This Really Is Our Victory
When the election was called for Barack Hussein Obama on the evening of November 4th, I did two things. First, I danced around the room, skipping between friends, hooting and ululating. Then, I cried. Judging from the photos of people across the country and the world, my reaction was far from singular. From Milwaukee to Columbus to Charlotte to Nairobi to Tokyo to Paris, people were jubilant and emotional. In left-leaning online political forums, sites of unbridled cynicism and despondency for the past eight years, contributors wrote things like "my faith in humanity and democracy has been restored," "we are dancing in the streets," and "I can't quit crying, I'm so happy and relieved."
We came together as a people, as a planet. It was a moment that struck me in its paradoxical resemblances to 9/11, likenesses that echoed obliquely in the way circus mirrors do, reversing and triangulating and upending. 9/11 vanquished the myth of an untouchable U.S. It rendered this country vulnerable, just like any other nation. And the world opened its arms in an outpouring of empathy. Over the following seven years, the Bush administration effectively wrecked that capital, along with the other, more intoxicating mythology -- that of America the great, beacon of liberty and justice. (Whatever remained intact, that is, after Nixon and Vietnam and Reagan and the multiple covert and overt meddlings in other nation's politics) We were just like any other nation under the helm of bad leadership: we were fallible, misguided, blind in our vengeance. Except the consequences, being a superpower, were not limited to our shores, our climate, our economy.
If September 11, 2001 and the seven years following destroyed the myth of America, then in one fell swoop, November 4, 2008 restored it. On November 4th, this was suddenly again a nation where anything was possible, where liberty and justice and democracy stood proud. Like 9/11, we were again vulnerable, again the world loved us. But this was a chosen vulnerability, the vulnerability of falling in love, of hazarding connection; we were risking hope over fear, unity over fragmentation. This time, in the place of a prevailing sense of helplessness, there was an impression of collective might. Barack Obama spoke to our idealism; to our faith in ourselves and each other; it was a message powerful enough to cross the political rift that has expanded vertiginously these past eight years. He believed in the best of America, in the finest in us, and persuaded by the strength and elegance of his vision, we did too.
And thus the myth was resurrected, phoenix and all.
It was the myth of America that brought my family here twenty years ago, that sent us skittering from grimly static apartheid South Africa across the Atlantic in pursuit of hope. Initially the U.S. appeared the embodiment of all it claimed to stand for: I went from a segregated public school in Cape Town to the rainbow of a junior high school in the San Fernando Valley. But gradually my eyes were opened to the banshees of racism and injustice that haunted even these grounds, that howled and raged during the LA riots, that keened after Katrina. With a passion no doubt inflected by the sour-mouthed sense of having been duped -- after all we'd left behind, all we'd sacrificed! -- I became an activist. I organized against the war in Iraq, against the Free Trade Area of the Americas, against Bush's policies in the Middle East, against egregious local and global environmental policies, against Bush's re-nomination in 2004. All the while feeling like Sisyphus pushing a perversely barbed globe up an active volcano.
For the past eight years, my patriotism has expressed itself almost solely as dissent. It takes a toll on one's psyche in multiple ways. I was 23 when Bush won his first term. I've spent the majority of my adult life feeling ashamed of my adopted homeland. As a journalist traveling the globe to cover stories of resistance and hope, I've watched as anti-American sentiment has steadily ratcheted up. I've explained time and again how there were many in the U.S. who did not support Bush, that Americans were not innately self-serving, greedy, vengeful. What would it be like, I wondered, to feel proud of my country? To re-imagine this nation as an upstanding member of the global community? To opine instead of apologize? To read a newspaper and be sincerely interested in what my president has to say?
When Barack Obama took to the stage in Chicago to claim victory, he did not claim it for himself. "This is your victory," he said to the millions listening. He reached out to those who had not voted for him. He spoke of people in all corners of the globe. He was humble, he was inclusive, he reminded us of our own agency; he was, in short, being the change he wished to see in the world, as Gandhi put it.
When I woke up the next morning, it struck me that the change we were experiencing was existential. I felt less afraid, bolder, more generous. I also felt huge relief: the relief of allowing myself to believe in this country again, of trusting in the intentions and integrity of our leader. We won. Hope won. Faith won. After eight years of losing -- losing not only political battles, but my own belief in this country, in its citizens and the beautiful ideals upon which it was founded; eight years of losing faith in our capacity for change, our capacity for hope, even our capacity for outrage. The Bush years destroyed the myth of America. And while painful, I'd argue it was a necessary demolition. Bush was a realization of our collective psyche, as is every system we construct, every government we elect. Perhaps we had to see our own darkness embodied in order to choose otherwise. The myth has been resurrected, now, but she's a little less gawky, a little less vociferous, a little softer around the edges. For we are a little wiser, now, and whether or not we believe in Obama's message of change, we are, as a nation, changed. Would a candidate like Barack Obama even be a possibility were it not for the past eight years? Would we be able to rise like this had we not, as a nation, descended so low?
I think not.
Change is a mysterious creature. She is often reluctant to manifest where and when we want her most. But none of our efforts are wasted; none of the seeds we sow sit dead in the ground. How is it that a black seed plus brown earth plus water plus air equals a poppy, a rose, a hibiscus? How is it that a half-Kenyan man with a Muslim middle name is President-elect of this nation? The mystery carries us with it, as does history, the individual waltzing the collective and the collective waltzing the individual, and what seems impossible in the moment in hindsight becomes inexorable. My family left South Africa in 1988 convinced nothing would change, at least not for the better. We were wrong. Six years later a black man became president in the land of my birth. Fourteen years later, in my adopted homeland -- where a hundred and fifty years ago blacks were slaves, where forty five years ago they could not vote -- a black man was elected president. No matter how Obama chooses to address the racial inequities in this country, his very presence in its highest office will, in ways both obvious and invisible, work to kindle the kind of healing that this polarized nation needs. As it did in South Africa. Prior to the election, I did some canvassing in Iowa City, where I'm currently living as a graduate student. The precinct office was a room off a local caf; it was filled with undergraduates making calls on their cell phones, tapping away on their laptops. The precinct captain was a tireless undergraduate.
Obama's precinct offices across the nation were staffed by youth; the youth vote in this election was unprecedented. I am thirty-one, certainly not old, but sitting there I understood the gratitude I have at times heard from activists in their sixties and seventies. There was something immensely reassuring in watching these kids at work, something that spoke directly to the eight years of defeat I'd been lugging about like a millstone. There were others to carry the work of change, others to inspire, to foment. I'd taken a step back; others had stepped forward. The dance was not of my own choreography, nor had it ever been. When the music beckons, I will again step forward.