. I felt as if my vote would be insignificant and ineffectual against what seemed to be an overwhelming wave of darkness—but something I had to do nonetheless in order to make a statement about what it means to be human. Obama was the only possible way forward for the country I loved and over which I have grieved for much of my life, but would anyone else notice? Voting out of this sense of isolation made the act take on huge significance: it became a supreme folly of desperation, the sort of quietly audacious gesture that people who know they are about to die will sometimes make as a way of laughing at death. Perhaps this sense of isolated audacity infected so many of us older white people that we were able to help elect Obama against what seemed to be insurmountable odds.

Much of the fear, anxiety and hope that pervaded the voting process arose from the concern that we Americans were too far gone to unite and rise up when the time came. Thank God hope won. Thank God we can trust one another again, and feel proud of what we as a country have done. Whatever the future holds, nothing can take this moment away from us; and as we go forward to identify and repair the contents of the global toxic waste dump—material, military, psychological, diplomatic, spiritual—that is the Bush legacy, we can be confident in the memory of this event that showed the majority of us to be, for the first time in the history of our country, a truly united states of America.

Yes we did.

Yes we can.


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