Musings on the Presidential race
Okay, I admit it: Over the past few days I have been touched, even to the point of tearing up on occasion, as I've watched footage of the jubilant celebrations in the streets and parks and on college campuses across the country – and indeed across the world – in the wake of Barack Obama's election. While I agree with those who say the United States needs to work towards a post-racial society, I really can't fault anyone for wanting to "linger over the moment" as long as possible before reality sets in and the real work begins.
For Obama the real work has already begun, of course, but even on election night he appeared to have deliberately chosen to err on the side of seriousness rather than triumphant giddiness. He has said repeatedly that change isn't going to come overnight, or even within his first term, but that memo has yet to reach the cheering masses.
The media are having a field day with the historical and symbolic significance of this Presidential election. Martin Luther King's famous 1963 "I have a dream" speech in Washington DC has been invoked repeatedly, and the talking heads have mentioned a few times that Barack's next residence, the White House, was built partly by slave labor.
It has also been noted more than once that for over a century after slavery was abolished in the US, black people in this country were, in countless ways, shamefully regarded and treated. I mentioned in a previous post that I'd recently begun reading William Manchester's massive 1974 work, The Glory And The Dream: A Narrative History of America 1932-1972. I was struck by this snippet from Manchester's description of Washington D.C. in 1932, the year the country hit "rock bottom" in the Great Depression:
The District's five daily papers were crowded with news of social unrest in 1932, but none of it was about Negroes. Although 26 percent of Washington was black (the highest ratio of any American city), Negroes accepted their appalling lot with remarkable unanimity. "Dark-skinned children of the South," a government guide explained, were confined to domestic service and "manual work." Department stores, movies, and government cafeterias were closed to them. Black workmen digging the foundations of the new Justice Department building on Pennsylvania Avenue either brought their lunches or went hungry; even if they wanted a glass of water they had to walk two miles out Seventh Street to find a restaurant which would serve them. The president of Howard University, a Negro college, was a white man. When President Hoover sent Gold Star mothers to France, black mothers were assigned to a second (and second-class) ship. And the most popular radio program in the country, Amos'n'Andy, was a nightly racial slur, with its Negro parts played by two white men affecting minstrel show accents ("I'se regusted"; "Dat's de propolition")....
Our nation's capital was indeed built on the sweat and blood of thousands of black laborers. And although I'm not literally a believer in spirits, I find that it is not too difficult to imagine the ghosts of those nameless multitudes lining the streets of Washington on the day of the Inaugural Parade.
It has, indeed, been a long time coming.
Race is alluded to in Leonard Cohen's song "Democracy," the video of which I linked to in my post the other day, as did numerous other bloggers in a celebratory mode:
It’s coming from the sorrow in the street,The lyrics reflect the fact that this song was released while the country was still reeling from the shattering events of the early 1990s, such as the first Iraq war and the LA riots. Now, of course, we're in yet another war in "the desert far away," one which has dragged out considerably longer than the first effort, and the sad fact is that even today there is an appalling amount of racism of various types in the USA. It surfaces here and there in ways that always dismay but rarely surprise me. While I think it's safe to say that most people who were against an Obama presidency simply didn't care for his politics, I've heard some actually say that when it comes right down to it, they "just don't want a n----r in the White House."
the holy places where the races meet;
from the homicidal bitchin’
that goes down in every kitchen
to determine who will serve and who will eat.
From the wells of disappointment
where the women kneel to pray
for the grace of God in the desert here
and the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
Yet as Steve Salerno pointed out numerous times on SHAMblog, anyone, black or white, who supports Obama BECAUSE of the color of his skin is also indulging in a form of racism. (And by the way, I recommend that those who dislike Obama for racial reasons (or any other reasons) read Steve's November 5 blog post. Among other things, Steve points out that because his mom was white, Obama will be not only our first black president but our 44th white one.)
It's time to get past all of the racial stuff, and I like to think we're on our way. But even though I'm sure that eventually I'll get sick of hearing the talking heads natter on about the momentousness of it all, I am, like so many Americans of all colors, savoring it for now.
I'm not some starry-eyed cultist, as some have accused "Pro-bamas" of being.* My eyes are open and free of stars...well, other than those billions I see when I gaze up into the clear night sky here at The Ranch. To tell the truth, I was automatically a bit turned off by Obama at the beginning because of the famous "Oprah connection." While I admire Oprah's taste in contemporary fiction (though not in "nonfiction"), I've never been able to get over her wholehearted endorsement of The Secret, not to mention her gushing over Esther and Jerry Hicks and their imaginary pal(s) Abraham. She has shown poor judgment in the past in other ways as well (can you say, "James Frey," boys and girls?). Notwithstanding my long-time support for Presidential candidate Dave Barry and, more recently, my support for my friend Lana Walker-Helmuth's Presidential race, I actually thought Ron Paul had the most sensible ideas to get our country out of its slump.
But I came around to Obama, not because of Oprah but in spite of her, and not because of the throngs of his frenzied admirers shouting slogans at rallies, but because in the end, he seemed to me to be the best of the available choices. I know that I have several friends, some of whom are regular readers of this blog, who disagree vehemently with that opinion. But they are still my friends, and I'm still theirs.
I don't look upon our new President-elect as the savior of our nation. And I know that if Obama lives up to all or even most of his promises it will be because he is a truly exceptional man. If he fails to meet our expectations, it will no doubt be because he is just another politician after all, and, of course, the detractors will be out in force to say, "We told you so!" Odds are that Obama is somewhere in between "exceptional" by the definition above, and "just another politician," though right now my opinion is that he seems to be closer to the "exceptional" end. Either way, from a practical standpoint the color of his skin isn't relevant, and I think most of us know that.
But from a symbolic standpoint...well, that's something altogether different. Obama may be half white, but he "looks" black. And the symbolic significance of this is huge. We know it. The world knows it too, and much of the world is excited for us. I wonder if it's too much to hope, at this point, that Obama represents just enough of a "face for change" to give pause to even our enemies, some of whom might actually gain, or regain, some respect for America.
I know the euphoria will wear off, that at some point it will dawn on some of the idealists that Obama's election is really not "proof" after all that anyone can be President. It still takes, more than anything else, boatloads of money, a genius for marketing, a considerable ego and yes, a certain amount of ruthlessness, to reach that lofty position. (In Obama's case it also helped, as has been discussed elsewhere, that he is youngish, nice-looking, educated and eloquent.) Still, I do hope the momentum that was begun during this campaign – the energy that brought out younger voters as well as older, disillusioned ones in unprecedented numbers – can continue, and that it will translate into something truly good for all of us.
I am also more than aware that the pundits and hatemongers are poised at their keyboards and microphones and cams. One can feel their sharp eyes and hot breaths on Obama. They're not going away any time soon, because there is an enormous market for what they have to offer. (There's a good reason that Rush Limbaugh recently nabbed a $400 million contract from Clear Channel!) But look, we need those folks around too, for balance, or at least comic relief.
Besides, if Barack and the Democrats really screw up, I am not above switching parties. I've done it before and I will do it again if I have to.
For now, though, I find myself smiling over this election the way I haven't smiled over a Presidential election since, oh, 1996 or so. I find myself exhilarated in a way that I haven't been since the fall of the Berlin Wall (an exhilaration that, I must admit, is somewhat tempered not only by some of the events since then, but by thinking about another prescient Leonard Cohen song, The Future). As I mentioned in the "comments" section of my previous post, I have suspended my normal cynicism long enough to allow myself to feel a new kind of hope for the US – and maybe even for the world.
Oh, but don't worry, Dear Ones. I will be back to snarking in no time. I'm already simmering the ingredients for my next snarky soup. But for the moment, I am, as a friend of mine put it, still "basking in the afterglow."
* Yes, yes, yes, I do see that Obamamania has its cultish aspects, although the same could be said of, say, the recent mania for Sarah Palin (remember her?). But you won't catch me chanting slogans or hanging huge posters with Obama's likeness. Regarding Sarah, I have to agree with Steve Salerno when he wrote that selecting her as a political candidate/role model represented a setback for true feminism. As Steve put it, " It says that if you look right and dress right and wink and smile and have a nice shape--and have shown your ability to pump out babies by the handful--that's really all that matters in a woman/candidate. Very unfortunate."