History Was Made Last Night
The other day, I was reading Slate and happened to come upon an article with a stock photo of Barack and Michelle Obama, and I paused and imagined seeing the two of them on television as the President and First Lady, and it was like something punched me in the gut, and I realized how much I wanted that--how much that would mean to someone disillusioned like me--and I actually teared up to think of it. I am so tired of running uphill on that treadmill; so tired of the feeling that nothing will get done unless one has the money to buy it and, face it, I'm a government employee and a student: I don't have that. I'm so tired of seeing money at the heart of all things: becoming the excuse of immorality (and by that, of course, I don't mean religious immorality but the sort that lets people mouth information they don't believe that will drown nations or leave millions without healthcare because someone has lined their pocket for it); that, of late, has touched as near as my own family, when I see people I love who taught me the ideals I have and encouraged my activism, even when I was young and shrill and a pain in the ass (which I probably still am, all of those things), and they are hoarding wealth and things and preening, not with the good they do for the world, but for the cars they drive and the size of their house. I'm so tired of this that it makes me literally sick to see McCain not know how many houses he has and then expect to lead a nation of people, many of whom don't even have a place to call home anymore. And this guy's still commanding half of the vote? Why again?
For an hour last night, I forgot those things. I got to remember to hope. I am an optimist, but my optimism has been shredded over the last eight years. It's funny to look back at the devastation I felt when Gore "lost" to Bush in 2000 and how quickly the optimism took over again: Well, it can't be that bad; he lost the popular vote, so surely that is a call for moderation, if nothing else, and if worst comes to worst, it's only four years. Because I think I still believed enough in people to trust that we couldn't be duped twice. Then 9/11 happened, and while I never wholly abandoned my pacifism, I remember crying on the loading dock at The Piece and saying, "I think I can understand now why people use violence. I think I can understand and I would shoot Bin Laden in the face if he was here before me," and I never supported the war--actually argued quite hard against it and had my worth as an American challenged for it--but I did believe the "evidence" and it did make me think that things aren't always as easy as my ethics made them seem. That sometimes, there needed to be trade-offs, and if I argued for pacifism in the wake of such strong evidence that Iraq meant to hurt us, then was I actually achieving the opposite effect? Would my moral triumph be worth the lives that--I was assured, we were all assured--would most certainly be lost by my inaction?
I never said, "I think we need to go to war." But I contemplated it.
Obama didn't. I am stubborn and idealistic, and I questioned those ideals very hard in the months after 9/11, but Obama didn't. I thought, last night, as he spoke about his record on the war, that here is someone with the same ideals as me. Maybe not couched in the same terms--he expresses a willingness to defend our country with violence if the need was great enough, so he is no pacifist--but closer to my ideals than I ever thought a Presidential candidate could be, and he was strong in standing for them. Where I was not.
One of the things that has always frustrated me about Bush is when people fawn over him because "he's a lot like us." Because he mispronounces the names of foreign leaders or says terribly stupid things or makes up words in an attempt to appear intelligent, then he's just like us. I often wondered: Am I alone in wanting the President of a world superpower to be better than me, smarter and more well-spoken and more temperate and wiser and with stronger ethics? I don't want a President who is "just like us"; I want a President who is the absolute best of us in every way.
I don't doubt for a moment that my ethics are stronger than the vast majority of elected representatives. And that bothers me. Because I never feel like I do enough, and I make a lot of mistakes. I lose my temper with Lancelot and swat him on the backside. Or I eat lunch a couple times a week at chain restaurants simply because I like to (and Panera Bread has wi-fi!) I read advice columns when I should be studying. I disappoint myself, every day. I don't think that I'm a great champion of any ideal, although I do try. And, still, I think that I do better than most elected representatives.
Yet Obama is different. I feel like he is better than me in every way and better than most of us in the country. I believe that he pursues the hell that is a Presidential campaign (to say nothing of a Presidential term, if he wins) because he believes he can make a positive difference, not because it will allow him to more easily effect laws that will put money in his cronies' pockets or because of narcissism. I think, as stubborn as I am, I faltered in one of my most important beliefs ... and he did not. To someone as disillusioned as I have become, I can't say what that means.
I cannot lay the blame for my feelings entirely on the Republican party. Yes, I loathe the vast majority of their principles, although I know one or two of them well enough to know that they can be nice people so long as we don't talk politics. But I have to put blame where it is due, and that is also on the shoulders of the Democratic party. Watching them nod like a bunch of bobblehead dolls whenever Bush walked into the room ... it made me ill. I think, more people voted for your ideals than his. Most of the country--even most of his own party--loathes him. Standing up to him should be the easiest thing in the world. And yet ...
I don't watch TV, so I hadn't seen any of Obama's speeches until last night, though I had read transcripts and analyses enough to know what was being said, as well as the criticisms other liberals had for his campaign so far, and there was much unease about the fact that he wasn't coming down hard enough on McCain and McCain's policies. It was just like 2000, when I remember Saturday Night Live--back when Will Ferrell was still around and it was still good (although I nurture a private theory that everyone always thinks the SNL they grew up with is the "good" SNL and anything after is but a pale imitation)--did a spoof on the debates between Bush and Gore with Ferrell as Bush and Darryl Hammond as Gore, and I still remember the two of them rebutting the other primarily with, "I agree with that too." And Ralph Nader waving his arms about and shouting, "They're the same! They're the same! They're the same candidate!!" (Ralph, do you think we'd be in the world of hurt we're in right now if Gore had been elected? Just sayin' ...) And in 2004, when the Republicans sank their teeth into Kerry's throat, and he smiled and took it, and I wanted to shout, "Fight back! They dishonor your military service, well call them out on the fact that their candidate is a draft dodger too rich and lazy to bother with anything like military service!"
Please don't allow another election like that, I thought. Please.
So I was thrilled that Obama threw down the gloves a little bit last night. In fact, it was one of the first things that the analysts said when all was finished: "Wow, he mentioned McCain directly 22 times! That's four times more than Kerry did in 2004!"
Yet it was dignified. He praised McCain's military service. He praised McCain's love for his country. He emphasized that he does believe that McCain cares ... he just doesn't know. He's not in a position to know how much many Americans are hurting. Hey, I could almost hear him saying, don't fault the guy because he's old, rich, and white!
But don't elect him either.
Carroll County, where I live, was recently named something like the Best Republican County in Maryland. Maryland is very much a blue state, but Carroll County won't stand for it. I haven't seen a single sign for Obama, but plenty have popped up for McCain! I love riding high on my way home from work, watching the drivers behind me in the rearview mirror at stoplights as they read the bumperstickers on my car. "Bush's Third Term: McCain" reads the one. I can sometimes see them chewing their lips and seething. I think, my work here is begun.
But this is what I don't understand. Carroll County is not poor--no place in Maryland is poor except perhaps parts of Baltimore; we are the second richest state in the country--but folks here are simple and sure aren't rich. Carroll County residents are farmers and plumbers, not corporate lawyers and biotechnologists. They don't stand to benefit a thing from electing another Republican. The tax breaks they get all giddy over won't reach them ... or else, they won't see nearly what our neighbors in Howard County with their six-figure salaries will see. (And Howard County elects Democrats!) The constant breaks to big corporations and the agribusiness won't benefit them: small family farmers growing a couple of acres of corn in clay soil and selling it under a tent by the roadside. Nor will the conservative tendency to ship jobs overseas; Carroll County has numerous plants, but most have been faced with layoffs because of the economy. One of our SCAdian friends met the axe and has been out of work for months now.
Ah, but they're mostly Christian here in Carroll County. Where there's a corner, there's a church. And the Republicans are full of swagger about how they won't stand for abortion and gay marriage and all those other things that stand to ruin this country.
Pardon? What have the last eight years accomplished except, primarily, to further ease the lives of the rich and fortunate? No, progress hasn't been made on same-sex marriage, and there were a few small "victories" where abortion was concerned, but the people worst robbed--the people who lost their homes and their jobs and their healthcare--are the same who voted for Bush. Can they truly feel triumphant? Can they truly say that they look forward to another four years?
This is what I don't understand. After the hell that we've endured over the last eight years, how does one reconcile electing another rich white guy deep in the lobbyist's pockets and from the same party as the last guy? And who, as Obama pointed out last night, voted with Bush 90% of the time. "I'm not willing to take a 10% chance on change," he said, and I agree. Even if I wasn't a Democrat; even if I didn't stand with Obama on a matter of principle to start, I like to think that I possess the minimal self-interest to realize that I'm about the hand a whopping score to the rich and powerful and myself bend over for another four years' worth. Or, less selfishly, minimal love for my country to realize that driving us to ruin in service of millionaires is not the answer.
I would love to hear from a middle-class person thinking of voting for McCain. I just want to know why. I promise I won't argue with you or try to persuade you (unless you'd like a debate, in which case, I'm game). I just want to know what you haven't learned over the last eight years; I just want to know why you think McCain will be different. What about his seven (or is it eight?) houses, his saber-rattling, and his tired old rhetoric suggests that he has the stuff to not just stop the decline of this country but to reverse it and pull us out of our funk and save us? I just don't understand it.
I want to shout this at Carroll County too, at the top of my voice: "He doesn't care about you! He'll use the strength of your beliefs on some issues to get elected and then use his office to benefit more of the rich and powerful!" Only I don't think they'd listen. They still think that the true risk to this country won't come from economic depression or endless war or terrorism or global warming or sheer ignorance (look at New Orleans) but will come in the form of two men getting married, and how do you argue with someone like that?
I feel a tremendous momentum upon me now. I feel like we're on the brink of something, that moment before gravity grabs hold and we plummet. I'm not sure what the next few months will hold. I am elated and afraid. I have hope, but I fear another heartbreak. I fear the Republicans cheating again. I fear what my view toward my country will be if that happens and what my view toward my fellow citizens will be as they turn back to American Idol and resume drooling on themselves. I feel my optimism rekindling. It's scary; pessimism is like a callus and keeps tender places from being hurt: the worst that can happen is you're not disappointed and the best that can happen is you're wrong. I have my pitchfork ready, come the revolution, but I increasingly have hope that I won't need it.