I listened to Barack Obama's historic speech both in awe of the raw truth of his words and in recognition of the dignity with which he faces the obvious attempts by others to predefine him as something singular -- a black candidate -- rather than as a multi-cultural and gifted American who presents a unique opportunity for both his country and the world.
I understand what his opponents are trying to do. The prejudice of predefinition. If one can be defined, then they are somehow 'less than'. I've seen it before. While researching World War II for a script, I came across a definition of race as classified by looks -- how close were the eyes to the nose to the chin, the color of hair -- that defined opportunity, the prejudice of predefinition that superseded both the potential of the individual and the needs of entire nations.
"The issues that have surfaced over the past few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we've never worked through. A part of our union that we've not yet made perfect. And if we walk away now. If we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care or education or the need to find good jobs for every American." (Senator Barack Obama).
The effort underway to define Barack Obama as 'the other,' whether it is as (too) black, not black enough, not ready, too eager, too young, too embroiled in his (Christian) church, (the false accusation of his being) a Muslim (a claim now confused by the fact that the pastor who brought him to Christ makes for a better target); all the cynical ways that opportunity has been grabbed by those who will use anything to hold onto power -- regardless of the consequences.
The emails that have been sent proclaiming Senator Obama as Muslim are clear examples of the cynical ploys that seek to divide and conquer and leave all but the few with less and those few with everything else. But that's not the worst crime of those emails. Senator Obama defined it well on CBS's 60 Minutes as an insult to him as a Christian and to all Muslims for the implication that there was something wrong in being Muslim.
There is nothing wrong with faith. It's what one does with that faith that becomes the test of their faith.
Reverend Wright's inexcusable comments were an unacceptable expression of something I cannot, in good faith, call faith. Senator Obama repudiated those remarks but did not disown the man. While I don't pretend to understand the black experience of America and how that has shaped the men of Reverend Wright's generation, I do remember standing in the rental car line once at Atlanta's airport, how the man at the counter ignored the well-dressed black man in front and asked me to come forward. It was a small but profound moment; the look on the bigot's face while exercising his prejudice and the subtle twist of the knife in the eyes of the man at which it had been directed.
I remember sitting with a friend, a great and renowned black jazz musician, you'd know his name, at a restaurant in Florida, waiting to be served -- waiting, waiting, waiting as my friend looked down and could not meet my eyes, because he was familiar with the disrespect and took the blame upon himself for subjecting me to his experience of prejudice, rather than the proper assignment of blame.
I remember traveling with friends in New Orleans years ago; wondering along the the streets in what we thought was the French Quarter, in search of restaurant. Only we weren't in the French Quarter. One car after another drove by, white men who laughed at us and suggested that we were 'not from around there' and drove on without offering directions. It was the black man in his late seventies in an old pickup truck who stopped for the confused young white people lost in one of New Orleans most dangerous neighborhoods and ordered us into the back and drove us to the safety of our hotel.
We are all both the product of our character and of each earlier generations' triumphs and failures whether we understand that or not. The pain of the past is the dysfunction of the present and until we collectively heal our multigenerational wounds, we will, like all dysfunctional families, act out without any understanding of our actions until we marginalize ourselves and our great nation at a time when we cannot afford to make any more mistakes.
Not one more.
A better way: we could move past the past and carve a new path for ourselves as a multicultural nation that is an example of cooperation and fairness to the rest of the world. That is what I believe Senator Obama means by a time for change.
A good idea in a world on a hair trigger.
What we do in November will decide the fate of our world. That is the consequence of the wars in which we now find ourselves and the legacy of World War Two. The last superpower standing, we are diminished in the world's eyes through the mistakes of a failed administration and a free-falling dollar. If we allow ourselves to fall completely, what takes our place? China which holds Tibet, Burma, Darfur and our debt in its fist? Russia which depends upon the rising price of oil to sustain its government and its oligarchy? Iran that has been working to change the oil dollar to the oil euro? India, with its polluted rivers and ever graduating classes of new engineers?
There's so much more at stake than just America, but make no mistake, it is America that is at stake in this election. It's 1968 with the promise of Martin Luther King before he was lost; the promise of Robert F. Kennedy before he was lost. What the great Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called (paraphrased) the yearning for what might have been.
Only now, it could be.
There is talk of a green economy and the potential new jobs that could pull the U.S. out of its impending recession. The magazine I edit, THE ENVIRONMENTALIST, endorsed Senator Obama because of his policy positions on the environment that could lead to such an outcome. We stand by that endorsement for both the environment and for the spirit in which Senator Obama delivered his remarkable speech.
It's time for us to come together.
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