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Inauguration Day

January 4, 2009

I’m not a deeply political person. My politics are liberal; long ago I was something of a naïve anarchist. I once voted for Angela Davis in when she was running for President for the Communist Party, but that was only a symbolic gesture. Over the years I came to believe that while grassroots protest is invaluable in the political process, by itself it does very little. The real action is in the corridors of power, in boardrooms and offices and governmental chambers. When ordinary people want change, it’s slow and painful. When the rich and powerful want change, sometimes it can happen with astonishing speed. Think of Paulson’s Wall Street bailout. Or think of Dr. King and the victims of police violence in Selma Alabama, shaming Lyndon Johnson into proposing and then signing the Voting Rights Act only a few months later. Following this logic, I also came to believe that the best way to institute change in this country is through the democratic process - to elect good representatives.

 

Like all liberals, I wish for a more just society. I’m appalled that there is so much wealth in this country, and yet the poor are given so little. I’m appalled that justice is often a commodity available only to those who can afford it. I’m appalled that American power continues to deny the human causes of global warming. And sometimes I’m appalled by the men that we elect to be President.

 

Just before the 2000 election, Ani di Franco recorded a song that compared the Presidential candidates to “Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber.” Wrong, Ani, wrong! Only the most wildly out-of-touch radical idiot would think that the course of history would be the same if Al Gore were elected President. Instead, we got George W. Bush.

 

Bush was a figurehead, a pretty boy chosen because he was electable. He had a great act, a folksy charm that made Americans think he would be a nice guy to share a beer with. Gore had all the charisma of a mattress, and was burdened with the legacy of Bill Clinton’s moral failings. The Republican power elite chose Bush, threw a ton of money at him, and the American electorate went along. Despite the liberal complaint that Bush wasn’t really elected – he was, five votes to four – enough people actually voted for W. to make his candidacy credible. And those same liberals should remember that he was re-elected in 2004 with a modest majority.

 

Over the past eight years, George W. Bush has made a huge mess of things. He took the sympathy that people of all nations felt for America after 9/11 and squandered with the invasion of Iraq. He believed his advisors when they said that Iraqis would strew roses at our feet for liberating them, and he had no real plan for the ensuing military occupation. He approved torture in American prisons, tacitly or otherwise. He unilaterally repealed laws with his executive findings for intercepting domestic telephone conversations and detaining American citizens without warrants. He tolerated governance by cronyism. He built a new laissez-faire capitalism of unregulated markets, which ended in disaster. And, not coincidentally, he allowed New Orleans to drown and never mobilized the nation to rebuild it. Is it mere coincidence that New Orleans was a majority black city?

 

In this country, the Republican party is the party of demagoguery, the conduit of popular resentment. If there’s a mass resentment in America, you can bet that Republicans will exploit it. Republicans need enemies, too. They used to have Communism, and the cold war kept them busy for decades. Now they have gays and immigrants. Perhaps most cruelly, Republicans catered to white resentment after Johnson sided with social justice for black Americans. Republicans learned to speak in coded terms to appeal to whites who never left the old racist ways. They harped on school busing and  “reverse racism,” and fought to end racial preferences of any kind. The Republican party is the acceptable face of covert racism, and for eight years, George W. Bush was their poster boy.

 

I think of racism as mass stupidity. That’s nice – it’s easy to say somebody is stupid for being a racist. And true. But as a white man, it’s very difficult to understand the bitterness of being on the receiving end of racism. Never forget that blacks were brought to this country as chattel: as animals. For generations they were treated just like animals, too. And the legacy of racism enables a white person to look at an African-American and not see a human being. To be black in America is to live with having your humanity randomly denied - to know that any taxi driver or shop clerk or real estate agent might not think you’re fully human. Bitter.

 

My country has disappointed me many times, by racism as much as anything. The ideal America is something else, though. The United States of America is an experiment, not in the perfectibility of humankind, but in the possibility that flawed women and men can make the right decisions in governing themselves. We might actually believe that we all have inalienable rights in the eyes of the law, and that one of the roles of government is to protect and foster those rights. That’s an astonishing proposal: that power lives in the service of an ideal. Power usually lives in service of itself, of its own increase and perpetuation. But the founding documents of this country say that governmental power exists for the people, not for itself. In the ideal America, there is no disenfranchisement. No citizen gets left out. We all benefit equally, and we all bear equal responsibility.

 

In reality, this ideal has been imperfectly realized. But the course of this nation’s history has always been towards the fuller extension of rights - first to men who didn’t own property, then women, and in our own era, to African-Americans. In the end, this country has come to insist that each of these groups should be equal before the law, and equal in the eyes of its citizens. This idealism, this experiment, appeals to the best in us. It asks us to expect much of ourselves. It asks us to rise, to see beyond immediate self-interest and anger and prejudice, and to imagine a more perfect union.

 

And we have fallen so far short. To me, George W. Bush is the very image of how we have failed to realize our higher aspirations.

 

And so, on November 4, when the same country that elected Bush had a change of heart and elected Barack Obama, I was moved to tears. A black man now walks our broadest corridor of power. For the first time, we know for certain that a majority of Americans can look beyond the color of a man’s skin and judge him for something else entirely. Maybe it is the content of his character, as Dr. King would have it. Maybe it’s his charisma. Or maybe it’s because we see a man who can awaken our best hopes for ourselves, who will appeal not to our resentments but our common dreams for a better nation. Like the song said we would, we overcame. For the first time in a very long while, I am proud of my country.

 

 

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