I’ve gone through an enormous emotional roller-coaster today. This morning, halfway through filling out my ballot, I was struck hard by a sense of civic pride, hard enough that I had to pause for a moment before continuing. I had just voted for a man named “Barack Hussein Obama,” who is black and half-Kenyan, and I was allowed to vote for him, and there was a reasonable chance he would be elected president.
Do you know what this means? It means that all of the stuff they taught us in elementary school, about how democracy is supposed to work, is actually true. Despite all of the cynicism we’ve acquired over the years, it turned out to be true for the simple reason that enough people thought it was that it happened that way.
That’s not to say that this country doesn’t have flaws; but systematically, as a people, we see them as flaws to be corrected, not the way that they should be.
A few weeks ago, I read an article in the Washington Post interviewing people in Virginia about how they planned to vote. One man that they were interviewing told the interviewer (angrily) what his plans were: “I’m voting for the nigger.”
No, I’m not going to bleep that word out. I want you to read it and realize all the things that sentence means. This is someone who by his own admission is racist; who is not well-educated, who does not live in a big city, who would call someone that in front of a journalist without being ashamed of it.
And this person thought about the country, and thought about his choices, and decided that he would, nonetheless, vote for him. The interview made it clear; he was thinking about the candidates’ economic and foreign policies, and made a decision based on his feelings and the issues.
Know what that means? That the American people aren’t stupid at all. They can have feelings and even prejudices, and still think about things and make decisions based on more than just that. The average American actually seems to understand the issues of this election pretty well. And I find that inspiring.
Today I saw some editorials interviewing people around the world. I was struck by interviewees in places like Egypt and Venezuela expecting that if Obama actually tries to govern, he’ll be stymied or possibly even killed by “them,” some shadowy force that actually runs the country. I know why they’re assuming this; it’s because that’s how it works in most of the world. “They” might do all sorts of things for display, but “they” keep a permanent grip on power.
I suspect that over the next six months, the world is going to change just because of that one thing. Because in most of the world, people look at America and assume that it works just like their countries; that ultimately, everything is run by corruption. And they’re going to see that no, Obama really is in control, and really does run the country — which means that all of their beliefs and hypotheses about how everything bad is inevitable are going to run up very visibly against reality.
And I suspect that al-Qaeda’s recruiting is going to fall through the floor, because suddenly the old spiel about how America is the great Satan and is really secretly plotting against you just doesn’t ring as true when the president’s middle name is Hussein and his skin is darker than yours.
And most of all, what I’m thinking about tonight is Martin Luther King’s last speech, when he said that though he may not get there with us, our country will reach the promised land.
You know what’s the most amazing thing of all about that speech, for someone who has one foot in this country and one foot in another? It’s that that speech was one generation ago. In one generation, we’ve gone from lynchings and civil rights marches to a black man being elected as president. Ultimately, there seemed to be more fooforaw about Obama’s race in the media than there was among the public; Americans, especially younger Americans, seemed to think that it was just a normal thing. In one generation, the country changed what it believed because it was genuinely convinced.
If this doesn’t shake you deeply, you don’t know what this is like everywhere else.
In Israel, the same time ago takes us to the Six-Day War. Twice that distance takes us to the Holocaust, and ten times that distance to various pogroms. And those things might as well have happened yesterday; everyone is still as rawly aware of them as they are of things that happened last year.
In Europe, in the Middle East, in all of the world, things simply don’t change on the scale of a generation, not without an enormously bloody war.
But in America, they do. Because ultimately, when all is said and done, we actually believe in what we preach.
That democracy is the best way to run a government, and elections should be free and fair. That people should be able to rise to the level of their ability, not just on the basis of their contacts and their power. That, ultimately, we are a single nation, no matter what we look like or disagree about.
My God. I still can’t type these things without crying.
Yes, we can, America. We just did.
ברוך אתה יי, אלוהינו מלך העולם, שהחיינו, וקיימנו, והגיענו לזמן הזה.