Thursday, November 6, 2008

about tuesday night

I was driving back from volunteering for the Obama campaign in Durham, NC early Tuesday evening (more on that and with more detail in a later blog), and because of the fact that after two days of knocking on doors and talking with similar minded people about Obama and this election and the state of our nation, well let's just say that the election and America were very prevalent in my mind. And something happened that I can't remember happening in a very long time. I was thinking about my home country and I got a little weepy, not in the oh my God we're going down the crapper kind of way or the I can't believe we have to deal with this current administration for three more months kind of way, but in a very country song, I'm proud to be an American kind of way.
I want to attempt to explain why. On Thursday morning before I left Charleston, I went to the voter registration headquarters to vote. I thought it would be a quick stop on the way out of town, and take maybe half an hour at most. The second I neared the place, I knew this would not be the case. Cars were parked half a mile away and three police cars were doing traffic control. And South Carolina does not have early voting. These were all people who would not physically be able to vote on Tuesday because they wouldn't be there or would be working or were over 65 and thought it would be quicker to vote before election day. I walked into the voting place, and was greeted with hundreds of people waiting in line. With a grudging feeling I walked to the very back of the line, and prepared myself for a tortuous wait. But then something happenened. The wait was indeed long, but it wasn't tortous. And I think this was largely due to the atmosphere of the line. I looked around me and saw conversations spring up everywhere. In line at Starbucks, strangers stare straight ahead or text on their Blackberries or talk on their Bluetooths. People do anything but talk to each other. And there was some of that at this place. But for the most part, people talked to each other. They made eye contact and laughed and talked about the election or things having nothing to do with the election. I looked around me, and saw the full range of diversity present in Charleston. There were young people, old people, middle aged people. There were white people and black people, people with foreign accents, people with foreign looks. There were people with babies, people in uniform, adults in suits and kids in sweatpants. There were doctors in scrubs standing next to men whose shirts said Comcast. And the remarkable thing was that these people were interacting freely with eachother. There was a group not too far ahead of me who talked almost the entire length of the nearly two hour wait. In this group there was a young black woman, a young white woman, and a white elderly couple. Now these people could all have been voting the same way, or they could have been voting the opposite. But it didn't matter. They weren't talking to each other because they shared political views, and they probably wouldn't have stopped talking if they did find out who each was voting for. And that might seem simple or obvious, but it's neither. It's remarkable. We live in a country where at the end of the day, at the end of the line, our political differences are a part of us but they don't define us. Our best friends can be at the opposite end of the political spectrum from us, so can our parents and our siblings. Things can get heated of course, but we don't kill each other over these differences. Some exceptions apply, but for the most part we don't set ourselves on one side of a line and refuse to interact with anyone on the other side. Strangers in line to vote for the president of this country talk and interact freely, with no thought to whether or not the people they're talking to are voting the same way. We've grown up with this, but we shouldn't think that it's universal. We should never forget how lucky we are to live somewhere where political differences are cause for debate and argument, but never bloodshed.
The people in this line wanted to be there. Mothers dealt with impatient, grumpy babies. Others were missing work. Men and women in their 70s and 80s stood on their feet and waited along with everyone else. Anyone could have left at any time, but no one did. And then after two hours, these people punched their choices onto a touch screen computer, and went about their days. The very mundane nature of how we vote is something truly extraordinary. No one in this nation has to be brave to vote. No one has to go to the polls and know that if they vote for the "wrong" guy, then a group of thugs will be waiting outside to beat them to death. We vote without fear of repercussions, without thinking that our livelihood and our families might be in danger if we vote with our conscience. And how can you not just think about that and marvel about how lucky we are? Our elections aren't just pretend shows of democracy. We don't go through this process and know that at the end of it all, votes don't matter and that they're just the ruling power's way of appeasing the world. There are places in this world that call themselves democracies and are really only faint outlines of the real thing. There are places in this world where elections lead to violence in the streets, where a group of people who want to change their nation do so at the cost of their lives. But we live in a true, honest to God democracy. In spite of all our our problems, nothing can take that away. When I was volunteering in Durham, someone I canvassed with said that although it was cheesy, he loved that in America, on election day, no one's voice is any louder than anyone else's. It may be cheesy, but it is the greatest trait of our nation. The guy in the mansion may have all the power for most of the year, but on election day, he has no more power than the woman living in a housing project. In a lot of countries, this is not he case. The guy in the mansion always has the power, the thugs in the street, the warlords-these people because of violence or manipulation crush and silence anyone smaller than them and no election can change that. To be able to vote in peace, without worrying about anything bigger than having to wait in a line, it's a blessing in every sense of the word.
In Durham we got into a spirited debate with a man on a street corner. He was undecided and out of no where we got into this conversation about tax policies. It was the middle of the day, and people were all around us, and we could talk loudly and openly about politics. We went door to door with buttons and stickers and fliers which proudly and openly declared us Obama supporters. These things, freedom of discussion, the freedom to disagree, freedom of choice; for people my age, we've always had them and it's easy to think of them in this modern, 21st century as universal or assumed or givens, but they're not. They weren't given to this nation either. These things are privileges. They had to be earned and crawled toward. In this country, they have been fought over and died for. People died for these things. And we reap the benefits, and grow up in a society where our constitutions' pledge of equality is not just a phrase on paper but a breathing, living thing. As a woman, I've never been told by my country that my voice was worthless. Young African Americans never had to wonder why they had no vote in a so called democracy. Entire generations of women and African Americans went their whole lives as citizens of a nation that for all its grand promises and waving of flags, refused them a place, told them they weren't good enough to fill out a ballot. And because of these generations that went before us, because of people who marched and fought, because of soldiers who left home and never returned from distant lands, because of them we have an America that truly lives up to its creed. Voting is a right, but I never want to forget that it is also a privilege. I never want to lose sight of the fact that in 2008, there are still places in this world where people have to meet in secret and whisper their ideologies. News shows where people yell at each other about politics are annoying, but the very fact of their existence reflects an America that I am so deeply proud of, one that is open and free and willing to listen to every voice.
On November 4th we, as a country and as a people, voted. Now whether or not you were happy with the result, I think we can all agree on the significance and importance of Obama's election. I watched his speech, and again got weepy. Now a lot of this was probably due to my support of him as a candidate. But I think that even the most fervid John McCain supporter could have gotten a little misty too. A very short time ago, America was segregated. My parents spent their childhoods in a world with separate black and white drinking fountains and bathrooms. My grandparents spent their childhoods and young adulthoods in a world where racists could be open and unapologetic. And a couple of nights ago an African American was elected by a majority of this nation to the highest honor and office in our land. If that's not progress then I don't know what is. I've heard time and again people talk about how the world has only gotten worse and America has lost its values. I've always disagreed but sometimes have been hard pressed to offer concrete proof. Well if you turned on the television after 11pm on Tuesday night then there's your proof. Throughout all of our recent troubles, all of the things that have gone wrong in America and in the world, there's been a line of progress moving steadily through time. Through our darkest moments and worst decisions, that progress has been there. It's that progress that allows me to hold onto my idealism. It's that progress that allows me to believe to the core of my being that our best days are not behind us but ahead. And Obama's election is a vivid and permanent mark of that progress. Nothing can take away the fact that a nation built on the backs of slaves, a nation fueled by racism and prejudice for so many years, elected this man. Barack Obama as a candidate was not defined by his race and he shouldn't be defined by it as a president. But for one brief moment, we can all take time to appreciate how many long held dreams were fulfilled on Tuesday night, how many wounds were healed, how many men and woman saw something they thought they would never see in their lifetimes. You just had to look at the faces of the older people in the crowd in Chicago. Their eyes said it all. No child born after today will be able to think that in America the color of your skin can hamper your ambitions. My children will never be able to look at a list of our presidents and wonder why they all look the same. Everyone should be able to take pride in that. And we should take this as a sign that progress is real and that if fought for, it can happen sooner than you expect. Fifty years from now how much will happen that we once thought impossible? Personally I'm excited to find out.
I believe with my whole heart that Obama's election will change this country and this world. That's why I voted for him. People attacked him for being like a "rockstar", for the size of the crowds he spoke in front of. People attacked him for being empty, that for all of his speeches and his eloquence, inspiration would not mean change. But I disagree. Whether or not he makes the right choices as president is yet to be seen. But I believe that inspiration alone has a tangible affect. It's not hollow or empty. It's very, very real. As a candidate Obama inspired hundreds of thousands of people to take time off from school or work and knock on the doors of strangers in neighborhoods they would normally avoid. He inspired my shy self to go to Durham and spend two days surrounded by people I didn't know, doing things I had never done before. As a candidate he did that. As a president, I can only imagine what he could inspire in those who believe in him. Inspiration can lead people to take a year of their life and give it to service. It can fill up the foods banks that have been at their lowest in decades. It can lead to people giving blood and time and compassion. Inspiration can turn apathy into a new era of civic service. I believe our grandparents' generation was great, but it doesn't have to hold the mantle of greatest. Believe me, that's not heresy, it's hope. For the first time in a long time, I honestly believe that we, this texting, celebrity gossip addicted, underachieving generation of ours can be great. We have so much to give, and it starts today.
This election was meaningful for me. It was emotional. And I know I'm not alone. This past weekend and past week, I spent a lot of time reflecting on how lucky we are to even have elections, to be able to vote the way we do. And late Tuesday night, the moment President-Elect Obama ended his beautiful, eloquent speech, I looked forward. For the first time in years, I looked forward and smiled.

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