A serious historian has written that every soul who wants to be head of a government must be literally crazy. George W., Hitler, Mussolini? Maybe. But what about Churchill, Lincoln, Truman? I try to determine, from reading about modern leaders in Time and Newsweek magazines, as well as in full-length biographies, how much lunacy lurks behind the smiling facade I call up from memory or watch on the TV screen.
I grew up believing 100 percent of what our presidents said. But we've all grown a lot more skeptical of politicians. Maybe it's a part of each wanting-to-believe individual's growing up. Talk to either a liberal or conservative early in a campaign, and you get what sounds like casual, straight, truth-telling. But listen to each toward the end of a campaign, when things get tensed-up, and you get a predictably hidebound and unwavering point of view, much like a carefully memorized part in a stage play, or like a groove worn into the podium, that's probably gobbledygook to his opponent across the aisle. Despite politicians' claim to the contrary, toward the end of a campaign, you can be sure there's precious little true understanding, or even an effort at understanding alternate political views. That's why the end of the recent campaign leading to the presidential election was nothing but "the blame game."
That brings us to Obama's campaign. As -- I guess -- an FECL ("flaming east coast liberal"), I thought his team made a conscious effort to hold themselves above the muck of the usual personal insulting, to stick to the issues that affect us all: the gone-to-hell economy, the two wars we're mired in, the environment we've violated and ignored for so long, for starters. I voted for Obama because, unlike George W., he at least seemed cognizant of the severity of these problems.
But even though Obama's election seemed to a lot of us a victory of racial enlightenment over the old racial prejudice and intolerance that have infected this country for so long, we clearly forgot a significant part of the electorate that must've seen in his election a further slippage of political power from their own hands. It's an age-old story.
As a nation, we'd seen the Know-Nothing Party's rise in the years right before the Civil War, fighting against the political enfranchisement of the Irish Catholics, then the German Catholics. A century later, we'd see it when John Kennedy, a Catholic, defeated his Protestant rival, and here it was again. A disappointing step backward -- again. The immigrant hoards are stealing our country away from us (who, of course, many years earlier stole it away from the Native Americans).
"Obama election," ran the headline in a recent story on YAHOO! News, "Spurs Race Crimes Around Country." Such hate crimes, the article begins, "are dampening the post-election glow of racial progress and harmony, highlighting the stubborn racism that remains in America." So, in fact, it seemed to me that my country, or at least parts of it, had momentarily taken a step backward, to an earlier era -- the 1940s and 1950s, say, when the social standing of the African-Americans among us was barely higher than it had been at the end of the Civil War.
As anti-Muslim behavior flared up after 9-11, so a wave of vicious anti-black incidents occurred right after Obama's election, perpetrated by "adults, college students, and second-graders." In Snellville, Georgia, for example, a boy on a school bus told a black 9-year-old girl, "I hope Obama gets assassinated." That same night, the girl's mother reported, someone "mangled her Obama lawn signs, and left two pizza boxes filled with human feces outside the front door." Where do people learn such hatred? From their parents? Odds are good it's not from kids her own age.
The viciousness isn't, however, confined to the south. In a Pittsburgh, Pa., suburb, a black man found a note stuck to his car's windshield that said, "Now that you've voted for Obama, just watch out for your house."
None of these hate crimes is personal, however. Each stems from a gnawing sense of social insecurity, a sense of losing prestige, of being forced to descend a step or two on the social ladder, while someone of color ascends a step. Grant Griffin, a middle-aged white Georgian, wrote, "I believe our nation is ruined and has been for several decades and the election of Obama is merely the culmination of the change."
Mark Potok, Director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, writes, more to the point, "There is a large subset of white people in this country who feel that they are losing everything they know, that the country their forefathers built has somehow been stolen from them." And that, I believe, is the underlying reason for all the hatred still roiling the waters of American life.
Everything changes. Everything changes very rapidly in America. The Indians were exterminated, like vermin, by white pioneers to satisfy their own land-hunger. Women, so long denied the vote, got it in 1920, and a woman will be elected president before much longer. Protestants long denied power to Catholics in this new country, until JFK broke their lock on political influence. It took a long time for Irish immigrants to earn respect; likewise, Italian immigrants. It's taken centuries for black people, the ancestors of whom arrived here as the slaves taken by force, like oxen, from Africa by their rapacious white captors. Remember, the Founding Fathers didn't even think the slaves fully human.
For better or for worse, change is the very key to America. And change is the hope every immigrant nurtures for his new life on these shores.
Obama's election is proof-positive that hope for change is still alive in this land of ours. That's another reason I voted for him, in hopes that our country will keep moving forward, toward a more humane future, in racial matters, and not lurch a step backward, toward reactionary intolerance. True, this change to a black White House will cause confusion and bitterness among those Americans whose white forefathers used to own and abuse the forefathers of today's flourishing black business owners and political candidates. But the fact is that the complexion of our country is slowly but surely darkening, and the only sane way to cope with that inevitability is to nurture and welcome it.