Tuesday, January 20, 2009
I’ve been trying to sort through my thoughts concerning the inauguration of Barack Obama. I find the event itself – the installing into office of America’s first not-entirely-white president – both fascinating and inspiring.
The comparisons to John F. Kennedy are easy to make. Kennedy was the first Catholic president. I was three years old when he was elected. Coming from a background of Irish Catholicism, and having been born and raised in Massachusetts, I saw almost as many portraits of Kennedy hanging in houses as I did of Jesus Christ. Having never experienced any outright prejudice concerning either my Catholicism or my Irish blood, I found some of the stories I heard bizarre.
The reality of the situation was that some people honestly believed Kennedy would construct a secret tunnel between Washington, DC, and The Vatican, and he would turn the running of the government of the United States over to The Pope. Compare and contrast to the expectation, by some, that Obama is some sort of secret double agent for an Arab state. The reality of the situation, concerning Kennedy, was that less than 100 years before, Irish people were being denied employment and housing because of their ethnicity, and were subject to public ridicule in the entertainments of the day. Compare and contrast to the even more hideous treatment of blacks in this country, up to and including slavery. The reality of the Kennedy election was that there had been, at one time, political parties set up explicitly to keep Catholics from political power. Compare and contrast to the policies of Lester Maddox and a thousand others.
Many in my family saw the election of Kennedy as a culmination of their own total acceptance as Americans. I can understand the temptation to look at Obama’s election in a similar light. Kennedy was, in my neighborhood, a secular saint. Obama is the same for many.
As with Kennedy, many people are expecting things that just won’t happen. Obama may or may not turn out to be an effective president, but he will most certainly not hand the country over to foreign powers, nor will he cure every societal ill with a wave of his hand. He is a politician. Neither his name or his skin color will make a whit of difference to those hell-bent on destroying America, nor will his lovely smile and great oratorical skills miraculously turn around an economy that is tanking.
Come back four or eight years from now. We will generally be in better or worse shape on the whole, but we will not have morphed into a suburb of heaven, nor will Arabic be our official language. The country will more-or-less be the same. The good stuff will still be good stuff, and most folks will still grouse about the stuff that’s beyond their control.
No matter how bad or good a job Obama does (and that is almost always an opinion, not an objective analysis) we will, at the end of his run, still be afflicted with the morons who feel that the be-all and end-all of any argument is something entirely irrelevant. White dopes and black dopes will still vote for candidates based on race. Male dopes and female dopes will still vote for someone because of the sexual equipment a person has, while gay dopes and straight dopes will vote based on what those people DO with that equipment.
People of small minds will still worry more about a candidate’s name than they will about the content of his or her heart. That’s just the way it is. People, in general, will always be more tribal than global.
This inauguration is inspiring because, somehow, we sort-of got past that stuff, at least for a little while. I say “sort-of” because I submit that if Obama had been 70, bald, and not quite as glib, and John McCain had been young, fit, and a better off-the-cuff speaker, we still would have elected the white guy, despite whatever else they brought to the table. That’s just speculation, of course. What we DID, as a nation, was somewhat remarkable. Even if you didn’t vote for Obama (and, to be sure, I didn’t) today is a day for some pride. Here’s why.
Today we will, as we have for more than 200 years, pass the reins of power in peace. That single act, which we pull off every few years and which we consider unremarkable, is a thing of amazement for much of the world. Military coups, dictatorships, bloody revolts and civil wars, are the norm in some places. The fact that we can do what we do, in such a calm manner, is the major reason why we are what we are, and why there is always hope we can be much, much more.
Some folks, mostly those with an agenda, will try to convince you that today is about skin color. Don’t let them get away with such perfidious nonsense. It is not about the color of one man’s skin. It is about the content of our national character.
I am always hopeful. I’m an optimist by nature, and I always imagine, at least initially, things working out for the best. I would like to believe that Obama can be a great president, and that we can become something better as a result. But, things are (despite the protestations of the permanently malcontent) pretty damned good already. Most of us have a standard of living that even kings only dreamed of as recently as a couple of hundred years back, and it is only in comparison to our more well-off fellows that many of us suffer. Obama will not be able to alleviate true soul-depth suffering any more than any other president has. That’s up to you and me, not the government.
Obviously, this is a (thus far) unique event in American history. But, the more I think about it, the more I am reminded of a song lyric I wrote back in 1981. It was about Reagan, but it could just as easily be about Kennedy or the current situation.
You think that you are free
But you're really in captivity
They maintain your cage and diffuse your rage
In the best of times, they’ve committed their crimes
And they don’t give a damn about truth
They just keep on lying; you just do as you’re told
You don’t even know, and I wonder if you care
You’ve been bought and sold
No American Jesus will save us
He would, if he could, but he can’t, so he won’t
No American Jesus will save us
Liberal or Conservative; Republican or Democrat; Black or White; The less time we spend looking for others to help us, and the more time we invest in honest introspection and self-improvement, the better off we’ll be, both individually and as a nation.
There is a self-congratulatory nature about this whole thing that I find slightly distasteful. Look at us! We elected a black man! Aren't we wonderful?
Well, at the risk of sounding as jingoistic as some of the folks I'm putting down, yes, we are wonderful. However, our electing this one man isn't what makes us so. It is the fact that we have the ability to do so that matters. It's a somewhat subtle distinction, but one I feel needs to be pointed out.
There are a lot of folks running around saying that this is the culmination of Reverend Martin Luther King's dream. No, it isn't. It's some part of it, to be sure, but until we get completely past the point where we feel the need to point out that Obama is the first black president, or that Frank Robinson was the first black manager in baseball, or that Bill Russell was the first black head coach in basketball, or whatever other distinction we've made, Dr. King's dream is still in abeyance. The truest test, yet to come, will be when a black candidate LOSES a presidential election. Then we’ll see just how much of the bad stuff we’re really past. If he or she loses, and the country goes about its business normally, with no grumbling about prejudice, then we'll be there.
If nothing else, I am grateful to see so many people with genuine smiles today. I fear that more of them will be disappointed, in the end, than will be gratified.
I hope I’m dead wrong.