Embracing the Obama Era

Embracing the Obama Era

Citizenship is a passionate joy at times, and this is one of those times.


Rebecca Solnit is the author of Hope in the Dark. Her next book about the extraordinary communities that arise in disaster will be out just in time for the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. This essay originally was published on TomDispatch.

Citizenship is a passionate joy at times, and this is one of those times. You can feel it. Tuesday the world changed. It was a great day. Monday it rained hard for the first time this season and on election day, everything in San Francisco was washed clean. I went on a long run past several polling places up in the hills around my home and saw lines of working people waiting to vote and contented-looking citizens walking around with their “I Voted” stickers in the sun and mud.

People have again found one of their–our–most buried and powerful desires: to make a better world together. I ran across an online collection of photographs of people crying in public, so moved by what is happening in this country, and I cried a little myself last weekend and choked up again when my local paper ran a story on a woman who’d crossed the country forty years ago for Martin Luther King’s funeral and left her polling place Tuesday singing hallelujah, amazed like so many older people that she’d lived to see the day.

You can argue against Barack Obama. I would myself, on the grounds that electoral politics are inherently flawed, corrosive, disempowering. My leftist friends, already cranky about him, warn me that I will be disappointed, but I’m not sure I will, because my expectations are realistic. I love his style, but he’s not my messiah.

Who he is is so much better than we had any right to expect in a country left to the jackals for so long, even if he’s just a pretty gifted liberal Democrat with an uncanny ability to see beyond the binaries and describe what might lie there.

What he is, in all his hyphenated hybridity, is a sign of a new world being born–not, certainly, the “another world is possible” of the anti-globalization movement, but another world of mingling and crossing borders, of making new ethnicities out of love across old divides. He is a living invitation to come in from the cold for a lot of those who have been left out for decades, for centuries.

He’s my age exactly, born that summer the Berlin Wall went up, and I recognize him, a man from the in-between. And I recognize my country’s ability to surprise itself and the world as well by being great, just when our monstrousness seemed utterly inescapable.

His day picks up from many that have come before. It’s the first great lurch forward for racial justice since the 1960s, that era of the civil rights movement. But it pick ups as well from the 1860s, from the unfinished promise of Abraham Lincoln–the promise over which a great and bloody Civil War was, in part, fought–to undo what that great president called the “original sin” of our country that goes back three centuries and more: race-based slavery.

Obama does not cancel out or heal the legacies of racism, but in becoming the most powerful man in the world he signifies that the game has indeed changed, not just ground to a halt partway to justice and equality. The inner-city kids I see in my neighborhood and the murderous racists I’ve encountered recently in New Orleans are both going to think about their place in the world and their rights differently from this day forward. And that matters immensely, whatever the man being voted into power today does, or does not, achieve.

I am against heroes generally, and I grieved to see how deferentially people invested their hopes in Howard Dean nationally in 2004, and in Matt Gonzalez in my local mayor’s race the year before. The movements that invoked them were, in both cases, so much better than the men. The people who made up those great populist groundswells, as far as I’m concerned, mistook those men–little more than hood ornaments–for the engines powering their movements. And the movements died out when the men went nowhere. Had each of them won, their followers would have given them their power and hoped for the best, rather than keeping it and moving past them.

I thought we were entering an era where we would do without heroes, but we have been given a hero, which is a bit like being given a chainsaw or a credit card: you have to be careful how you use it.

This moment of joy will subside, and those who expected Obama to be flawless or to keep inspiring them forever and a day may be disappointed. Still, his strength is that he speaks the language of community organizers, of “si, se puede,” and that, at least for a while, he may spread rather than consolidate power.

When you come down to it though, that’s our responsibility, not his. His responsibility is to preside over a nation that must shrink from empire, on economic as well as moral grounds, from the mad consumptive prosperity of the postwar era, and from the profligate environmental destruction that went with it. Perhaps he will be our Gorbachev, a man with the boldness to yield and reduce.

Four Milestones to This Moment

This is a great day that picks up from so many moments that came before. Think of Obama as a new star that lets us pick out all sorts of constellations of history.

We’re just short of the ninth anniversary of the first of what now seem like five extraordinary moments in a decade that historians a century hence may consider far more turbulent and transformative than the 1960s. I was there in Seattle on November 30, 1999, when a network of grassroots activists from around the world shut down the World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial summit and said that the future was not going to be shaped solely by corporations, capital and governments; it belonged to us. And so it did: the WTO and many of the other institutions with plans to strengthen corporate control and power have crashed and burned since then; Latin America has swung far to the left; and finally, of course, in the past few months, neoliberalism and free-market religious fervor bankrupted themselves–and nearly everyone else.

That moment in 1999 was an extraordinary one for popular power. It changed the world in ways no one expected. The year 2008 looks nothing like anything any of us imagined–for better and worse. And we got here on a sprint across three more strange milestones.

Few would normally include 9/11 among uplifting moments, but I’ve been writing about disasters for the past four years and part of what prompted me to do so was the extraordinary emotion of that week in 2001. We were suddenly citizens. We felt connected, urgent, purposeful, immersed in public life, eager to do something, fully alive in the face of tragedy, as we often feel in such times. Fear, blind patriotism, and malevolent anti-Arab/Islamic sentiment were subsidiary emotions in that moment, but the overriding sentiment was heroic and civic.

That was the real threat to the Bush administration, not Al Qaeda, and they did a fairly masterful job of squelching it overall, though outliers and pockets of insurrection survived. These would include Tomdispatch.com, the wonderful site I’ve been writing for these last five years, founded by Tom Engelhardt’s outrage over the 9/11 news and the need to offer a more thoughtful version of that moment in history.

Recently, he wrote, “When historians look back, it will be far clearer that the ‘commander-in-chief’ of a ‘wartime’ country and his top officials were focused, first and foremost, not on the shifting ‘central theaters’ of the Global War on Terror, but on the theater that mattered most to them–the ‘home front’ where they spent inordinate amounts of time selling the American people a bill of goods.” And smothered a moment when a better nation might have been born.

That surge of idealistic passion and solidarity mostly failed, but I saw in those days that people wanted to be something better, something more committed, something more altruistic. The avenues through which to realize such possibilities were mostly blocked then, or remained invisible to so many of us.

A third extraordinary moment came on February 15, 2003, when a worldwide passion against the invasion of Iraq, supposedly justified by 9/11, led tens of millions to march in protest on every continent. The war went forward anyway, despite the constraints an angry citizenry was able to place on it. Thanks to its marketing of 9/11, the Bush administration had carte blanche to do pretty much what it wanted, at least as far as a docile Congress and an intimidated Senate were concerned, if not an increasingly hostile world. So that third moment, staggering in itself, achieved little. And the fourth was a tragedy as well as a rallying cry.

On August 30, 2005, Hurricane Katrina broke the administration’s mandate, revealing its callousness, indifference and incompetence to all those who had not yet recognized them in the conduct of an occupation that was already turning into a nightmare of murder and sectarian warfare at close quarters. But Hurricane Katrina revealed something more important. The people of New Orleans, the mostly poor, mostly dark ones left behind in a “mandatory” evacuation run in a style as laissez-faire as any neoliberalist could ever dream of, were demonized by the media and those in charge, from Mayor Ray Nagin to top Bush officials; and yet so many Americans responded not just with rage and grief, but out of a desire to be with the very people who were suffering most, to care for them, and to share with them. Within perhaps a week, 200,000 volunteers had offered beds in their homes to the displaced; in the years since, uncounted hundreds of thousands of volunteers have gone to New Orleans to lend a hand.

Outrage over the racism of that moment, as well as over the brutality of poverty and deprivation revealed then, awoke in so many a painful idealism and a yearning to be a better nation, as well as a realization of just how much remained to be done in New Orleans–and elsewhere. Some say that Obama’s rise came in part from the widespread realization that the wounds of racism were still bleeding, that our country desperately needed to change more. (This was, of course, a white realization; I doubt most people of color were soothed by what progress had been made over the previous half-century.).

Katrina was terrible, but the desires it awoke were the same ones blooming today–the desire to do the truly meaningful work, the work of making a better world and better selves, as well as the desire to find common ground, to live in the open space of idealism and possibility. One of the most moving things to me this week is the realization that racism has been a grief also carried somewhere deep within by many of us who are not its victims. This is where so many of our tears came from, as we saw that that grief might be lifted for a moment, maybe even reduced in this new era.

A Brother in Hope

I began writing about hope in the grimmest days of the millennium, after the war in Iraq had been launched and most of the antiwar activists around me felt utterly defeated, not just in this one endeavor but in any sense that history, and the power that comes with it, could be ours. I began writing about hope to convince them that people have, again and again, had just that power, and have made history, and will make it again.

My hope came not only out of specific stories I had lived through, or even dug up as a historian, but out of a deeper sense of the sheer unpredictability of history, the darkness out of which hope emerges. No one foresaw that five years after George W. Bush stood, seemingly infinitely triumphant, on the deck of an aircraft carrier, he would be slinking off history’s stage in ignominy and an antiwar candidate would be taking his place. Not antiwar enough, but far beyond what most hoped for a few years ago.

It’s been a wild nine years.

I wrote to Barack Obama Monday night when I decided to send him a copy of Hope in the Dark, my book that came out of the invasion of Iraq and the despair around me. After all, he is my brother in hopefulness. I said to my future president (I was hopeful enough to have called the election early): “My hope resided in the countless stories I had witnessed or researched of popular power–but also resided in the unpredictable and ever-changing nature of history, politics, and popular imagination, the darkness I wanted to redeem from negativity and cast as something numinous instead. Heaven knows you are as unlikely a thing as ever happened in this country, though like any great change we will come to see it or you as inevitable and reread the muddled history of the United States as leading to this moment. But right now, it’s still breathtaking.”

Today, like yesterday, like tomorrow, is a great day. Remember them. And remember whatever joy, tears, or amazement they have brought you, and don’t let go of them. They are the candles you get to bring with you in the darkness in which we will need to look for hope again, and to keep moving onward.

There is no stopping now. The wild mare history has us on her back.

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