Tuesday, November 04, 2008Okay, THIS Is The Post You Were Expecting
Four years ago, give or take, I was hanging out with my friend Diana in Memphis. And I asked her if she'd seen the amazing speech given at the 2004 Democratic Convention by this guy named Obama. She hadn't, so I dragged her down to the Co-op to watch it online. "This guy is going to be the first black president," I told her.
Seriously, ask her. I'm sure I've got the details slightly wrong, but the story is true. The point being, it was obvious that the man had some intangible force already pushing him towards today. I wouldn't care to indulge in much conjecture about what that force might be. If pressed, I might settle on a definition like, "the force of millions of people collectively wanting the same thing, and then finding the wherewithal to make it happen." But there's also the quiet sense that this was something that wanted to happen on its own, and we were all simply facilitating its arrival.
I know, I'm writing like we've already won, and we haven't yet. But jacta ilea est, the die is cast, whatever is going to happen is already mostly beyond our control. We've done what we can on an individual basis, and today is just the day when we wait to see it was enough. And maybe I should be worried -- I know a lot of people who are worried -- but I'm not. I'm just smiling and waiting. Because I've known for four years that this was coming, and today's the day when it finally arrives.
Everything's going to be cool.
I voted weeks ago, so there's nothing for me to do today but hang out until the polls around the rest of the country start to close and send in their results. I'm off work, so I'm going to call my mom, run a few errands, and then go stake out a spot at a bar downtown with friends to spend the evening watching the returns. In 2004, I spent election night alone in my grandfather's guest room, watching Kerry slowly lose. It was miserable. I wanted tonight to be the opposite of that.
But mostly, if Obama wins tonight -- and I'm almost certain that he will, as much by the inexorable force of history passing as by electoral mechanics -- then tonight will be one of those era-ending/era-beginning moments you might get to see a handful of in your lifetime if you're lucky. Not just because he's black, not just because he's a democrat, not just because he's the first of what I consider my generation to get to the presidency, although those are all important things. But this is something a bit more than that. This might just turn out to be the day the 21st century finally arrives in the United States.
Here's how I see it: back in 1998, I got on a plane in the America I'd always known and left for England, where I spent most of the next three years. While I was away, something went terribly wrong, and when I came home in 2002 it was like returning to a version of America that existed in a parallel dimension that was almost exactly like the one I'd grown up in, but slightly... sinister. Some of it was just the reverse-culture-shock talking, the way the flags seemed a bit unnecessarily garish, the stars and eagles on the money a little bombastic, the people talking a little too loud, the rhetoric a little more inflamed than I'd remembered it. But years later, I still feel as though I never quite made it back to the country I'd left. I've never felt entirely comfortable here since then.
But today, maybe the parallels will begin to re-converge and I'll find America again, settling back under my feet right where I'd left it. Or maybe it could be better still -- maybe I'll even get the America I've always wanted. The one where when I'm in pain, I can go see a doctor even though I'm poor. The one where we make education a bigger priority than wealth. The one where people who speak with unfamiliar accents are interesting rather than scary. The one that's more interested in using science to propel us forward than in using religion to drag us backward. The one where a family with multiple dads or moms, or just one of either, gets the same respect as one that looks like a 50s sitcom. The one where soldiers get to come home and stay home, leaving people in Iraq to re-build their country with international support rather than American interference. I might get an America that knows it's a rather important part of the world, but not the sum total of it.
After today, we're still going to have an intractable mess on our hands. Lots of things will still be bad, there will still be impossible problems to deal with, and the parts of life that are painful today will still be painful tomorrow, and probably getting worse in the immediate future. The hardest part of getting Obama elected is over, but Obama himself, exhausted as he must be, is faced with the beginning of some of the most difficult work any President has ever done. At least, I hope he is -- if he's the President I'm hoping for, he will be. But maybe today we get an America that's tired of indulging all its worst instincts, and ready to start dealing with its problems with optimism rather than fear. More than the fact of Obama himself, it's this collective decision that I find so promising, as if we've finally decided to stop running in frantic circles, to pick a direction, and start walking.
Kicking and screaming will some of us be dragged into the 21st century. Those people have delayed the rest of us by almost a decade already, and I know they'll be working to make it longer still. But sooner or later there'll be more of us than them, sooner or later they're coming whether they like it or not. We're heading towards a queer-friendly bilingual blue-collar agnostic immigrant book-reading mixed-race future, powered by carbon-efficient fuels, Higgs Bosons and stem cells, WiFi, pad thai and student grants.
It's still not "coming home" to the America I left ten years ago, but that's fine -- that America wasn't exactly living up to its potential, either. But I might now be able to wake up some morning in the America I began to imagine while I was in Europe, a better America than we've ever known. Better than we've even really dared to imagine. Barack Obama doesn't make that happen; we make that happen. But the fact that we're electing Barack Obama today might be the first concrete sign that we've begun to imagine that future, and have decided to pick that direction and start walking. |