Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Today, I am an American

(In which I out myself as a young whippersnapper.)

In 2001, I was convinced the world had gone insane. I had watched, horrified, as my grandmother and her neighbors poked their chads, accidentally voted for Buchanan, and sent us into a month-long deliberation over who the next President would be. I had watched the debates with friends and even though Gore sometimes seemed to be nothing more than an animated whittling project ("Lock Box"), I remember whispering to a friend when Bush was speaking, "There is no way that fool will be President."

Months later, it happened. I went to Washington with classmates as part of a protest trip and we stood, freezing in the icy rain, screaming our frustration out at the world. Our Alexandria hotel was full of students from Red States who had never met liberals, queers, Jews, or atheists. We were all of those things, and we were from San Francisco, to boot. Cultures clashed, repeatedly and often, over that week. Forced into endless pseudo-debate encounters, we debated over things like abortion rights, gay scout leaders, and, I distinctly remember, whether or not we might need to bomb Iraq anytime soon. As I recall, I spent part of that discussion slamming my head into the table muttering "morons" under my breath.

We had met the Red Staters and we seemed to be living on different planets. Nowhere was that better encapsulated than in our first meeting when we went around the room and introduced ourselves. I happened to be first and decided to lay my cards on the table. "I'm Friar Yid and Bush scares me." Every other student not from my school proceeded to label themselves "a Bush fan." Oy.

Part of what I remember seeming so unjust about the whole situation was not just how much of a boob Bush seemed to be, but simply the fact that the election had been so sharply contested, and then resolved through such questionable circumstances. The whole time we were in Washington I kept feeling as if I had been cheated, as if someone had stolen something from me when my back was turned.

So I stood on the sidewalk with my friends, and screamed. Even then, I was wary of the wackos-- the people holding swastikas or yelling about Bush being a Zionist puppet. I had a sophomoric sign of my own making pointing out the bathroom humor connections between Bush, Dick, and a man who pronounced his name "Colon".

I was conscious of politics during Clinton's last few years, but not really politically aware enough to pay close attention. Bush's two terms overlapped with my own political education as I attempted to become an informed member of the electorate.

I have always been happy to have been an American, but I have not always been proud, a development I can partially trace to my parents' ambivalence and partially to the political climate of San Francisco. I didn't know anyone who flew a flag, in the same way that I didn't know anyone whose parents had served in the military. It wasn't that they were specifically anti-American, just that they didn't wear patriotism on their sleeves.

I cannot remember Clinton doing anything positive that really grabbed my attention at the time except perhaps trying to stop the Albanian genocide in Kosovo. Under Bush, my wariness of "super-patriotism" only deepened. I was encouraged on 9/11 when he seemed to step up, and inspired by his speeches and actions immediately following those days when we went into Afghanistan and I got to see, for the first time in my adult life, what a newly-liberated country really looked like. That was the first time I remember seeing politics put into action, and it was a whole new concept. We actually could change the world around us. For a moment (one which many people have either forgotten or ignored), the most liberal spots in the country were also dottted with red, white, and blue. I was not immune, and put up a small flag in my parents' kitchen window.

However, as Bush's administration lagged on and his leadership consistently failed us over and over again, I grew ever-more-dissilusioned, the kind of bitterness all too familiar to young people whose idealism has been dashed. There was little to be proud of under a Bush administration, at least in my home. Abbot Yid demanded I take my flag down lest people think we were Republican, god forbid, or worse yet, war mongers. The message was clear: just at his inauguration, George Bush was not my President, and at least half of this country was not my own.

Today, surrounded by young children, squirming and bored, I watched as history was made. I heard Obama's words and quietly allowed myself to become ever-so-slightly inspired. I saw the National Mall, where I stood eight years ago, packed with people, including many who were finally allowing themselves to believe in their country, possibly for the first time. For the first time in a long time, I listened to a Presidential speech without mocking, talking back, or generally seething. For the first time, I believed again.

I am under no delusions that Barack Obama is going to be the political savior of this country, particularly given what he's inheriting. Neither do I believe that he is always going to be popular. But I am impressed that many Republicans and Conservatives are willing to give him a chance, and hope that he will do the Left proud and succeed more often than fall. I hope that he will lead from the center and work as a consensus builder so he can serve as a figure of unity rather than divisiveness, that we may have a chance to work together to fix so many of the serious problems we presently face. I hope that Obama's administration will reach out to the Right to encourage and inspire them, along with the Left, to make this country a better place. In short, I hope he will be the real Uniter Bush always claimed to be.

I was heartened to hear that despite the harsh campaign, there were few protesters there-- not because people shouldn't be able to protest, and not because Obama should be given a free pass. Rather, because it suggests what I would love to believe, that Obama might be able to, might in fact already have begun, moving beyond the mere partisanship of Left and Right. Not for Obama's sake, but for our own, to come together around uniting principles than endlessly attacking each other over wedge issues. I remember the frustration, anger, and even a little fear, that I felt eight years ago in Washington. I felt forgotten, uncounted, and alone. I felt like I did not matter, and that by pretending that he had consensus, Bush was ignoring me and millions like me. I would not wish that feeling on any of my political opponents. I do not want Obama to only be my President or the Left's President. Now, more than ever, we need a President for all of us.

Today, I am an American, and proud to be one. I am happy for my country and its people. I am proud that we have risen above our history and affirmed our values through action. We have shown that we DO mean what we say- that the words "All men are created equal," and that "America is a land of opportunity" are more than just pat phrases. If Obama can become President, then perhaps we really are living up to the promises we have made to ourselves so many times, and are capable of doing more. That will be his, and our, challenge in the years to come-- to stare at the forces of inertia, apathy and fear, the same ones that said that a black man or a "quasi-Muslim" could never become President and say, "yes we can." We must apply the same resilience to all of our other problems in desperate need of solutions- "yes we can" to improving our economy; "yes we can" to ending poverty; "yes we can" to getting universal healthcare; "yes we can" to ensuring equal rights for GLBT Americans; "yes we can" to creating humane and efficient immigration reform; "yes we can" to battling our enemies without compromising our moral values; "yes we can" to cleaning up our government, and many other battles we will face along the way.

Herzl said, "If you will it, it is no dream." Obama has proven our country has the will, and that dreams can, and do, come true. Once, for a short time, Bush had the country's will as well. Sadly, he squandered that chance by reaffirming the status-quo, lest our enemies win in changing us through terrorism and fear. It is time for us to realize that by choosing to change ourselves for the better, we will all win.

1 comment:

maffy said...

I agree whole-heartedly with your post. I felt the same way about patriotism, and alone, unrepresented by my government. I do know people who continued to fly the flag on holidays during the Bush regime, but I never did. I am so proud that we were able to elect an intelligent representative who is willing to state - and I believe follow through on - his promise that we will not sacrifice our ideals for our perceived safety. Just to be free from an environment where "if you're not with us, you're against us" was the whole of the national debate is such a breath of fresh air. I hope Obama - and all of us - can rise to the challenges ahead.