11.05.2008

America's Better History

I've watched elections since I was a kid, so while I don't have a long track record, I've paid attention as long as I've been able in my small life. Never have I felt as excited about a president getting elected.

And never have I felt as vulnerable.

Americans have never really recovered from the wounds of the 60's and 70's, especially of Watergate, from the feeling of betrayal and irrelevance towards our highest leaders. The bleeding is past, perhaps, but we never really cleaned the wound, and it's a festered scab, now, occaisionally oozing out the infections of the past. America has become a cautious wife, and caution has, over and over, shown up lies, discrepancies, uncleanness, and continued unfaithfulness, in both parties, with almost every president since Nixon. Suspicion and caution have largely transformed into cynicism and sublimated frustration. What's the point, we say? The old couple will stay together until one or the other dies, but the love is gone.

That's why this election is so important to me, on a personal level. Maybe it's the passing of the baby boomer mantle, maybe it's just the healing power of time, who knows - the power of this election has been that people can look to the new president and feel investment, kinship, hope. America has, in some small way, reached a timid, hopeful hand out to try to repair the old, broken marriage between public and government.

I like Barack Obama. I voted against him in the primaries, but I am glad he won. I feel a small tendril in the wave of hope that America hasn't felt in a long time. I know there are those who think this is simply a hope that government will give us things, that government will bend over to the interests of this or that specific issue. I don't agree - the people who spent countless hours, countless scanty dollars, and internal heartache and investment into this race cannot simply be working on a quid pro quo basis. This is not a Jacksonian presidency. These people love and hope and dream, mostly, guilelessly.

America has kvetched and mocked for years about segments of society - youth particularly - that just didn't turn up at the polls in the same numbers as the reliable groups: union members, older people, rich white people, evangelicals, etc. I remember hearing the requests, and the civics lessons when I was younger, the condescending talk of how your vote matters, told like some sterile storybook that the reader couldn't really even buy into. And then, in the real world, the prevailing wind in politics was that you were picking between the lesser of two evils, that both parties were the same anyway, that you could depend on whoever gets elected to break all their campaign promises, cheat, lie, and act like a dog. The only person who'd want to run as president must be crazy or power-hungry. Culturally, we lost a general faith in humanity.

People don't like to live like this, why would they be interested in getting engaged in a complex process that leaves you emotionally hurt if you lose, and even more emotionally hurt if you win and your candidate deserts their ideals?

Barack Obama's victory is not a Democratic victory. After all, what if, say John Edwards had been the winner? We'd be starting his term finding out that he was diddling one of the campaign staff while his wife stayed home trying to fight her breast cancer, and subsequently lied to the American public about it. Yay Democrats! It's not a victory for liberal ideas - frankly, I wish he was a bit more liberal than he is, though I'm sure that's not a universal sentiment. If it was ultra-liberal politics that America wanted, we'd of elected Ralph Nader or Dennis Kucinish or something - not-so-stellar choices, in my opinion. It was not even Barack Obama's victory - the man is just a man, and aside from the Obama girl video, most of the excitement I've heard has been around the empowerment of all the little people working for him. It wasn't even the normal populist victory, of people who are mad as hell and don't want to take it anymore. It was none of these things. The victory of Barack Obama is the quiet voice of a people who desperately want to trust again. Americans don't just want to stop being ashamed of where their government is going, they want to start being proud of it - they want to start being PART of it.

During the Cold War, America had a compelling (if somewhat deceptive) story - it was the vanguard of democracy, facing an evil empire of communism. I remember when the wall came down, pundits made a lot of noise that America does not know how to not have an enemy. I understood that at the time, and it came true, has continued to come true - we have tried our hand against a number of different enemies. But here's the great irony - we finally found one, the perfect enemy, because it's one that will never, ever completely go away, in the attacks on 9/11. We, as a people, could, if we wished, delude ourself into a story where, forever and ever and ever, we stand on the right side of a battle against terrorism, extremism, or Islam, depending on the teller. This could cease to be one of our struggles, and start to be our identity.

It worked, for a while, but at some point, America started to lose it's stomach for it. The voice of cynicism tells me it's because the conflict was headed by complete dunderheads, and because America no longer has the stomach to be at war. But I think this is a lie, the sort of comforting cynicism that we make up to keep ourselves from destiny. America is just past the point where it can accept the idea of black-and-white battle as a defining national characteristic. So the war drifted, Bush fell apart, and America came into an election season desperately seeking for it's own soul.

The election, to me was simple. The gaffes, nonsense, vagueness, news stories, and everything else, were never important in and of themselves - it was simply that one side felt like a dream, and the other felt like an assurance that nothing would have to change. I wanted to dream, again, like I ever had, but again, nonetheless, like in the poem by Langston Hughes:

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

And that's just it, that's why I feel so vulnerable, and why I think a lot of Americans, particularly younger Americans (other groups, I don't know, I can only speak for the ones I know) are feeling the same way. I didn't just let Obama have my vote - I gave it to him. And he promised me, in a more directly personal way than any politician has managed to in a long time, to use it to create a dream that he is not possibly capable of creating, but that he needs to create nonetheless. It's not just 4 years at stake. This isn't a trial run. America in her ancient wisdom knew it was time to be a dreamer again, and dreamers do not make backup plans or hedge their bets, they succeed or fail, gloriously.

I read this post, by a programmer I keep a stray eye on, who talked about America needing to be like a good engineer - optimistic in the way that makes you fight to do things that seem impossibly complex at the beginning. Read the article, he says it much better. Of course, we're not the first nation to try this, to try to become what we dream. France, for instance, tried it out in 1789, and ended up murdering huge swaths of it's own population. No great power has ever lived through this stage of it's development, because it either refused to throw itself into the void, and slowly dwindled away into irrelevance, or it threw itself into the void and fell and fell, not strong enough to fly. This is easy to explain, easy to understand - no  nation is really a narrative, it's a collection of people, full of warts, fears and imperfections, unified only in a desire to not have to worry about things, led by men who desperately want to make sure they don't get replaced. Men fly, on occaision, genius happens on the individual level, but a nation? A nation is too big, too cumbersome. It's an endeavour in which it is impossible for any nation to succeed.

It's time for us to succeed anyway.