It’s been an amazing day.
This is going to sound particularly strange to my American friends, but one of the things that really hit me today is that, you know, Obama’s black. I mean, obviously, it’s been a bit of an Issue, and one that I Understood Was Important, but it wasn’t until I saw, y’know, EVERYONE that it really hit me.
There’s white privilege for you.
This is a guy of uncommon genius, and that’s been like water in a goddamn desert. I’ve been digging on Obama as a really bright, inclusive, brilliantly rhetorical leader of people because there have been no such leaders in my conscious lifetime. Trudeau and Kennedy; I have been told they had something — there was this excitement once, in the sixties, wasn’t there?
And here it is, again, with a leader who can reference Jay Z as well as philosophers and politicians; a leader who is leading people, not just ideas. I imagine I am in some ways more centrist in political philosophy than I am in political ideology. Comes from being Quaker, and the whole focus on listening. I have no problem with a conservative minister having given a benediction, for example – as long as that’s what it is. A benediction. Not the right to dictate abortion policy. My fundamental tenant of life is pretty simple: shut up and listen and if you have some idea where someone’s coming from, how they’re living, the majority of them will make sense and not be awful people. (The corollary is that there are awful people in every group.)
So I’ve been so excited about the man with thought and drive and charisma and a brain that the whole bloody division of the country, and the healing the simple act of his oath-taking (regardless of what happens next), didn’t really HIT me.
Some of that is also being Canadian: the day we find a First Nations leader on track to being Prime Minister will hit me in the gut right from the beginning of the race.
However, Obama is rebranding authority. So has Michelle Obama. The thing that made me get teary every single time I saw it was these pictures of kids on the campaign trail, all dressed up in their Sunday best with ties or dresses on, and their eyes huge and feasting on the presidential hopeful who was black like their families and loved ones and selves. I would think of those awful studies of how we learn to hate ourselves, where black children rejected the black dolls as somehow inferior. I think here, here is a connection that will dent that internalized hatred. Here is love that will get through. Because if nothing else, Obama is well loved.
That is a ‘historic’ event, but it is also a profoundly PERSONAL event.
These messages and celebrations are so important. The personal significance, the heads a little higher and the children more hopeful, is the most powerful world event I’ve witnessed.
But Obama’s speech today really showed to me the craft behind his political message. I heard several pundits yammering that Obama’s message wasn’t singular and clear – that it meant many things to different people. But of course it had to be; Obama was doing many things today.
He was embodying the fulfillment of King’s dream. With the trumpeting and festival atmosphere, his inauguration harkened to a bigger and well known tale -the narrative fulfillment of a story of broken people toiling, holding on only to a prophesy – the king who will put things right revealing himself from the common folk, come to make things well. That story is a story we tell with magic and swords and birthmarks and quests because it’s hard to capture and deliver charisma without breaking it, but it’s the story being told here.
Obama had to negotiate that. He’s got the shit list from hell staring at him; he had to answer the dreams of an oppressed people without inflating expectations too far. He had to motivate people to work, to not be afraid, to rise up to the challenges the world faces – and I don’t know about you, but I’ve lived my whole life afraid of the cold war and environmental collapse and the ozone layer and the fact it’s all gone rather to shit, and everyone trying just hasn’t made it happen in a big way. The idea that we COULD all face the same way, that it DOESN’T have to be each individual pushing alone against a boulder, gives me more hope than the individual power of one guy.
More than that, he had to prepare people for his own failure, and his need for support. He showed, right away, that unlike Bush he would not be an unquestionable authoritarian decider, but a man who was working hard, making mistakes, listening, and learning along the way. In the speech after the luncheon (where Ted Kennedy collapsed, and I hope he is well), Obama reinforced that he knew his administration would make mistakes.
During the ceremony, Yo-yo Ma and Itzhack Perlman played my favorite bit of traditional music. If I remember from our “Rise Up Singing” book so present at hippie and Quaker gatherings, it was a Shaker hymn. The lyrics go like this:
“Tis a gift to be simple
Tis a gift to be free
Tis a gift to come down where you ought to be
And when you find yourself
In the place that is right
It will be in the valley of love and delight
When true simplicity is gained
To bow and to bend we shall not be ashamed
To turn, turn, will be our delight
Till by turning, turning we come round right”.
I sing this song to myself with some regularly, actually. It’s how I remember not to be a freak. You can’t be the decider, and live in that song.