Wow. Unreal, isn't it? Listening to NPR's current series of stories whose subject can be summed up as "OMG we cannot freaking believe a black guy is gonna be president," it occurs to me that, in fact, we Ithacans will be ruled almost entirely by women and minorities. We have a black governor (a legally blind one, in fact, who can do a standing backflip); a female Police Chief, Mayor, and DA; and now a President who isn't merely African-American, but whose father is from actual Africa. And, lo and behold, the world is not ending. Amazing!
In any event, NPR is right that the Obama presidency is a milestone in the civil rights movement, and we should celebrate. But Obama's race isn't what makes him most interesting to me. It's his apparent lack of contempt for the country he will be leading.
For the past ten years, the right has become expert at projecting its failings onto the left, and the mantra of the past few months has been that Obama hates America, isn't a real American, isn't loyal to America. This ought to give you a hint of the way the Republican leadership regards you and me. And it isn't merely its opponents that the right despises--they hate their supporters, as well. This is why the party faithful was so horrified by Sarah Palin: she was beloved by the religious fundamentalists without whom the Republicans would never have been in power, and whom the Republicans in power loathe. You know, "the nuts," as Karl Rove used to call them. Remember the expression of pained endurance on McCain's face as the racists at his rally screamed their epithets? McCain couldn't stand those people, and his efforts to endure them took years off his life.
The biggest part of my problem over the past eight years has not been the degree to which I despised the President. It was the degree to which he despised me, and, even more maddeningly, despised his own base. Americans came not only to feel neglected: they quite rightly felt hated. And this is a real problem for a writer. When your leaders feel contempt for you, you can't write about your country as though this dynamic doesn't exist. I've spent these years trying to channel my anger and humiliation. And anger is a blunt instrument--there are only so many things you can do with it. It is artistically limiting.
The best thing about Obama is that he doesn't hate America, or Americans. He certainly doesn't hate the liberals, like me, who elected him. But he doesn't appear to hate the white racist Evangelicals who regard him as the Antichrist, either. Indeed, he doesn't seem to hate anyone. Who knows, maybe he harbors all kinds of resentments that he never expresses, neither in word nor deed. But that hardly matters. What matters is the way he behaves, and he behaves like a guy who intends to be everyone's President, not just his supporters'.
It's impossible to overstate the effect this can have on the national mood. We look to our leaders not to tell us how to act, but to tell us what the parameters of our actions are. Obama will make it OK to love your enemy. No, not "the terrorists." Each other. He truly is a uniter, not because everyone loves him, but because he appears to love everyone. Think about it. He will be the first President who really gets African-Americans. (Clinton didn't do too badly there, but still.) This will give the fearful whites among us an excuse to do the same. We may mock and deride racists, but a lot of them are racist merely out of habit, and could welcome the opportunity to put their fear behind them.
Don't get me wrong. Obama will fuck up sometimes, just like every President. And I suspect he won't be as progressive as I, and other liberals, are hoping. But it will feel good to be irritated with him without having to despise him. It will feel good to be disappointed by him without feeling as though he intends his policy mistakes as personal insults to me and everyone like me. And his successes, which I hope are many, will feel even better. And writing, maybe, won't seem like such a chore anymore.