Tardy reflections on the election of Barack Obama
It feels a little weird that Obama won the election and I haven’t written anything about it. Everyone with a platform apparently feels obliged to say something profound, but after several aborted attempts, I find myself drained and utterly inadequate to the historical moment. I just want to take the world’s longest nap.
Rather than attempting to capture What It All Means, then, I’ll just say a little about how it looks from my own parochial perch.
I have some friends who feel differently, but I thought Obama’s acceptance speech in Chicago was extraordinary. My favorite part was about the 106-year-old Ann Nixon Cooper, an African-American voter in Atlanta. Obama discussed all that she’s seen, from women and blacks being enfranchised to the New Deal to WWI and WWII to the moon walk to civil rights, and finished with this passage:
America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves: if our children should live to see the next century — if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper — what change will they see? What progress will we have made?
This is our chance to answer that call.
My first full day at Grist was Jan. 1, 2004. When I started, I was responsible for writing the Daily Grist email, so every day I sifted through and summarized the day’s news. For almost three years, virtually everything I wrote was some variation on the same theme: The Bush administration screwed something up. They attempted an evil gambit. They blocked a positive change. They failed to act on an opportunity.
It got to the point that on slow news days we would darkly joke with one another that we wished Bush would screw something up so we’d have something to write about. After all, bad sh*t was the only sh*t going. It got to the point that when Bush finally uttered the words "climate change," six years into an eight year administration, it constituted practically the biggest environmental news of the year.
Nothing, nothing, nothing. Fighting, not to move forward, but to keep from moving backwards. The whole nation, spinning its wheels, going nowhere, clinging to 20th century energy, 20th century political alliances, 20th century habits of thought, even as historic dangers loomed ever larger. What was frustrating was not just the bad stuff Bush was doing, though there was plenty of it. Most maddening was the sense that the great march of American progress had simply stalled. We — young people — were not getting our chance. Our time was passing us by. History would record the years of our youth as years of stasis and rot.
Whatever Obama does, whatever resistance and setbacks he faces, however frustrating and inadequate his actions, at least we’re going to start moving again. At least we’re going to start grappling with the challenges of our era. At least there’s a chance now that history will not record the early 21st century merely as a pause, a blank, a time of reactionary cowardice.
Perhaps if my two boys live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, they’ll look back at the time when their daddy was a writer, a time when his generation took the reigns of power, and see it as the beginning of the Great Work that transformed and renewed America. Perhaps they will find something to admire.
That’s what this election means — to me anyway.