Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inaugural Address

Like so many other people, I was pretty much wholly unaware of Barack Obama as a human being until the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Of course, that speech made many of us prick up our ears, and with good reason. Here was a well-spoken, clearly intelligent, optimistic, earnest, yes charming, yes handsome, yes young politician who didn’t sound like a politician – he sounded like a motivational speaker, like an activist, but also like somebody who really believed what he was saying. He was saying things that we’d forgotten – reminding us of all the things we wanted, but at that time, had lost hope of having. And that year, Obama’s words of unity, of “community, faith, and service” weren’t enough to turn a nation – but after four more years of ineptitude, ignorance, poor diplomacy, our civil liberties being trampled on, war crimes, mishandling of funds, of our economy, of foreign policy, of war, of education, of damn near everything an American presidential administration is meant to handle, it seemed like maybe we might be ready.

I didn’t think he had a chance. He was my guy (okay, he and Bill Richardson were my guys), but we all pretty much knew that Hillary was getting the nod. And I was okay with that, honestly – at first. I figured she was very smart, a political animal, someone who knew her business and knew it very well. I thought she was cynical, yes; a dyed-in-the-wool politician, maybe; but ultimately, I thought she’d do a good job, and that she’d represent, for the most part, my fiscal, social, and general political interests. (Or, at least, she’d come as close as any Democratic candidate would.)

But then, Iowa happened. Iowa rocked our whole damn world – everyone I knew stood agape when he won that very first caucus, when Barack-Junior-Senator-Obama took that first state. And that’s when we started to feel it. I remember the excitement my friends and I felt; I remember sitting in front of my television with my mouth open, disbelieving at first; then, a flurry of text messages being shot back and forth faster than we could read them between so many of my friends. How could he have won? How could he have won? In Iowa? We’d expected states in which black voters were a significant percentage of the population; we’d even suspected he might make a good showing. But Iowa? And then such a close second in New Hampshire?

After eight years (okay, seven, then), of the leadership America had been under, I was losing hope. The comic cliché was that all the liberals were threatening to move to Canada, to Europe, to magical lands of socialized medicine, legalized pot, and fundamentally more progressive politics, but I was really trying to figure it out. I’d applied to grad school, but I was looking into that point system for immigration to England, and trying to figure out just how hard it was to become a permanent resident in Canada. America had become an ugly place to me – everything in the news seemed to be about fear, xenophobia, and oppression. The only news programs I could stand were Countdown with Keith Olbermann, anything on NPR or the BBC, and of course, The Daily Show. Everything else was either so insanely slanted, Amerocentric, or both that it wasn’t even really worth watching, because if you tuned in for an hour, you were only going to get ten minutes of news. I was saddened and sickened by the dearth of productive domestic policies, by the abuses in Iraq, by the very existence of Gitmo, and the inarticulate stumblings of our president only added insult to injury. I felt as though whomever the Democrats could put forward would be good enough – Hillary was strong enough and wily enough to play their games and win. And at that point, that was good enough.

But here was a candidate who was playing quite a different game. Here was a candidate who was talking about hope, about change, and people were actually listening. I remember deciding, for the first time, to go out and volunteer for a political campaign; canvassing and phone banking for then-Senator Obama in New Jersey, in mostly-Republican Somerset County, because that was where we were needed. I worked with a friend of mine and alone, and let myself get involved – to really invest in the process. And as Barack won more states, and slowly but surely made more progress, we were feeling real excitement; as Super Tuesday approached – the day of our primary, and twenty-one others – we we’d been glued to the television for every primary and caucus prior, and we knew we were in for a long night – work the next day or no – on February 5th.

It wasn’t easy – it was never easy, we were never sure. It took until June – June! – for us to know for sure that Barack would even be on the ticket. Hillary Clinton had been a tenacious and no-holds-barred kind of opponent. But by a hair, by a nose, by whatever, Barack won the nomination – and the hope that we’d been holding close to our little hearts for so long grew three sizes.

But we weren’t done yet.

Which was crazy, because I think a lot of us felt exhausted just from that damn primary race – it had been insane, and I’d never seen anything like it before. But McCain had had his nom in the bag for what seemed like forever, and even though it seemed impossible that a Republican could win after the last eight years we’d had, the facts were that Barack was much less experienced than McCain – and also, let’s keep it real, he's black.

I’m not sure that I ever quite believed – that most of my brown friends ever fully and 100% believed – that this nation was yet ready to elect a President of Color. I pushed as hard as I could for it – I wore stickers and buttons and put up signs and watched the debates and the pundits and the news as voraciously as any religious devotee might pray. But in my heart, in my secret, still-scared, kinda-cynical heart, I would say to myself, “Yeah, but really? Really? They’re going to vote for Barack Hussein Obama?”

But really. Really.

And that little cynic in me isn’t dead; it’s her who notes, “Well, lucky for us, McCain picked Palin as his running mate and the economy collapsed. Otherwise today would feel hella different, wouldn’t it?”

But you know what? Both McCain picking Palin and the economy collapsing were completely exemplary of Republican policies that made people want change to begin with – and so it’s not so much luck that these events cemented the election for Barack, but really, just the natural progression of things. Of course, I was never certain – and neither were any of my friends – but we hoped, and we wore our t-shirts, and we wore our buttons and stickers and pins, and we talked to people, and we made phone calls, and election night rolled around, and we crossed our fingers and refused to celebrate until the numbers from the West Coast were in.

And then – and then, we celebrated.

I’m so grateful to have been in Boston, in Jamaica Plain, for this event. It was amazing to see – to be out in the community, to be watching the election results come in with people we didn’t know, hugging and crying and whooping; running out into the street, shouting our joy to the world, and having cars honk at us, fists pumping out of windows and shouts of “Yes we did!!!” being echoed back to us as they drove on. Going into the bar across the street from where we’d gone to watch the numbers come in, hugging strangers, taking pictures, laughing, clapping, then watching Barack’s victory speech – watching him feel even more overwhelmed than any of us did, but still managing to be gracious and eloquent and honest.

The joy in the air was palpable, but more importantly was the grace with which I saw Republicans handling it. Granted, we were in the honeymoon phase – we still kind of are – but the Republicans I know (and yes, I know a few!), although skeptical, were being gracious, were accepting, and although some of them inevitably had something to say – they let us have our moment. And I’m thankful for that.

It’s a big deal that Barack Obama got elected president. It’s a big deal not only for Black Americans, or multiracial/multiethnic Americans, or Americans of color, or Democrats, or people from cities. It’s a big deal for all of us. Not everybody voted for Barack Obama - far from it. But an indisputable majority did. People of all races, all classes, all backgrounds, all interests, voted for the things he represents. Voted for positivity, optimism, hope, and doing things differently. Voted for a different kind of America.

And this doesn’t mean the end of racism in America. It’s not proof that everything is okay. But it’s proof that everything is so much better than it was, and that we’re committed to making things better – not just in terms of race relations, or accepting people who are not like us – or accepting people who are like us, but look different. It’s proof that we believe that we can be good again, that we can make things right, that we can be a nation worth being proud of again. And that’s the key, really. Because there’s still a lot to love about America – and it’s about time we got back to working hard at proving it – if not even necessarily to others, then at least to ourselves. (Though I think we will prove it to others - I think we can become a positive force in the world, and gracefully negotiate the fact that not only are we no longer the sole superpower, but that we need to be a positive force on this planet.) These are huge steps - these are big deals. And no one person can make all of this happen - though I do think a president has the power to lead his people to action, to help make goals like these become a reality - especially if he's proactive about getting us to be proactive. I think Barack Obama’s going to lead us there.

Hail to the Chief.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Miseducation of the Sass Factory

I get increasingly uncomfortable with the whole idea of academia as time passes.

Okay, maybe that's not true - if anything, I'm extraordinarily comfortable with the idea of academia, the academy, higher and graduate education. There's something sexy and romantic about a place where ideas are exalted; where the whole point of everything boils down to thinking, intellectualism, and knowledge. That is attractive and sexy and beautiful.

But, in some senses, formal education – especially at the higher levels of it – encounters some of the same problems of other spaces where things start to be more about theory and ideas than the physical and logistical realities of the world (namely, the internet). Some of those problems include a lot of people thinking they’re way more clever than they actually are, people becoming ignorant of the world that exists outside of the academy (and I mean the real world, not what they’ve read about in books or essays, or what they encountered when they studied abroad – or, if we’re talking about the internet, the world that exists outside of Wikipedia or their favorite message boards), and often enough the development of a sense of elitism over people who are not in their particular club (this can range from people who aren’t in academia/grad school to people who aren’t studying 19th century Petrarchan sonnets written by queer, one-legged men with glass eyes).

But that’s not even the point – I’m making this about other people, and putting my shit on them. The fact is, everybody (okay, not everybody – but really, the majority of people) I know in grad school, who’ve been through grad school, in academia, or who’ve been in academia are very nice people, when it comes down to it. Okay, ‘very nice’ seems a little insipid – but they tend to be interesting, engaged, intellectually curious, a little nerdy, and charming. In some ways, these people represent my tribe. But the problem is (as it often is) that I have many tribes. And the problem with that is that the ivory tower is real – I think all this studying really does present the danger of taking you away from people, places, things, and yes, even ideas that aren’t in that world – that can’t really exist in that world.

Further, I feel as though despite the fact that education can open so many doors for a person – can in some ways, offer someone the machete to cut through the jungle undergrowth of complacency and ignorance that threatens to engulf anybody who sits still intellectually (or otherwise) for too long (that’s right, I brought it with the guerrilla warfare metaphor, which may seem like it totally contradicts my whole point, but bear with me – this is [part of] what’s funny about academia: everybody seems to think he, she, or it is a fucking guerrilla – at least in the humanities and social sciences) – when it comes down to it, you’re not really learning to think ‘outside the box’ – you’re just learning to think inside a different, more oddly shaped one.

Which, okay, look. Most of us need boxes to think in. We need context, we need structure, we need a basis on which to set (or justify) our principles, or our ideas about the world, or at least a platform on which to rest all the neat things that we learn. The problem is that the world is not a box, life is not a box. Boxes are meant for storage, not for living in, and while they can make you comfortable, they also don’t let you grow past a certain point. So the lesson, then, is not to let education of any kind define you, but to use it as the tool it was meant to be, right? I guess so.

I like grad school. I like the fact that thinking and learning are considered important enough ways to spend my time that the government will lend me money to do it. And I think I’m learning useful things – things of practical importance as well as things that benefit my personal and intellectual growth. But I’m suspicious of it – there’s a lot of privilege here, and what’s more dangerous, a lot of privilege that doesn’t even really know it’s privilege. I mean, by grad school, privilege is looked upon as an accepted idea – most people who make it to grad school have enjoyed privilege at one point or another in their lives (most, not all). But because of that, people don’t actually realize how privileged they really are, which is yet another way that people disconnect from the world that most people are experiencing.

That’s disconcerting, because the fact of the matter is, I don’t want to be Rigoberta Manchu; I don’t even want to live through the struggles my parents did, and I don’t want to be without the opportunity to educate myself or further myself. I certainly don’t want to forget the fact that life is hard – much harder than mine – in so many places. And truthfully, I’m not going to be able to forget that, ever, because I’ve lived through things way harder (and more ‘real,’ whatever that means) than grad school. I think it’s good that I’m still uncomfortable. The honeymoon is over, and I’m back to the constant struggle between wanting to embrace the place where I am and wanting to tell it to go fuck itself.


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Nobody Has Fun the First Time

Okay, so it may seem as though I got on the blog train late (which is generally unlike me - according to Gladwell, though I'm not usually an early adopter, I'm often in that first trickle of the mainstream into all that is cool and new, telling all my friends about it and ruining it for all the OG's), the fact is, I've been blogging since July of 2002, when, over a summer spent trapped in Miami with way too many members of my immediate and extended family, blogging became a matter of survival (my family's as much as my own - my little brother came close to death on at least three separate occasions over those six to eight weeks).

But it was a Livejournal, and although it ended up quite a different thing than what it started, it was never really meant for public consumption. Back then, my ideas and understanding of a web audience were muddled at best, if I had any at all, and further, back then, I think the reality of a web audience was about as clear. My journal ended up being quite private, and turning, for the most part, exactly into what it might have been meant to be to begin with - a journal, with access limited to a very small handful of people, in which I express all my angst, anxiety, record my dreams, and essentially dump and try to sort out all that squishy, vulnerable, sometimes uncomfortably personal stuff that is better kept out of view of the general public - or even most people I know. Beside that, the scope of blogging has shifted. Now, it seems as though everybody has a blog, and that almost as many people read them. And the baby jebus knows I've never been able to resist a soap box for long.

I was really reticent to start a blog because these things are undeniably one of the most blatant and rampant forms of narcissism that teh internets offer today - which is saying a lot considering the existence of Twitter (which is a really unsettling little chunk of egocentrism in itself. Do I really need to be giving a blow-by-blow account of every minute of the silly shit I occupy my time with? Of course not. But I guess the more important question is, does anyone really want to read it? I don't know, but I honestly hope not. That would be creepy. I don't even want to read that shit, and I'm kind of a egomaniac). Anyway, while I can't deny I do enjoy a little narcissism, and hearing myself talk (or reading myself write), I'm probably self-important enough without being given a public platform from which to launch rants, randomness, and the general nonsense that fills my brain.

But let's be honest, all it took was two people saying "You should totally blog" for me to be like, "OMG IT IS MY RIGHT AND DUTY AS AN AMERICAN TO UTILIZE THIS NEW AND EXCITING WAY TO RUN OFF AT THE MOUTH!"

In my old Livejournal, I was friended to someone who said something along the lines of, "every writer needs two things: inspiration, and an audience to write for."

Personally, inspiration sounds like kind of a namby pamby bullshit kind of thing. It's not that I doubt its existence, or even that I haven't experienced it. But in my experience, it's way easier to force yourself to write when you have an audience and no inspiration than when you have inspiration and no audience. I'd have notebooks full of half-baked "inspired" ideas if for most of my life I hadn't been too damn lazy to get off my ass and get a notebook.

But this is how it goes.

So maybe I'll get myself an audience. Maybe you're the first person beside me who's reading this (although I'll already have re-read it at least five times, I'm sure). Maybe you're the fifteenth. Or maybe I'm the only person who'll ever read it. (Although most likely, I'll sucker at least one or two of my friends into at least skimming. HA! Hi guys!) Either way, what will probably follow are posts in which I talk about stuff. Maybe observations, maybe stories, maybe half-coherent rambles or self-righteous rants about whatever catches my interest at any given point. But I figure I can't do much worse than some of the other dreck that's out there - and worst case scenario, I can always start posting pictures of my favorite lolcats.

Like this!