Saturday, November 8, 2008

The mandate

The day after the election, I had to unexpectedly leave my computer to go help my sister for a few days. I’m glad I’ve had the time to process the Obama victory.

Like the vast majority of the world’s population, I had a strongly emotional response to the election night results, and to Obama’s unprecedented speech before his largest crowd ever. In historical fact, now, he is the rightful heir to the legacy of Lincoln (whom he quoted twice in his speech) and a culmination of the abolitionist movement (with a long way to go). The significance of this event in the national soul, and the step toward healing our relations with the rest of the planet, were even greater than I thought they would be. It was one of those times I regretted not living in a big city, with dancing in the streets.

I marked the victory by announcing the results, when the west coast polls closed and Obama went over 270, to the handful of volunteers who had braved the rain to come down to the local Democratic headquarters. I just happened to be the one sitting in front of the laptop at that moment. There probably would have been more people there, if the vote-counting machine in the courthouse just down the block hadn’t broken down (we didn’t get the county results until the next morning). But we celebrated in our own quiet way; it was nice to be with like-minded friends.

In our county, Obama got 36 percent of the vote, about midway between the best and worst-case scenarios. (Mine was one of 28 votes for Cynthia McKinney. This will come as a disappointment to some of my friends. But as I predicted, Obama didn’t need my vote in this state, where he only got 43 percent—still seven points better than in Hampshire County.) I think he did as well as a white Democrat would have done in this increasingly Republican county. The black candidate for sheriff got 41 percent against a popular incumbent white Republican. This would seem to indicate that Obama was voted against more because of abortion than race—relatively, a step forward.

My sister has satellite television. Since I only get one station at home with my rabbit ears, the visit with my sister turned out to be a rare opportunity for me to survey the vast wasteland, at a time of momentous change.

I didn’t watch Fox News, but spent most of my available time watching MSNBC and CNN. I was amazed at how many times I saw Barney biting that White House reporter, and how much airtime the prospective First Puppy got. But what I found most surprising (since I wasn’t watching Fox) was the unanimity of opinion about what a smart choice the American people had finally made in their election of Obama. (You could see why Republicans accuse the media of being in the Obama tank, but that’s actually one of the concerns I have about him. If corporate media is supporting him, that raises red flags.)

In my last post before the election, I talked about the sense of unity that Americans would feel with the knowledge that it would have been a united effort of black, white and Hispanic votes that put Obama in office. I think, post-election, there was a general feeling of being awestruck by the enormity of a historically racist country like the United States choosing a man the color of a slave as president. I think this sense of awe surprised everyone, including those who talked about it on the cable networks. I heard several people say that they never really expected to see an African American president in their lifetime. I’ve thought the same thing myself. It’s an amazing moment in our history.

But the unique combination of elements in Obama’s character—from his preternatural coolness under pressure to his mixed race heritage to a rare synthesis of thinking and rhetorical skills perhaps not seen since Lincoln—combined with the familiarity that has grown between the races in two generations of civil rights legislation and blacks holding office, have perhaps made this day happen sooner than might have been expected.

In an excellent analysis of the Obama victory by McClatchy reporter Margaret Talev (“Obama saw an opportunity—and positioned himself to take it”), Obama adviser David Axelrod says that a presidential candidate can’t really influence when it is the right time to run. “The times pick you,” he says. “He [Obama] seemed to match the times.”

Obama, in his own personal history, symbolizes the globalized multiracial world in which we presently live. Among the many advantages he brought to the presidential race is his ability to adapt to virtually any situation, having grown up as a second-generation African in both white and mixed-race communities, in middle American Kansas and in exotic Hawaii and Indonesia. It’s been my experience that the native Africans I’ve met have seemed to have more self-assurance than African Americans, not having internalized the centuries of oppression that black Americans grow up with. Obama also escaped that internalized oppression, which is why he comes across so confidently.

Obama will be the first American president who came of age in the era of civil rights. The remarkable strength of his victory, in itself, marks a shift in our national paradigm. If we are lucky, this shift will inaugurate a new era of human rights—all human rights. That’s the mandate I think we should take from this election.

1 comment:

Jim D said...

As I watched this election I watched the torch being passed to the next generation. I witnessed as a people who had been disenfranchised for most of history finally share in the dream. We as a people face a dire future. The torch we pass to our children is as broken as our promises, and as burned out as our generation. We sold out our ideals, based on a simple and meaningful existence: inspiration for aspirations, a desire for position and possessions. We became the “plastic fantastic” generation, leaving the next generation holding a torch that needs righted and re-ignited to illuminate the uphill struggle to a bright future. Humanity must evolve or be consumed by its own consumption.

As dark clouds gather on the horizon will we persist in the darkness of our superstition, or will there be a deluge that washes away the delusion? Leaving us born again to the realities of the physical world – a Renaissance -- the enlightenment that ends the fear that feeds the fires of fantasy.

“What have we done to the Earth? What have we done to our fair sister? Ravished and plundered, ripped her and bit her in the side of the dawn; tied her with fences and dragged her down.” Jim Morrison, from When The Music’s Over, 1967. The epitaph of our generation.

Jim D