The day after: when america woke up

Johannesburg Corridor:

November 5, 2008

Is there really any other way to be?  Restless and you rest less.  Win a few times and you get used to it, maybe start to take it for granted.  And now the country wins: At least for a day.  That feeling that so many Midwesterners seem to know so well: I love my country.  It sounds foreign to me.

My nephew is inconsolable these days.  His two years of life having been lived means everything is new all the time.  These days he is realizing the power of “NO!”  And for the first time, he can’t get what he wants from life at every second.  The fact infuriates him.  How hard it must be to accept defeat as a brand new feeling.  What about accepting victory?

In my life, I’ve always been comfortable as the underdog.  Making the surprise comeback after struggling for a while.  Always making things harder than they needed to be.  I was the inconsistent one with potential.  Following struggling sports teams makes sense to me.  When they win easily, I’m left numb.  I can’t enjoy an easy victory.  It has to be a struggle, has to be dramatic, and has to be slightly unexpected: because I want to get emotionally involved in it.  I want it to matter more than it really does.  Like any kid who takes a game as life or death in that moment of competition, I craved that dramatic moment when the crowd goes quiet with anticipation, and playing all kinds of sports as a kid: basketball, baseball, football, soccer, tennis—that adrenaline came on a regular basis.

Now the real transformation has taken place.  There is no more underdog.  Obama has emerged and 52% of the nation breathes a collective sigh of enormous relief.  I can actually admire and be thankful for the president being my president.  Now this can become my country for the first time.  It’s always been someone else’s mess, someone else’s country.  And I’m 28 years old, and I look white to most people, even though I’m Jewish and don’t feel “white” much of the time.  I can hardly imagine what the people who’ve actually lived through this country’s racism for decades, or even a century must feel.

I watched Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention four years ago.  I was transfixed as he stole the thunder of that moment and slipped it into his pocket, instantly becoming the next rising star of the Democratic Party.  How could anyone have seen how quickly that star would shine?  Though Obama has won, he says we have won, and we have.  Like the best teams, this election was never about one ego, one man, or one woman; this was about all of us pouring our hearts into one goal.

And here I am—sitting, writing, thinking, feeling—and I’m allowing myself to feel a twinge of guilt.  I didn’t do enough.  I didn’t join the movement.  I didn’t cross state lines and knock on doors and talk to strangers.  Four years ago, I talked to anyone who would listen.  I was getting paid to, after all.  Strangers would stop and listen and talk and listen, and at the end, some would sign their name and donate cash or, if I was lucky, would donate a larger amount, using their credit card.  John Kerry was not a politician I was even particularly enamored with, but I was terrified by Bush getting re-elected, and I needed a part-time job, so I canvassed.  Not this time.  This time, I thought about it, but was busy trying to get my teaching career off the ground, and decided I couldn’t.  But I could have.  One weekend trip to Nevada.  Maybe two.  Phone calls.  Something.  I talked to people.  I had long conversations with friends and acquaintances.  Still, not enough.  We won, you might say.  Why would I feel bad now?  I wish I had made myself a part of this historic election in a more tangible way.  Still, Obama tells us we all won and we should all feel good.

Exhausted by the endless pontificating, by the caricature of politics in the eyes of the American media, by the fact that a part of me really didn’t know if I wanted this America to be my America.  That I’d rather dwell somewhere on the sidelines?  That’s not exactly it either: I’m not interested in an America that only knows how to communicate from a safe, ironic distance, half-mocking, half-shouting its way into the next few decades.

Is it the validation that YOU matter that turned Obama’s campaign into the youth movement that it became?  Endless emails telling people that their actions make the difference.  That any small donation is helpful, and gradually momentum was built.  Each citizen begins to believe that their voice really is getting louder, or that the collective din that surrounds them through their political lives is finally quieting.  That YOU don’t have to out-shout others to be heard.  And everyone somehow got the message to simmer down and start to listen.

Or maybe it’s just the fact that 18-35 year-olds are too young and too naïve and impressionable to resist a political force of nature who pounded home a genuine truth: we, as humans, want to believe in the ability of things to change, we want to hope that things can get better, even if we’re blanketed by our own cynicism, its newly-hardened cynicism, not the armor of the middle-aged and seniors.  Irony is a weak shield for those twenty-somethings.  It is easily undone by intelligent and impassioned and genuine unification.  And now are we unified?  Will we stay optimistic for long?  How long will it take for this to wear off, like a graduation day celebration?

Obama is the first candidate in as long as we young people know who is new enough to stand out and smart enough to let everyone else’s passion and dreams stand IN for him.  So for now, most of us feel more represented by our soon-to-be-president.  We embrace the possibility of active citizenship.  For one day, we choose to stop laughing.  And even though I know I could have done more, been a part of a community that stretched out across America, hand-in-hand, door-to-door, I can take solace in the fact that I know I will always be listening for that quiet rumbling.  That sweet sound of the status quo’s walls shaking, the doors opening, the people streaming in.

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