Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Election day aftermath

[Mike's note: this is more than 2,000 words, so bear that in mind.]

In a nation that seems to value the spirit of the individual more than anything else, that instills in its children how unique and special they are from the moment they can converse, I've never felt better to be one of so many as when 64 million people voted Barack Obama to be the 44th president of the United States. To be one of the newly energized masses who said that hope and decency are the most courageous choices when a country has been shaken by the horrors of war. That generosity and empathy are the aspirant ideals when families' confidence in the pillars of the economy has been shaken. That creativity and sacrifice are the solutions when our planet hangs in the balance.

Obama said that to me, to so many of my friends and clearly to millions of others across the country and around the world. He re-ignited in us the idealism that inspired us to support liberal causes even when our more cynical parents said that we had to look out for ourselves. He galvanized our collective resolve not to grow conservative as we got older, like those before us had, but to remain committed to helping our brothers and sisters in our communities. He renewed our faith in a democratic process that correctly protects the freedom to have and espouse ideas that burn our hearts.

When I felt in September 2005 that the only way to win back control of the government was to out-Karl Rove Karl Rove, Barack Obama reminded me that the ethical, reasoned path is the only road to an honorable solution.

"Russ Feingold, the only Democrat to vote not only against war in Iraq but also against the Patriot Act, doesn't become complicit in the erosion of civil liberties simply because he chooses to abide by a deeply held and legitimate view that a President, having won a popular election, is entitled to some benefit of the doubt when it comes to judicial appointments. Like it or not, that view has pretty strong support in the Constitution's design. ...

... In fact, I would argue that the most powerful voices of change in the country, from Lincoln to King, have been those who can speak with the utmost conviction about the great issues of the day without ever belittling those who opposed them, and without denying the limits of their own perspectives

When we at the office watched him giving his victory speech outside in the chilled air of Chicago's Grant Park, we knew we were bearing witness to history. Not in the literal President XX is giving a speech so turn a camera on way, but in the History with a capital H way. In the, where were you when? way. In the, I'm gonna tell people about this forever way. It was unlike any victory speech I can remember, and not just because there weren't any balloons or confetti or drunken campaign operatives and volunteers making out and screaming. But this speech focused on what's next. On the challenges we face. On the seriousness of our time and how all we've won is an opportunity to be the change we want to see in the world. And on how it's time for everyone, regardless of ideologoies and party allegiances, to act their consciences for what's good for this country, because there can be no American shining city on a hill, unless WE are resolute, honorable and tolerant.

I used to hate it when fans used "we" to refer to their sports teams. But I don't anymore (as long as they also use it when their teams lose), because pouring your energy, heart, guts and soul into something that binds you to others isn't a bad thing. It's when we act together that we can accomplish the most. And that's what Barack challenged us to do with the collective power of our "we."

"What began 21 months ago in the depths of winter cannot end on this autumn night.

"This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were.

"It can't happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice.

"So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other."

I saw people crying and so moved that whatever chill might have been in the air, they were totally immune. Their blanket from the cold was optimism and hope and joy. Their shield from the wind was gratitude that the sacrifices of generations have born the sweetest, ripest fruit. I wanted to trade places with any of them.

And I'll say it without apology or qualification, I was finally proud to be an American. I had never been prouder. I saw my country live up to the standards it used to arrogantly only hold others to (maybe that's not true, but after Abu Ghraib and Gitmo and the renditions, it felt that way). I saw my country live up to the ideals to which I'd affixed to it when I was too young to even know what cynical is, let alone be it. I saw my country say that the future can still be better, not only than the troubled present, but than the best of the past.

When Barack said: "It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled, Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states.

"We are, and always will be, the United States of America.

"It's the answer that led those who've been told for so long by so many to be cynical and fearful and doubtful about what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.

"It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this date in this election at this defining moment, change has come to America.

"A little bit earlier this evening, I received an extraordinarily gracious call from Senator McCain.

"Senator McCain fought long and hard in this campaign. And he's fought even longer and harder for the country that he loves. He has endured sacrifices for America that most of us cannot begin to imagine. We are better off for the service rendered by this brave and selfless leader. ...

I saw hundreds of thousands of people on television and the dozen in our office conference room affirm with one spirit, that our differences and disagreements did not make us enemies. I resolved that I would try to be the better person my country would require of me. Barack Obama inspired in me (and I would argue millions of others), a desire to work hard to help, not wait for the government to rescue me (as Republicans argued during the campaign).

History was going to judge us all after this moment, and the most divisive Americans would as well. Would we do the work to honor its promise or squander its potential? Would we do the work to create a more free and just world or would we allow our differences to paralyze and endanger us.

Watching the 13-inch tv in our office it felt like millions across our country had chosen to work. And judging by initial international reaction, so had billions others. It was like the Olympic Opening Ceremonies except instead of thousands of athletes bound by the spirit of competition, this was billions of people bound by the possibilities of cooperation.

[Aside: I'm not blind to the darkness of the world. I've been to the memorial service for one of my students and had another die. If anything, I normally have to convince my students that I'm not jaded. And in this case I wasn't so naive as to think that the challenges had disappeared, that the differences were resolved, that the conflicts had ended or that the no-win scenarios had miraculously been Jim Kirked.]

It's just that the promise of better was a little intoxicating and incredibly fortifying and empowering.

Shortly after the most euphoric and transcendent moment of my civic life, I was discovered a new worst feeling ever.

Before Tuesday night the worst non-situationally-specific feeling I could remember is what happened in my gut when my father gave me his look of disappointment. It started with the gaze. His eyes would seem as though they were looking through my body, searching for the son who would never have committed whatever mistake I had just made. At this point, my insides would start to rot. And to hollow me out, he would look away unable to meet my eyes as they started to plead for forgiveness and promise that I'd never do whatever I had done again.

But Tuesday night, less than an hour after elating at Barack Obama's victory, I was confronted with a challenge to my newly re-energized idealistic faith in humanity. California voters gave in to fear and intolerance and chose to deny same-sex couples the right to marry.

I couldn't believe it. As soon as the ballot measure qualified, I had a solid faith that the people ready to vote an African-American with an unusual name into office were going to protect another minority group's finally being granted equal status, which is essentially what the Republican-appointed Supreme Court ruled in June. Polls showed that the opponents of bigotry were leading; I interpreted that as people seeing through the deceptions (supporters portrayed the denial of equal rights as a way to protect marriage, religious freedoms and parents' rights to guide their childrens' educations).

Somehow though, the lies worked. The ads referencing things that happened in Massachusetts and the ads that were factually repudiated by the state superintendent of education as lies somehow worked. By 8:25 Wednesday morning the newspapers were reporitng that voters chose to amend the state constitution and overturn a state supreme court's June ruling that made California the second state in the country to apply the idea that separate is NOT equal to civil unions. The proposition passed with just a shade more than 52 percent of the (counted) vote.

According to the LAT, "of the seven in 10 voters who described themselves as Christian, two-thirds backed the initiative. Married voters and voters with children strongly supported Proposition 8. Unmarried voters were heavily opposed."

If the faithful want to call me out as not tolerating their views, so be it. I refuse to accept or condone a belief system that attempts to justify and rationalize discrimination under the wobbly guise of "hating the sin, but loving the sinner." There's nothing "loving" about judging and controling another person's right to love someone else in a consensual.

And co-opting the State to codify langugage that institutionally forbids someone's freedom to pursue legal recognition of that love is the worst violation of our most basic freedom. The First Amendment did not simply guarantee freedom of religion—so that the Puritanical descendents who founded the country would be free to practice their faiths without State interference; but also freedom from religion—that the State would be shielded from the Church while conducting its affairs.

So as I had told a friend the night before, 90 percent of the pure joy I felt at Barack Obama becoming president has been vanquished by the forces of intolerance that I lived amongst. I shall never understand how some people can fail to accept two individuals finding happiness in love. And I shall never tolerate how some people can take joy in forcing the State to deny those two individuals their right to marry the person who brings them peace, joy and love.

Throughout Wednesday as I communicated with friends and former students on the East Coast, I found myself trying to explain what happened. How even though a "liberal" senator like Barack Obama got elected and that even though he dominated in Los Angeles County, Prop 8 also won in L.A. County. With the largest Roman Catholic diocese in the United States and nearly 70 percent of African Americans voting for Prop 8 based on exit polls, that's some bad arithmetic for gay rights. I also explained that California's liberalism has more in common with classic libertarianism (the government should deliver my mail) than in some bohemainly progressive Kucinichville.

Just as the joys of 200,000-plus others at Grant Park came through the TV the night before, the outrage and shock at the blatant denial of human rights and rejection of decency came through the IMs Wednesday afternoon.

But then I thought back to what Sen. Hillary Clinton said as she endorsed Barack Obama.

"Although we weren't able to shatter this highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it's got about 18 million cracks in it, and the light is shining through like never before," she said.

"It is this belief and optimism that Sen. Obama and I share," Clinton said. "That has inspired so many millions of supporters to make their voices heard. So today, I am standing with Sen. Obama to say, 'Yes, we can.'"

Prior to the rise of Hillary Clinton on the national scene, I used to say with complete (and resigned) belief that there would not be a woman president in my lifetime in the United States, even though the Phillipines and the United Kingdom had female leaders when I was a kid. And though her campaign ended as a national semi-finalist, she got fucking close. So close that by the time my oldest female former students (just graduated college) are ready to run, their candidacies won't be nearly as newsworthy until one of them actually becomes the first woman president.

And before Barack Obama soared like a fireball through the sky during the 2004 Democratic National Convention when he gave the "There is A UNITED STATES OF AMERICA" speech, I would never have thought the country would embrace a black man as president either. But it happened. And not in decades, but just four years later.

So though our state has erected a wall between same-sex couples and human rights, Barack's win will, I hope, empower those of us who believe in equality for all to swing our hammers with more force than before. To write more letters. To donate a little more money. To be a little kinder and perhaps more public with our support, so that those who didn't vote against Prop 8 this time, will understand that a failure to oppose a rights-denying idea was tantamount to collaboration.

We're going to restore (I almost said resurrect, but it's not dead yet! Not even close) dignity, respect and equality for all in California. I promised my students that they'll be attending weddings in their lifetimes for their same-sex friends. It's going to happen.

Because this week I feel a HOPE and an optimism that I've not felt in about eight years. Scratch that. That I've never felt.

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