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The Twenty-First Century's Greatest Generation

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Ever since last Thursday night, I feel like I am no longer watching just another election. I feel like I'm privileged to have a front-row seat to be a part of a defining moment in this country's story. With all the things that the Bush administration has brought upon this country, including a fictitious war, the Patriot Act and racial profiling, tax-cuts for the wealthy, backward Supreme Court judges, Guantanamo and torture, ignorant foreign policy and refusal to deal with global warming, sometimes I have to think a bit harder to remember the reasons for which I moved here from Iran when I was 17.

But there are times when this country rises up and does something that completely impresses me and renews my belief in it again. When I was speaking to my father in Tehran last week, I told him how much I liked Obama. He said he had listened to him, too, and also found him impressive. But he then confidently delivered a cold prediction that many others already had before: Obama has no chance because America doesn't elect black presidents. I didn't know what to tell him because historically speaking, he was right. But deep inside, I had more faith and am in general strongly resistant to cynicism when someone tells me we can't do something. So I listed all of Obama's qualities for my father, from his degree from Columbia University and years as a community organizer to his education at Harvard Law School, civil rights law practice and service in the Illinois and U.S. Senate. But my dad had decided that history is bound to repeat itself. "You just wait," I told him, knowing deep down inside that the reason I had come here on my own was that I knew America was the place where the big progressive changes have happened and will happen again.

America impressed me once again last Thursday when the Iowa caucuses gave Barack Obama a landslide victory. As an Obama supporter, I was naturally pleased to see him succeed. But his victory meant so much more than just a democratic victory; I saw it as an American victory that reminded me of the possibilities of this country and my generation. Obama's entire life consists of a lot of very improbable events. Through just about every step of his life -- from his community organizing efforts and education at Harvard to his public service in two high offices -- Obama has repeatedly removed the traditional barriers to success. His victory in Iowa was one of those moments. He won the majority of the caucus-goers' votes in one of the whitest states in the country. More women voted for him than they did for Hillary. Independents (and some Republicans) from all walks of life came out to caucus for the first time to disproportionately vote for Obama, resulting in almost double the turnout than what we saw in 2004. And he did all of this without having a lobbyist like Mark Penn run his campaign or getting the help of 527s with unknown financial sources.

His victory was significant because it instantly made a number of widely-believed assumptions irrelevant. One was the idea that America wasn't ready to vote for a black president. Second was that people valued age over judgment. Third was the idea that most women would automatically vote for Hillary regardless of her qualifications. Fourth was that Democrats would be inclined to vote for Hillary because of her last name, machine and old establishment support. And fifth, the idea that young people wouldn't come out to participate. But what's important to note is that those assumptions were not proven wrong because they were historically untrue. In fact, the very reason why people held those assumptions was that that's how things had been before last Thursday.

But I think what's important to observe about all of last Thursday's milestones is that Obama was able to inspire the young generation to come out to vote. I think most young people hate politics or are apathetic toward it for one of the three main reasons: they either subconsciously think they live in a bubble and wouldn't directly be affected in anyway no matter who is elected president -- the role of a president can sometimes feel so distant and abstract that it can appear as if the system can pretty much run itself; or they do want to participate but stay away because they believe they have lost -- or never had -- any influence over their destiny as it was ultimately written not by them but for them by moneyed special interests or their parents' generation; or finally, they stayed away from politics because they were in general sick of politicians fighting and playing games all the time and getting nothing done, which made involvement in the whole process a big waste of time.

But the true genius of Obama has been his ability to convince my generation that this is their country, too, and their moment to participate is now. The new generation is going to deal with many difficult problems for long after the Clintons and baby-boomers are gone. Global warming is going to be a much more pressing challenge for us to meet than it has been for previous generations. We also have to deal with significant economic challenges and pay the debt that George Bush has put on our generation's credit card with his reckless borrowing from China and other foreign countries to fund his war of choice in Iraq, corporate welfare and tax-cuts for the wealthy. And despite the past generation's heroism in World War II and the ensuing decades, their Cold War experience has now become a factor in preventing them from developing an understanding of a new place for America in the world and effectively deal with the problems that continue to damage our image abroad. These problems include supporting the Saudi dictatorship because we need their oil and other dictatorships for our short-term geopolitical interests.

The vast majority of young people came out to caucus for the first time in Iowa and vote for Obama. In the last Saturday night's ABC/Facebook New Hampshire debate, Hillary declared that she is the candidate for "change" because election of a woman candidate can symbolize change. But just as Hillary likes to say "you can't get change by demanding it," she should know that she also can't be seen as an agent for change by demanding it. She will continue to be seen as who she is: the status quo candidate. But the main point that I think she has missed is that by voting for Obama over other white candidates, tens of thousands of first-time young caucus-goers showed that they were in fact already judging the candidates based on the contents of theirs character, not their color or gender. In other words, the glass ceiling has already been removed! That is also why more women voted for Obama than they did for Hillary. She didn't lose because she was a woman; she lost because she represented the kind of old divisive politics that is not responding to the needs of our generation. Obama won because the new generation wants to be inspired and asked to participate, and Obama is our candidate to turn the page.

This generational gap does not represent an adversarial relationship between the younger Americans and baby-boomers. But it does demonstrate one important point, and that is the fact that despite its value, with experience often come conservatism and difficulty to break with the past. The same old experience can potentially become an obstacle to bringing about change and is no longer relevant because we live in a new more globalized, populated, diverse, connected, ambitious and interdependent world with a new set of challenges, and it requires a new generation of leaders with new world viewpoints to address those challenges. Recycling the same old leaders over and over again just won't do anymore in this century. What we have to understand is that we have to have the courage to change, because as long as we continue to cling to the old generation out of fear of trusting the new leaders, we will fail to break from the past and become this century's Greatest Generation to effectively address the challenges that lie before us. It is time to move on.

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