I’m writing about the night before the ceremony as “Part II” because I didn’t really think much about it until later reflection.
On Monday, I was, like so many others, unable to get inside the beltway. The lines were long and, unlike the day itself, they moved very slowly. News reports said it was even worse trying to get back out of DC, something I experienced on the day itself, which I’ll elaborate on in Part III. After filming the lines, I headed back to where I was staying. My old Marine Corps buddy and I went out to grab a bite to eat.
Northern Virginia is cold. I don’t just mean temperature; every road we drove down was identical to the previous. Few trees, box buildings … steel, glass and concrete. The whole place has the feel of one giant business park. Somehow, we managed to find a decent Mexican restaurant for dinner. We sat at the bar so we could watch the news, which was, as might be expected, all about the pending inaugural events.
One of the stories was a human interest piece, the story of an elderly African-American woman from Georgia who was in town for the ceremony. Her white, no doubt Democratic, neighbor had arranged for the travel, the accomodations, and the ticket to the ceremony. Having already seen the white Democrats in line at the train station clamoring for approval from the black Democrats in line, and having no small amount of experience in witnessing white liberal guilt, I was annoyed at the story, at the neighbor. The way white liberals try to buy or borrow the perceived authenticity of minorities is universally annoying. The constant contest among democrats to prove who is the most sensitive, un-racist-est, best and most acceptable white person EVER is as irritating as it is sick. So while I watched this news report, I was thinking of nothing but my contempt. Well, that and the fantastic enchiladas I was stuffing in my face.
I thought about that news story a few more times during my trip. There was one part that just kept popping back into my mind. “Her grandparents were slaves,” the reporter said. Just think about that … I did.
When I was a kid, we spent a lot of time with our great-grandmother … we called her Oma. Oma was born in the 1890s in Köln, Germany. I was always fascinated by the idea that Oma had been born in a time of horses and lived to the time of moon landings and even the space shuttle. Oma was born under the rule of an Emperor, and died under the governance of a President.
There is a generation still out there which straddled the massive modernization of the globe that occured in the 20th century. Like Oma, they were born into a world none of us would recognize. They had fewer states and more planets. They are, in other words, from not just the literal past, but the figurative past, that time before all the conveniences and speed of the modern world came to be. The lady in the human interest story, let’s call her Jane, she is of that generation. They saw not just the fall of the Soviets, but the rise as well. Not simply the wall coming down, but the wall going up. Even those who experienced the civil rights movement, JFK, the mad sixties, Martin Luther King Jr. … even they do not have her unique perspective. Her grandparents, it must be said again, were slaves.
I know few very elderly people with an interest in politics. Whether they simply lose interest or, as I like to believe, have grown past it to concern for bigger things, they are often completely out of the loop on day to day issues that define the differences between Democrat and Republican in this country. Judging by the interview with Jane, she is one of those people for whom politics has become someone else’s problem. What she knows, what she was interested in, was the fact that Barack Obama is black; in the fact that this nation is now lead by a man who, had he been her grandparents’ contemporary, would have been enslaved or worse.
It occurs to me that I understand this. Not personally, but from the outside. The fact that she doesn’t care or necessarily know that universal health care is a bankrupt idea and doomed to same financially … that doesn’t bother me. It is not about the politics for her. Divorced from Obama the man, the notion that there is a black President in her lifetime is a moment of significance, a moment of both hope and change, that must not be denied. Jane’s life marks, and witnesses, the journey this nation has taken … a journey from Lincoln to Obama. A journey that she should be, and is, proud of.
In some ways, this realization makes the election of Obama all the more sad. I hope that Jane continues to have disinterest in politics. I don’t want her to see what the leftist philosophy can do to a great nation. I don’t want her to see what a tragedy Obama may make from this victory.
The practice of identity politics has created a political environment in which more authority is imparted by your race and life story than by what you say and do in practice; that’s very bad for the nation and society at large. It’s a situation that has been crafted by race-baiters and exploiters since the sixties. It makes the privileged, like Michelle Obama, only now lay claim to national pride, and makes vacant celebrities and uncritical Democrats smitten with Obama in wholly detestable ways. But they are not Jane, and Jane is not them.
Jane was born into a world where her parents were the children of slavery, where she had to call white children sir and miss; where the color of her skin was all that people knew about her, or wished to know. On Tuesday, she witnessed a nation changed, a hopeful world in which a young black man has become the President of the United States of America. I hope she wept with joy, and I am joyful for her.
Too bad, though, that for so many of his voters, the color of his skin was all they knew about him, or wished to know. A nation changed? We’ve come very far, but we have further to go. The destination awaits us. A nation and world where we, at last, judge men by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. I hope we are all aware of the work left to do, even as I hope and pray that Jane is not.
This week, I packed up a few changes of clothes, crammed myself into the miniature replica of a real car that I rented so I could save on gas, and drove up to northern Virginia, there to spend a few days covering the inauguration of Barack Obama. I’ll be posting my experiences in series titled “Hope, Change! An Inauguration Tale“.