Citizenship is a passionate joy at times, and this is one of those times. You can feel it. Tuesday the world changed. It was a great day. Monday it rained hard for the first time this season and on Election Day, everything in San Francisco was washed clean. I went on a long run past several polling places up in the hills around my home and saw lines of working people waiting to vote and contented-looking citizens walking around with their “I Voted” stickers in the sun and mud.
People have again found one of their — our — most buried and powerful desires: to make a better world together. I ran across an online collection of photographs of people crying in public, so moved by what is happening in this country, and I cried a little myself last weekend and choked up again when my local paper ran a story on a woman who’d crossed the country 40 years ago for Martin Luther King’s funeral and left her polling place Tuesday singing hallelujah, amazed like so many older people that she’d lived to see the day.
You can argue against Barack Obama. I would myself, on the grounds that electoral politics are inherently flawed, corrosive, disempowering. My leftist friends, already cranky about him, warn me that I will be disappointed, but I’m not sure I will, because my expectations are realistic. I love his style, but he’s not my messiah.
Who he is is so much better than we had any right to expect in a country left to the jackals for so long, even if he’s just a pretty gifted liberal Democrat with an uncanny ability to see beyond the binaries and describe what might lie there.
What he is, in all his hyphenated hybridity, is a sign of a new world being born — not, certainly, the “another world is possible” of the anti-globalization movement, but another world of mingling and crossing borders, of making new ethnicities out of love across old divides. He is a living invitation to come in from the cold for a lot of those who have been left out for decades, for centuries.
He’s my age exactly, born that summer the Berlin Wall went up, and I recognize him, a man from the in-between. And I recognize my country’s ability to surprise itself and the world as well by being great, just when our monstrousness seemed utterly inescapable.
His day picks up from many that have come before. It’s the first great lurch forward for racial justice since the 1960s, that era of the Civil Rights Movement. But it pick ups as well from the 1860s, from the unfinished promise of Abraham Lincoln — the promise over which a great and bloody Civil War was, in part, fought — to undo what that great president called the “original sin” of our country that goes back three centuries and more: race-based slavery.
Obama does not cancel out or heal the legacies of racism, but in becoming the most powerful man in the world he signifies that the game has indeed changed, not just ground to a halt partway to justice and equality. The inner-city kids I see in my neighborhood and the murderous racists I’ve encountered recently in New Orleans are both going to think about their place in the world and their rights differently from this day forward. And that matters immensely, whatever the man being voted into power today does, or does not, achieve.
I am against heroes generally, and I grieved to see how deferentially people invested their hopes in Howard Dean nationally in 2004, and in Matt Gonzalez in my local mayor’s race the year before. The movements that invoked them were, in both cases, so much better than the men. The people who made up those great populist groundswells, as far as I’m concerned, mistook those men — little more than hood ornaments — for the engines powering their movements. And the movements died out when the men went nowhere. Had each of them won, their followers would have given them their power and hoped for the best, rather than keeping it and moving past them.
I thought we were entering an era where we would do without heroes, but we have been given a hero, which is a bit like being given a chainsaw or a credit card: you have to be careful how you use it.
This moment of joy will subside, and those who expected Obama to be flawless or to keep inspiring them forever and a day may be disappointed. Still, his strength is that he speaks the language of community organizers, of “si, se puede,” and that, at least for a while, he may spread rather than consolidate power.
When you come down to it though, that’s our responsibility, not his…
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Rebecca Solnit’s next book about the extraordinary communities that arise in disaster will be out just in time for the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The latest language in which Hope in the Dark was published is Greek; the publisher distributed it from his motorbike when a national strike shut down Athens and then just gave it away to the marchers.
Copyright 2008 Rebecca Solnit