Don't celebrate, organize
This year a former City Pages writer won an Oscar and a former community organizer from the South Side of Chicago got elected President. In the months in between, I've seen far-flung friends and family playing a larger role in public life. I met half my neighbors face to face, and saw people who wouldn't have considered themselves "political" ten years ago getting involved. A few days ago, the phenomenally unpopular sitting president went on television to defend capitalism itself, something I'd never thought he'd need to do.
The country has changed. And the shift is one of expectations, a sense of possibility, and--what's the word I'm looking for?--hope. "None of us truly dared to believe that we would see it happen in our lifetime," writes Irma McClaurin about the election of our first African American president--or, as the woman videotaping at Howard on election night put it, "This is unbelievable!" Obama supporters danced in the streets of Minneapolis, while in Madison, Wisconsin, warm weather left half the city's windows open to hear the roar at the announcement. Multiply those scenes by the blue and dark purple across the map below, and imagine the combined tear-flow, text-message data, and joyful-cry decibels.
Yet even before Brian Williams announced, "There will be young children in the White House for the first time since the Kennedy generation," I'd begun to take Barack Obama at his word that this election was about us rather than him. Not just those who sacrificed so that something like this might happen, as John McCain movingly acknowledged, or those who made Obama's campaign itself a kind of movement ("All of this happened because of you," he wrote volunteers that night). And not just McCain voters, for whom Sarah Palin represents progress against the double standard and a point from which there's no going back.
The purple nation above behaved for once as if we lived in a democracy. And I have to admit, I'd begun to lose heart. The apparent effects of global warming, the destruction of New Orleans, and the corporatization of nearly everything left me shell-shocked, wondering how these threats could pass into fact in my lifetime without any accompanying change in the country's political pitch. The trauma of 9/11 and the rapid defeat of the Taliban left me doubting my feelings about empire. I opposed the Iraq war, but with less vigor than I should have. I lost faith with the American left, who turned out to be right.
I teach in schools, advocate in my writing, keep up, and vote, but that's not quite the same thing as believing that humanity can save itself. I opened up an Erich Fromm book in high school, and socialist humanism has been my starting point ever since. Yet I only truly believe in rock and roll.
Obama is a rock and roll culmination, though he looks more like a rude boy or somebody on the cover of a Blue Note record. He'll be the first president to know who Jay-Z is, or count The Wire as his favorite television show (favorite character: Omar, the gay ghetto folk hero who robs drug dealers). Obama's blackness is natural and assumed in a modern way, as with so many kids from "mixed" families, something the Rhymesayers can understand. And his identity isn't just an idea or political bullshit about narratives: Being black affects how he speaks to us and how he thinks about politics. You can wonder idly if Obama takes The Wire to heart on education, the drug war, or counterinsurgency (he may yet become the Lyndon Johnson of Afghanistan). But it's reassuring to observe that he could teach The Wire's characters a thing or two about gamesmanship, overnight learning, and leading by talking.
Obama is a winner, and he calculated long ago that he would not win on New Orleans, despite fate serving up the issue on a silver platter. Nor would he win on justice for the Palestinians (leaving others to counter the shameful smear of Rashid Khalidi or point out that there's nothing wrong with being Arab or Muslim). Obama further decided he would not win by taking on Wall Street or big insurance, and that nothing good could come of revisiting the issue of the Vietnam War, though most Americans still believe it was morally wrong, not just a mistake. He has selected Rahm Emanuel, a rejectionist on Israel who pushed through NAFTA under Bill Clinton, for his chief of staff (more here). Yet I find it significant that Obama has also decided he won't insult us.
"I will be your president too," he said to those who didn't vote for him. And there's ample reason to believe Obama will persuade. (He was the Denzel Washington to McCain's Gene Hackman in Crimson Tide, below.) But I also know that in Washington, compromise can be a euphemism for splitting the difference between power and the powerless, money and those without, the wisdom of pod people and good sense.
The only way to tip the balance is organization, as Obama knows. His finest moment in the campaign came when he answered Wolf Blitzer's inane debate question about why the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, if he were alive, would endorse Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, or Barack Obama:
"Well, I don't think Dr. King would endorse any of us. I think what he would call upon the American people to do is to hold us accountable, and this goes to the core differences, I think, in this campaign.
"I believe change does not happen from the top down. It happens from the bottom up. Dr. King understood that.
"It was those women who were willing to walk instead of ride the bus, union workers who are willing to take on violence and intimidation to get the right to organize. It was women who decided, 'I'm as smart as my husband. I'd better get the right to vote.'
"Them arguing, mobilizing, agitating, and ultimately forcing elected officials to be accountable, I think that's the key.
"So that has been a hallmark of my career, transparency and accountability, getting the American people involved. That's how we're going to bring about change. That's why I want to be president of the United States, to respect the power of the American people to bring about change."
This was his message to us: that the election of Barack Obama would only be the start. That it could only be the start. Obama is not Martin Luther King, and he is not King's dream. Obama is not a moral leader, and he doesn't pretend to be one. King would have condemned the rhetoric of "taking out" bin Laden, though that kind of talk helped get Obama elected. A moral leader risks being unpopular, as King became in the last years of his life. A moral leader does not become president. He pressures the president.
That's what we need to do, in greater numbers than ever. If you've ever considered becoming politically active, now is the time to see what that might look like and feel like on a regular basis, as important an investment as that second job you might have to take to make ends meet. Only massive street demonstrations moved FDR to introduce the New Deal, while those who've spent a lifetime dismantling it don't need protests, only money. Many who took Bill Clinton's victory as an excuse to sleep remember getting NAFTA, the Telecom Act, and the exploding prison industrial complex as a result. Now we have the advantage of optimism, the internet, and sheer numbers, all despite an economic downturn.
Don't celebrate, organize.