Regrets? I Have a Few by Steve Clemens. November 16, 2008
It is now almost two weeks since the landmark political tsunami of the Obama election occurred. I think the fact that my working as an election judge until past 11PM on Election Day might be one reason for my obtuseness. I didn’t get to see the images on the widescreen TV from Chicago where a quarter-million or more had gathered in Grant Park to await their hero/leader, the President-elect. I missed the iconic image of Jesse Jackson standing near the platform with tears running down his face. It was the same Jesse who stood over the body of his slain mentor, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., forty years before. Was this at least a partial vindication of Martin’s dream?
I didn’t see that image live –I saw it replayed the next day or two along with the video of Oprah standing in the crowd, her head buried for a time on the shoulder of a man she never met before - a billionaire, standing among the “hoi polloi”, the common folk, awaiting the appearance of Barack, Michelle, and the Obama children.
I should have known. After all, his best-selling Autobiography was entitled The Audacity of Hope. This hope that garnered nearly 63 million votes on November 4, 2008 was audacious all right! Some people merely wanted a change after being tired of fear, isolation, and a culture of greed gone bankrupt. But others voted with HOPE, an audacious hope that America might regain some of the “innocence” lost or squandered over the past eight years.
The HOPE of still others -who never were distracted by the fairy tales of the culture which spun such naïve claims of “innocence” for a nation whose history reeked from the stench of genocide of indigenous peoples, the enslavement of others, wars of conquest and aggression against Spanish-speaking neighbors and those in islands across the Pacific – was more historically grounded. It remembered the country responsible for war-time internment and later the use of the nuclear bomb against those of Asian ancestry. The list of offenses that any empire leaves in its wake could fill this page. But, despite knowing this shameful past, some still went to the polls the first Tuesday in November thinking “I’m gonna vote for HOPE”.
For some, Obama was the embodiment of the change. His multiracial and multicultural past was a central part of that symbolism. For others, Obama was primarily an imperfect vessel who might be a figurehead for a movement which was clearly more progressive than he was willing to be as a candidate. At least in Obama, a fresh face on the political scene, there could be a politician who might listen and practice a politics of humility and inclusiveness.
It took me several days and experiences before recognizing the powerful explosion of HOPE that erupted all over the world at 10 PM CST when the TV commentators declared Barack Obama as America’s 44th President-elect. Demonstrations happened worldwide. People danced in the streets. Parents named newborns after the electoral winner. Having arrived home too late to watch the returns, and, working so hard that day that I decided to sleep in the next morning rather than attend the weekly Alliant Tech vigil, I processed most of the election results privately.
My first inkling of the HOPE revolution came with our Minnesota Peace Team meeting on Thursday. It was confirmed at the gathering at St. Joan of Arc Church on Sunday to hear John Dear and again that evening with my own faith community, the Community of St. Martin. Everyone wanted to celebrate and talk about what a hopeful moment this was! Same thing happened at my Sabbath Economics group circle on Monday evening and at the Vets for Peace gathering for the Armistice Day remembrance a week after the election. It seemed everyone was expressing their hope and optimism – even though it was still “guarded optimism” from some. The Alliant Tech vigil a week after the election results continued this theme. Here were some hard-core activists, some I knew shared my skepticism about Obama’s campaign positions, especially on military spending, Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine, the death penalty, … the list could go on. But still, the over-all atmosphere of HOPE.
Thursday evening I attended an anti-racism lecture by Victor Lewis. He positively glowed as he danced, pranced, and sang at the beginning of the talk –celebrating the incredible events of the past week. Over and over people said, “I never believed I would see this in my lifetime! I knew it would happen eventually, but so soon?” So soon? We’ve been in the wilderness the past 40 years after our cultural prophet was slain. And Barack is no Martin.
What is audacious to me is thinking that this change might happen with somebody so middle-of-the-road politically as Barack Obama. I was expecting and dreaming of a prophetic voice like that of Dr. King to move the masses. Yet I heard African-American fathers talk about how they could now honestly tell their sons and daughters, “You can aspire to any position you want!” Somehow, by not talking about race, not talking about class, discrimination, and other injustices, people have HOPE for CHANGE. Obama may not be the embodiment but at least he is the messenger.
I’m saddened that I failed to see the depth of the political symbolism of HOPE the Obama campaign obviously engendered. Oh, I saw the importance of the symbolism worldwide of a multicultural person as the titular head of government – so often referred to as “the most powerful person in the world”. The U.S. President may be –in that he nominally controls the deadliest arsenal of military weapons. But, as the world so clearly sees now, our lame-duck emperor has no clothes and very little political or persuasive power. Even John McCain shied away from his embrace during his campaign.
Who is “the most powerful person in the world” today? It might be Obama in that he has captured the imaginations around the globe of new possibilities. It might be Nelson Mandela or the Dali Lama. Military power is only one type of power; the power to stir the imagination and mobilize people is clearly another. Fear is a powerful motivator – but has it met its match with HOPE?
Two weeks ago I thought the symbolism of my vote for a Lebanese-American, Ralph Nader, also could send a powerful message of supporting a person of Middle-East descent as my President. I didn’t have any illusions that he could win the election but felt that his positions most clearly meshed with mine. But I failed to fully comprehend the wellspring of HOPE that Obama’s election would generate. Oh, there is plenty of work to do – we must pressure Obama to do the right thing in many areas. I don’t have the illusion that he is even a progressive – despite the McCain mantra that “Obama is the most liberal person in the Senate”. If true, we are really in trouble. But “HOPE springs eternal”.
May the HOPE engendered in this election be embodied in both “our physical bodies and the body politic” as my friend Ched Myers describes the call of the nonviolent, activist Jesus. When Jesus healed individuals, he also addressed the politic/social injustice that oppressed them as well. May it be that kind of HOPE that we embrace.