Thursday, November 13, 2008

Obama can't save America. But maybe America can.

First: let me say this. I am not a complete cynic.

Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I'm Yours" was a beautiful song to begin with. When I hear it now, it brings to my mind, instantly, the sight of thousands on their feet, tears running down their cheeks and proud, exhilarated smiles on their faces, Americans surrounding a young mixed-race man from a "broken home" who made this country deliver on the Dream. He rose to what may have seemed an insurmountable challenge, he spoke words that inspired Ordinary People to believe they could take on the powers that be. And They Can.
Si Se Puede.
He ran a strong campaign. He showed my generation what it feels like to be inspired by a speechmaker. We haven't had much of that. He respects knowledge, he thinks critically, he has courage and a sense of history. He understands that being a patriot runs deeper than flag pins.
But he can't save us; neither can hope.
"Hope keeps us chained to the system, the conglomerate of people and ideas and ideals that is causing the destruction of the Earth... When you give up on hope, you turn away from fear. And when you quit relying on hope, and instead begin to protect the people, things, and places you love, you become very dangerous indeed to those in power."
-Derrick Jensen

It has been a week since America voted Barack Obama in as the next President of our United States. We watched the results come in with friends last tuesday night, eating vegan "Americana" potluck [Black Bean Burgers, Fried "Chicken" (cauliflower), cornbread and tater tots and chipoltle aioli... recipes to follow later]. For months, Ryan has predicted Obama would win in a landslide, even when the pundits and the nervous progressives got caught up in the electioneering. I often thought he was right, but put little faith in my country's electoral system, which the past eight years (not to mention past three hundred) have revealed as something of a sham, blatantly rigged for the preservation of elite rule. A few weeks before the election, I watched an interview with Noam Chomsky. He agreed with George Will (something that I doubt happens too often) that American electoral politics is more about choosing which elite we want to rule us, than whether or not the elites shall rule.

If you live in a swing state, Chomsky said, vote Obama, but without illusions.

Even though pollsters claimed Washington wasn't considered a swing state, pollsters were also suggesting conservative sleazebag Dino Rossi might actually triumph in the gubernatorial race. Staring at my absentee ballot, I thought about fear, idealism, and the American way. Who do I really want running my country right now? Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente. Some might say my vote for Obama was a vote cast in fear. I believe it was a vote cast without illusions.

I shed a few tears as Obama gave his acceptance speech. I was relieved, and moved.
I honor the significance of the United State of America choosing a former community organizer, a young man, a dark-skinned man, to lead us. I believe he's a man of integrity and vision. And, while I respect Derrick Jensen's take on hope, I haven't given up on that sticky emotion yet. I am hopeful.
But I woke up the morning after the election feeling hollow, and weirdly, not proud. It made me uncomfortable, and I have been trying to sort out this feeling ever since. The election of Barack Obama is a milestone, yes. But it is only one kind of Change. And it is late in coming. And just because it has come does not absolve us for our collective sin. My America has shed the blood of hundreds of thousands since I turned 21. My America has spit on habeus corpus, tortured, lied, profited, desecrated holy books, cast our own people into the streets, starving and bereft of basic health care. My America has made its daughters in South Dakota criminals for demanding the right to control their own bodies. My America has deported legal citizens without so much as a by your leave. There is so much we must make right---and so many things we can never atone for.

The change we think we've created by electing Barack Obama is the kind of change this country should have demanded in November of 2000, when it was clear that George W. Bush had not actually won the presidency legitimately. It is the kind of change we should have demanded in November of 2001, when it was clear that George W. Bush's administration was bent on exploiting the September 11 carnage to precipitate war-for-profit. It is the kind of change we should have demanded in November of 2002. And 2003.

And then we "re-elected" him.

it took us SEVEN years to rescind the Bush doctrine?
I woke up the day after the election feeling embarrassed.

I love my country. I love its stories, I love its landscapes, I love some of its ideals, I love so many of its people. We have potential! But we also have genocide, slavery, internment, the dubious legacy of being the only nation to use the atomic bomb against another country. We shut out Jews trying to flee the repression that would become the Holocaust. We have Vietnam, Iran-Contra, inaction during the Rwandan genocide. But that's the past, people say. Get over it. We freed the slaves, didn't we?
The past isn't just some mythic territory, some two-dimensional timeline people'd by the Who's who. Its the sum total of who we have become. America's promise is just that: a promise. We have to hold ourselves accountable. We were never "the Greatest Country on Earth," and electing Obama won't restore us to that mythical condition. The only way forward, the only sustainable way, now, is True Change. Which means something different to everyone. Won't be easy, but it won't happen if all we do is complain and talk about H-O-P-E.

A few nights ago, Ryan and I walked with Assata through our quiet neighborhood. The air was warm with the promise of rain, and the lights across the Salish Sea [Puget Sound] reflected on still water. We passed a dozen Obama signs still displayed in the dark yards, plastered with wet maple leaves. I wondered what the owners of those signs thought about leaving them out. Are they victory decorations now? Seattle Lawn Hope Art? A few days ago, one of the Seattle papers noted that flag sales were skyrocketing, that people who'd never before displayed the stars and stripes were doing so now. It makes me uncomfortable. Those colors still fly over Guantanamo Bay. Just because Obama promised us change doesn't mean we get it.
A few months ago, Naomi Klein noted: "The campaign's most radical demand is the idea of electing Obama himself. It is Obama--and not his plans for the presidency--that is the ultimate expression of the "movement." If the process ends there, the Obama campaign will become more like the "lifestyle" brands-- the Nikes and Starbucks that captured the transcendent quality of past liberation movements, and our desire for meaning in our lives, to build their own brands."

What happens in six months when no one has universal healthcare? When American soldiers and Iraqi children are still dying in the streets of Baghdad? When another million Americans are out of work and the polar ice cap has shrivelled that much further into itself? Will we retreat again into our cynicism and our televisions and our despair?

I voted for Obama without illusions. On his own, he will be able to change very little---except, hopefully, our standing in the eyes of other peoples around the world.

But the change? That won't come from him.
We are the ones we have been waiting for.

If the American people stand up and Demand the kind of Change they have been claiming they want, Demand it instead of waiting for Obama to deliver it to them, Demand it,
Create it themselves,
we might just have a chance.

The time for a Great Mass Movement is Only Just Begun.

I am a student of American History.
Which means I am cynical.
And hopeful.


Sharkfin said...

Ohhhhh Love,
I've been dwelling for days on what to say to this... Trying to come up with some sort of snappy, equally articulate response to how well you've summed it all up... But I can't, so I won't. Just know that uhhh... I agree, in my less-politically informed way.

Additionally, I don't know how your picture got on that blog comment thing. I didn't put it there. My only guess is it was already on there from some past blog thing or something. At least it's a pic you like, no?

Oh, and how do you make kale tacos? Do tell.

Oh, and, my family's going for a homemade Christmas this year, so I need to pick your brain for ideas for simple homemade gifts that I a: don't have to spend a lot of $$ on and b. are quick, easy and filled with love. Any ideas?

I love you. Hope things are going well. We need a long catch-up session but I don't know when that'll happen, so for now, just know that you're on my mind all the time...


rosser said...

this is ross from heather and ross,
Heather turned me onto your blog, she has always told me you are a writer, but your writing is something else to accually read! im impressed.

Anyway rarely do i come across opinion pieces in newspapers, radio, or internet, that I feel comfortable with. However Sarah, you've written something deep, something complete.

"I love my country. I love its stories, I love its landscapes, I love some of its ideals, I love so many of its people. We have potential! But we also have genocide, slavery, internment, the dubious legacy of being the only nation to use the atomic bomb against another country. We shut out Jews trying to flee the repression that would become the Holocaust. We have Vietnam, Iran-Contra, inaction during the Rwandan genocide."

You get right to the complexity of being American today, great love and great sadness and embarrassment. Seldom do both feeling show up in one piece of writing, and i think rarely are we honest enough to pursue them.

Barak Obama is an exceptional person, these are exceptional times, like you have written just maybe Americans are exceptional as well.

"I am a student of American History.
Which means I am cynical.
And hopeful."

Sharkfin said...

Why does Signed Sealed Delivered I'm Yours remind you of election night? Random! Please fill me in on the connection.

I talked to Andrea yesterday and she told me she was in a bad car accident a while back. Poor girl! Have you seen her lately? Is she doing ok? She sounded pretty upset when I talked to her.

Uggg. I am hating this week and next week and the week after. I am completely swamped with papers and presentations. Are you possibly available to proofread this week? It would be greatly appreciated.

How is Fluffy? I bet she's enjoying the cooler weather...

Kevin said...

afternoon love,
Rainy sunday afternoon in the city that never sleeps. Found myself obsessing about you and decided to read your words that reveal that the corrective lenses prescribed by the media and government funded school books weren’t corrective after all. Obama signs still decorate apartment facades. Albert the psychologist you will have to meet mentioned to me that manhattan was depressed for about eight months, and Obama's victory shifted our environment. hopefully it continues to get better from east to the west.

Seth said...


This is such a beautiful and insightful opinion piece. It encapsulates all of my mixed emotions about the election.

I remember when I was last in Seattle on November 5 (still feeling shell-shocked about Prop 8) I saw the cover of the Stranger, which loudly proclaimed "Yes We Did!" At the time I couldn't quite put my finger on why that headline bothered me so much. It finally hit me a couple weeks later: "Yes We Did" is the progressive movement's version of the "Mission Accomplished" banner on that aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. It's a call to complacency.

Naomi Klein is right. If "Yes We Can" means nothing more than casting your vote for one elected official and then feeling smug about it, then it is as meaningless a slogan as "Just Do It."

Hope is a two-edged sword. As Todd has reminded me, it is one of the most acquiescent emotions ("Hope for the Best"). But I believe that hope can also be an act of defiance. When Harvey Milk gave his famous "Hope Speech" on the steps of San Francisco's City Hall in 1978, he was not speaking of a naive hope. His was a hope tempered by the bitterness of defeat and daily oppression.

It is in this sense that I am hopeful. Not because the prognostications look good or because the world is a sunny place. But because cynicism leads to inaction just as surely as self-satisfaction does.