I want to take a moment to congratulate The Mac. What a wonderfully gracious, unifying, and patriotic concession. I loved that he recognized, explicitly, the wounds of the past and the salve of progress that has been a hallmark of the extraordinary history of this most extraordinary country. He also recognized the importance of the civic engagement that Obama’s remarkable campaign has inspired.
“Let there be no reason now,” he said, “for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on earth.”
I have often thought Michelle Obama’s “first time in my adult life” comment was understandable, if unfortunate. Throughout our country’s turbulent racial history, African Americans have had to look for sources of pride in their country, and often that has had to be aspirational, sometimes with ambivalent results. I have always been surprised at the willingness of many to condemn this internal struggle of African Americans, demanding that their patriotism be as reflexive as it is for the rest of us, being descendants of those who came freely to America (I realize that as an individual, Obama’s ancestors also came freely, but I’m talking about the psychological impact of his racial identity on all African Americans).
Tonight, I agree with the sentiment expressed by John McCain. I urge all Americans to be proud of their beautiful country. I say to them: don’t be too cautious about your celebration of what this means. While it was African Americans (or perhaps minorities generally) that McCain had in mind, I urge white Americans to shed their guilt and ignore any temptation there may be tonight to fight the catharsis they are feeling. I know catharsis can sometimes be a hindrance to practical progress. Those of us who live by constant self analysis sometimes make the mistake of employing Brechtian alienation strategy to deal with our emotional impulses in important moments.
But this particular catharsis is long overdue. Enjoy it.
Just as formal emancipation did not automtically bring de facto freedom to all the slaves, the election of a biracial man to our highest office doesn’t eradicate racial hatred, but it most certainly shatters the presumption of racial suspicion. I think this election has earned us the right and the freedom to deal with race openly, honestly, and respectfully. I hope we finally are unshackled from the culture where every discussion about race is fraught with unspoken judgments and fears. Judgments of racism and fear of knee-jerk accusations of racial animus.
Given our history of racial tensions, given the attempt of some to raise questions about Obama’s trustworthiness based (openly or obliquely) on his race, given that African Americans comprise a small minority of the American electorate, this election certainly shows, in the most concrete way, that America is a country where Martin Luther King’s dream — that one day we will judge each other by the content of our character rather than the color of our skin — can be realized.
Tonight has seen nothing short of the restoration of the American spirit. That’s a little sappy, I know. But on many, many fronts, the election of Obama is the turning of a new page; a better page. We have elected by a landslide, this unflinchingly dignified person who has insisted on unity and respect.
People have compared Obama’s moment in history with Kennedy and Reagan. I think that’s fair. But I think this is different — and better– in important ways. Kennedy inspired a lot of people, but he was elected by a very narrow margin, and had Herbert Hoover not pressed Nixon to concede, 1960 would have dragged on the way 2000 had. The fact that Obama was elected by such overwhelming numbers, gives me confidence that a lot of this excitement can and will translate into genuine cooperation and progress.
While Reagan inspired a lot of people and won by a landslide, his response to the people’s endorsement did not have the humility that Obama has shown. Reagan highlighted the triumph of his party’s point of view, whereas Obama praised Republicans, not just as people and patriots, but he specifically praised their values and promised to work with them on figuring out the directions in which we take our country in the months to come.
I know people who distrust Obama’s “unity” campaign. Some of my conservative friends point out that Obama is pretty clearly an ideological progressive and they wonder on what basis we should accept his post-partisan promises.
That’s where style comes in. In sharp contrast to a recent president who swaggered as he expressed his intention to spend his newly gained political capital because “that’s my style,” this new president-elect assured those who didn’t vote for him that he will be their president as well. He promised to listen. Most hearteningly for me, he promised to listen “especially when we disagree.”
I personally think he means it. He always has been a coalition builder. Even as a young man, serving as president of the Harvard Law Review, he confounded his fellow liberals’ expectations by including more conservatives than progressives on the editorial staff. Republicans, even free-marketers who deeply disagree with him on policy issues, have put their faith in him in significant numbers. I know people who think this kind of cross-ideological support is simply irrational. I think what they don’t understand is that people support this guy because they can work with him. Because the way he has conducted his life so far clearly shows his willingness to listen to and learn from and work with those who disagree with him. They trust his good faith in this respect. After eight years of stubborn arrogance, Americans of all points of view are ready for a little good faith and humility in their public-servant-in-chief.
As I got into a cab on my way home from the election-party, midtown Manhattan was bursting with joy, and the Egyptian-born driver who has just become a citizen and voted for the first time, smiled at the flag draped around my neck and said “it’s a beautiful night to be an American.”